By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
The French ban on the Muslim face veil that came into effect earlier this week has added new dimensions to on-going debates about secularism, democracy, religion, identity, the freedom of choice and gender justice. There is no simple answer to many of the troubling questions that the ban has provoked. Unequivocally approving or condemning the ban, to take any particular side in the fiercely polarised debate about the ban, is not an easy option.
The French government has justified the ban on the grounds that visible demonstrations of religious symbols in public are an affront to the supposedly unique brand of French secularism. That this could well be simply an excuse to single out and target Muslims, an already heavily stigmatised community, has not been lost on perceptive observers. Nor, too, is the fact that the ban is undoubtedly an assault on democracy and freedom of choice, which are meant to be cardinal principles of the Enlightenment project of which French secularists claim to be the heirs. The ban on the face veil, some critics insist, represents ‘secular fundamentalism’ at its most aggressive, seeking to efface all visible signs of religious affiliation and commitment, forcing everyone, believers included, into a single mould defined by a vision that is predicated on not just indifference, but, rather, visceral hostility, to religion. Such hostility, they contend, may have emerged from struggles against the Catholic Church in France but is now being used to target Muslims in particular. ‘If French women can be allowed to parade almost nude in public’, one commentator on a Muslim Internet chat site asks, ‘and this is considered the epitome of “liberation” and ‘”progress”, the ban on the face veil clearly suggests that hostility to religion, particularly Islam, is what is behind it.”
The media is agog with stories about irate Muslims thundering against the ban and denouncing it as an assault on Islam. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, numerous other voices, some that have welcomed the ban and others, more numerous, who have critiqued both the ban and the face veil, have been totally blacked out in the media which seems to be driven by an irrepressible urge to portray all Muslims as irredeemably misogynist patriarchs. Such voices fracture the image that some sections of the media, echoing irate conservative mullahs, ardently wish to reinforce—of the ban allegedly being perceived uniformly by Muslims as an assault on Islam itself, and, consequently, of all Muslims being up in arms against it. The fact of the matter, however, is that not all Muslims see the ban on the face veil as ‘anti-Islamic’. This stems from the fact, quite ignored by the media, that not all Muslims believe that the face veil is indeed ‘Islamic’, and, therefore, binding and normative.
Complicating the Muslim response to the face veil ban are multiple voices, each claiming to authoritatively speak for Islam, revealing that there simply is no consensus on what precisely is the single ‘authentic’ Islamic position on the matter. It is true that some Muslims insist that the face veil is mandatory when Muslim women step out into public space. That, for instance, would be the position of conservative and viscerally patriarchal mullahs, such as those affiliated to the Wahhabi, Ahl-e Hadith, and Deobandi schools of Sunni ‘Islamic’ thought. These mullahs even go to the extent of insisting that women have to cover up not just their faces but even their voices, and refrain from speaking to ‘strange’, unrelated men. Some go so far as to insist that Muslim women should veil themselves even in front of non-Muslim women. Naturally, to these clerics and their supporters the French ban is nothing but yet another instance of what they regard as the Christian world’s sustained offensive against Islam, further ‘proof’ of what they insist are the never-ceasing ‘conspiracies’ by the ‘infidels’ against God’s chosen faith.
But such voices do not exhaust Muslim opinion, thankfully. A number of progressive Muslim scholars have argued that the face veil is not compulsory at all, and, in fact, that it is an Arab cultural relic that is not normative in (their understanding of) Islam. There is nothing in the Quran that sanctions the practice, they argue. They point out that the face veil is a symbol of Muslim women’s degradation and complete subordination that patriarchal clerics have ‘wrongly’ passed off as ‘Islamic’ in order to reinforce patriarchal rule. But such rule, in the eyes of progressive Muslim scholars, is wholly ‘un-Islamic’.
The face veil, progressive Muslim scholars note, is defended by its proponents on the grounds that it supposedly guarantees the ‘modesty’ of Muslim women. However, they point out, such appeals to ‘modesty’ are often just a crudely-disguised cover-up for women’s complete subordination to male authority. This, they explain, is premised on rendering women wholly unable to negotiate the public sphere autonomously and confidently. This inability is not biological, they insist, but, rather, constructed by men, through recourse precisely to such practices as the face veil. In other words, in the name of preserving women’s ‘modesty’, the face veil and the ideology that informs it, so such Muslim critics insist, are geared to reinforcing women’s abject dependence on and surrender to male authority.
The critique of the defence of the face veil that uses the trope of ‘modesty’ takes other forms, too. On the same Muslim online chat room referred to above, an irate Muslim woman wrote, ‘I know several married Muslim women who exploit the full burqa to flirt with their lovers, using the burqa to remain anonymous, their faces hidden from public view. Far from preserving their modesty, the face veil enables them to throw it to the winds!’ she helpfully adds.
Other Muslim critics of the face veil offer different arguments to support their stance. ‘The face veil marks women out as sexual beings, as sexually-charged objects, ironically in the name of desexualising them and protecting them from male lust,’ a perceptive Muslim observer wryly comments on the same cyber discussion portal. ‘It seeks to crush their spirit and humanity, denying them all innocent fun and joy by wrapping them in black garbs, the colour of death.’ ‘The face-veil also promotes the otherisation of Muslims,’ he goes on, marking them out as distinctly different from others, ‘almost like a separate species’, and, in this way, ‘reinforcing the worst negative stereotypes about Muslims.’
The face-veil, writes another Muslim man in the same cyber forum, is ‘bad for Muslim women’s health, besides denying them the possibility of studying or working outside the home and interacting normally with others.’ He cites the instance of the sister of a friend of his who was recently killed in a road accident. The woman, forced by her husband to veil from head to toe, failed to notice an oncoming vehicle, her ‘suffocating’ face veil ‘rendering her almost blind.’ ‘The face veil is calculated to make women deaf, dumb and wholly useless beings,’ he insists. ‘No wonder the mullahs, whose authority rests, among other things, keeping Muslims ignorant, are up in arms against the French ban.’
But even Muslim critics of the face veil, who insist that it has no sanction in their reading of Islam, do not necessarily support the French ban. ‘Both opponents as well as supporters of the ban are playing politics on the bodies of Muslim women. For both, the face veil is a useful tool to pursue their equally patriarchal agendas,’ notes an irate Muslim woman in a letter to a Muslim web-journal. ‘If the ban on the veil in France is atrocious, and I insist it is,’ she continues, ‘forcing women to veil, in self-proclaimed “Islamic” countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, is equally oppressive. Both represent an assault on the freedom of women to dress and live as they please.’
Other Muslim commentators, who do not regard the face veil as ‘Islamically’ normative and think it is enormously disempowering for women, suggest that banning the face veil is not the way to get rid of it. ‘Such a move will certainly be counterproductive,’ writes one critic. ‘It will embolden supporters of the face-veil, who will be bound to bandy the ban about as a supposed assault on Islam. That will only add to their strength, and will make people, including many women themselves, ever more wedded to the veil, using it as a symbol of defiance and assertion, a badge, as it were, of their “Islamic” identity.’ She harkens to failed attempts in the past, under Reza Shah in Iran and Kemal Attaturk in Turkey, to forcibly outlaw the face veil. ‘This only made people even more determined to resist the ban, using the veil to mobilise support against dictatorial regimes, which they portrayed as anti-Islam,’ she notes, adding that it was partially due to the efforts of the authoritarian regimes to ban the face veil that it has made such a comeback.
Banning the face veil by legal fait, such Muslim critics rightly suggest, is no way to promote Muslim women’s autonomy. It is bound to embolden patriarchal forces among Muslims, making the struggle for articulating gender-just understandings of Islam even more difficult than it is.
A regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.