Posts Tagged ‘hijab’

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Why France should NOT ban the burka

June 22, 2009

This piece is a response to an article published by the Australian Herald Sun, forwarded to me by a friend who was interested in my opinion. The article in question discusses the possibility of the French government passing a law to ban the burka. In what follows, I lay out my reasons for thinking that such a ban would be an extremely counterproductive move, and that it is symptomatic of a broader drive to signal out problematic practices in the societies of the Other at the expense of turning a blind eye away from similarly problematic practices at home.

There are several points of contention with the arguments of those who see the banning of the burka as a desirable move.

Firstly, there is the assumption that women wear the burka because they are “forced” into it. The article mentions that if a pending government  inquiry into the matter found that the burka was “forced” it would “contradict republican principles”.

In phrasing the issue as such, it creates a false dichotomy: either you are free or you are oppressed, in which republicanism is associated with unbridled liberty and social and religious practices are reduced to a stifling fundamentalism.  And there is no middle ground. We are encouraged to think that the mater is completely black and white, devoid of any murky shades of grey reflect the complexities of layered identities and social expectations. Which, as any vaguely perceptive person can comprehend, is not an accurate reflection of social reality.

No individual identity comes into existence in a vacuum.

We are all products of our environments: of value systems, institutions, expectations, cultures and traditions that precede us. Through our families, we are constructed in this world through series of interactions (family, friends, authorities). Therefore, because of the fact that we are socially constructed, the notion of a completely pure choice can only ever be a fictional idea because it denies the social forces that surround us. We, as fundamentally social individuals, will always bear an element of our environment in our behaviours, decision and desires.  These factors need to be borne in mind in any discussion of choice vs. imposition

Secondly, the article mentions that “Many see the burka as an infringement on women’s rights and is being increasingly imposed by fundamentalists”. It echoes the argument that says that the burka, and even the less encompassing hijab (veil) are de facto examples of gender oppression and patriarchy. It leaves no room for arguments about why the burka can be desired by women, for example in that it conveys an culturally-contingent image of an ideal femininity, one based on humility and faith.

By the same token, it also encourages us to forget about the ways in which patriarchy manifests itself in different yet comparable ways in Western secular societies. For example, the practice of cosmetic surgery, which pushes women, often young girls, to adhere to a sexualised feminine ideal that is unnatural, often ethnocentric. Or other societal and family pressures, such as the institution of marriage or heterosexuality.

No society is completely devoid of sexism, racism, homophobia or other prejudices; to pretend so is delusional.  There are many examples in our own cultures of how gender values still form, even weigh upon, women. Therefore, when faced with the demonisation of Islamic forms of dress, I am compelled to ask: Why is it that western women feel more affronted by a woman who is humbly covered than one who is exposed? Why do we not repel in disgust at the way the sexualised female body is used shamelessly to sell anything: from fabric softener to metro tabloids (The Sun’s page 3 anyone?).

By signaling out the ways in which a cultural Other is perhaps experiencing injustice, we suspend criticism of the ways in which our own societies perpetuate similar injustices, but in different ways.

Thirdly, ‘cultures’  are never insular, self-contained boxes. Since the ancient days of the Silk Road trading through to European colonialism and then ultra-modern technologies, people have been in contact with different value systems and living, which in turn impact on the form that cultural manifestations take.

Accordingly, it might be useful to ask how the social, economic and political tides of our own times have impacted on the notion of identity of, say, migrant communities in Europe. Or how decades of increasing Euro-western xenophobia, including Islamaphobia, impact on the way that new generations choose to express and articulate their ethnic/religious identities.

The burka, as a type of dress and a SYMBOL like all others, has no meaning in itself. It only comes to acquire meaning when in a given context, and that meaning can change over time as context changes. A classic example is the wearing of the hijab in 20th century Iran: during the rule of the Shah, it was publicly banned. Consequently, women who were opposed to the Shah’s ruthless dictatorship deliberately chose to wear the hijab as a means of expressing their discontent with the regime, of revolting against the established order. To them, wearing the hijab was an act of resistance. Fast forward ten years: after the 1979 revolution and the hijab was forcefully imposed on women, it became the means through which a paranoid conservative government pushed the population into submission. Therefore, it became a symbol of oppression. So within 20 years, the same piece of fabric worn over the head came to mean completely different things to the people wearing it.

By conceiving of the issue in this way, we open ourselves to explanations for Islamic dress that exceed the liberated West vs. oppressed East paradigm. We can come to realise that wearing traditional Islamic dress is not necessarily the manifestation of some age-old archaic tradition of backward desert-dwellers that has no place in today’s society, but a glimpse into deeper issues about forging one’s identity in an ever-changing world. It can, for example, be conceived of as a phenomenon of 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants from ex-French colonies in reaction to their interaction with a hostile, often racist and supremacist, European culture. The burka can also be a means of rejecting what many see as the hyper-sexualisation of women in western cultures, propagated by rampant consumer capitalism, in which the body is just another item used to sell or to be sold.

Fourthly, there is a multiplicity of reasons why a woman could chose to wear the hijab or the burka. Inevitably, will also be cases where women will be encouraged to do so by family members, most often because it conveys the values of ideal femininity and womenhood in some Muslim circles: piety, humility, integrity. By the same token, there are numerous reasons why a woman can chose to diet and to undergo cosmetic surgery, because she is succumbing to western societies’ ideas about ideal femininity, in which one who controls her body, according to certain superficial, even pathological, ethnocentric beauty norms, is also in control of her life. Both are incidents of behaviours that can come about as a result of family/social pressure, and are therefore both problematic, and need do be dealt with sensitively and intelligently so as not to patronize those women involved.

Banning the burka to combat integration problems is as senseless and unproductive as banning collagen lip implants to combat gender oppression.

The most productive tactic is engagement, encouraging public debate, to try to reveal the complex community dynamics and processes of identity construction that affect us all. That cannot be acheived by prohibition. Banning things, whether types of dress, or books or music, constitutes a types of censorship in which something is deemed unacceptable, illigitimate. By doing so, it denies a voice to people who are involved in such practices for complex reasons.

Banning the burka would also marginalize people, push them to the fringes of society which will invariably lead to increased isolation, alienation and bitterness. Instead of solving problems posed in the name of ‘integration’, it will backfire heavily, and, in the heated international climate of stigma surrounding all things Muslim, make the women and families involved feel like they are being discriminated against because of their beliefs and ways of life.

Within today’s extremely fragile geoplolitical situation, to ban the wearing of the burka or the hijab in the name of secular individualism is to accentuate the injustice perpetuated by religion. In doing so, we fool ourselves into thinking that those injustices committed within liberal secular societies are somewhat less serious, less in need of public critique and ban. To ban the burka in France is to perpetuate a myth about the superiority of a secular French identity when faced with religious social paradigms.

To ban anything is to deny people the opportunity to inhabit, explore and discuss all the myriad types of identity that exist beyond narrow tropes defined by fictional, and often politically-loaded, dichotomies.

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Bodies that matter

October 12, 2008

11/10/08, Tehran

In the village of Gazor Khan, at the foot of Alamut rock, I was beckoned over by two young girls, Miriam and Sara. Following the usual exchange of queries concerning origin, age and work, and after learning that I lived in Lebanon, the girls were eager to see some of my photographs. The two things they knew about Lebanon were Hizbullah and Nancy Ajram (Lebanese pop star), and it struck me as amusing that two such diverse images could come to represent Lebanon in their eyes… Lebanon: the land of the Islamic resistance and sex-kittens.

Initially, I was reluctant to show them the photos on my digital camera, mainly because most of them were of beaches and parties, which meant there was a lot of skin being bared. There was even a whole sequence of photos from a holiday with J’s family in Cyprus, which has three generations of his family lolling around pools drinking cocktails. But then I though, no; it’s alright if they see people enjoying themselves in ways that are socially acceptable outside the dogmatism of the Islamic Republic.

They were fascinated by the photos, intrigued by arms, legs, and other exposed body parts. They were particularly surprised when I told them who these people were: this lady with the long blond hair and short dress is my mother; those men in the swimming shorts are my husband, his father and his grandfather. Those adolescents are my husband and his brothers and sisters. They alternated between semi-embarrassed giggling and voicing their admiration of the white skin glistening in the sunlight.

‘Are there Christians in Lebanon?’, Miriam asked. Yes, I replied, quite a lot.

 

Then Sara expressed curiosity about the clothes people wear there, and asked if women had to wear the hijab. No, I said. ‘In other countries of the world’, she continued, ‘do you have to wear it?’ No, I said again. Actually, there are only a few countries where you must wear it: Iran, Saudi Arabia, some Gulf countries. I went on in my broken Farsi, explaining that in other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, you don’t have to wear it. If you’re a Christian, you don’t have to. And if you’re a Muslim, you have a choice: ‘it is possible yes, it is possible no’.

The girls digested my comments slowly, and I thought about the implications that my words, my photographs, would have on them. I figured that their exposure to other ways of living and interacting shouldn’t be conceived of as irresponsible. Indeed, I have always found the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ to be patronizing, because it assumes that certain types of knowledge should be restricted certain people.

And even after I left them, I began to think that it was in fact a positive thing for them to be able to see the ways in which ordinary people, families, can show their bodies publicly and banally without them being either sexual or shameful. Seeing pasty, middle-aged, beer-bellied English people sat benignly in their swimmers sort of smashes the interpretation that exposing skin is inherently indecent or immoral. If anything, it shows that in some contexts, the body can be released from weighty moral judgments and allowed to just ‘be’.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that showing Sara and Miriam my photographs of women with exposed bodies and hair in an explicitly de-sexualised context was healthy, because it contradicted the sorts of exposed bodies that they had obviously already had access to: images of Lebanon’s pop princesses. Those images probably constitute their idea of what non-veiled women are, which is exactly the line that the strict religious authorities wish to push: non-veiled women in revealing clothing are shameful whores. Women of the noble Islamic Republic, show your dignity and pride by hiding your bodies and rejecting such vileness! But if the internet contained as many photographs of grannies on beach holidays; nudist beaches; naked, bearded Hindu ascetics; hairy-arm-pitted feminists (loud and proud!); and other images of bodies in non-sexualised contexts as it did of digitally enhanced pornographic vixens, then the image of the non-veiled Other as intrinsically immoral that is pushed by Iran’s clergy would crumble.

I realise that it would be dangerous to assume the role of ‘opener of people’s eyes and broadener of horizons’, because that would inevitably imply some sort of neocolonial agenda. I do not intend to go round showing 22-year-old girls from remote Iranian villages photographs that are potentially subversive because they challenge the dominant discourse of the religious authorities. I do, however, think that responsibly responding to the curiosity of adults regarding their cultural Others can be a positive exchange. I have learned so much from so many people during my three weeks here in Iran, about individual’s perceptions of their culture, government, food, bodies, facial hair… And as with all cultural encounters as dialogical experiences, I have also shared my opinions. I can only hope that doing so has encouraged individuals to continue to quench their curiosities by seeking insight from sources other than mainstream representations by media or government, by challenging whatever dominant paradigm exists in that context.

These are ideals which I hold myself to. I believe that they are sources of growth and inspiration… Not the only sources, because growth and inspiration spring from infinite and often unexpected locations. But somewhere, somewhere inside this constant grappling with Self and Other, there are some valuable inklings, some fleeting illuminations; and we just have to keep scratching into the depths of those exchanges to discover them.