The Islamic veil is the most symbolically loaded item of clothing in the world. In the nine years of war that have followed the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, the various forms of Islamic female head-covering - hijab, niqab and full-body burqa - have been condemned as oppressive, celebrated or shunned as representations of cultural difference, denounced by those who claim to defend women's rights and defended by those who advocate religious tolerance.
The veil has been used to justify cultural conflict, to explain state attacks on civil liberties, to placate opponents of America’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, just recently, as a basis for cultural persecution of French citizens by their own government.
President Nicolas Sarkozy joins a litany of male world leaders with a strong opinion on the veil. His version of a solution is to attempt to force through a partial ban on the full veil, currently worn by an estimated 1,000 French women. For Sarkozy, like many world leaders and commentators, asserting symbolic state control over the way in which women dress is more important than, for example, pursuing a comprehensive strategy to support the tens of thousands of French women from every cultural background who are victims of domestic violence.
That doesn’t matter to Sarkozy, who is more concerned with “sending a message” to “extremists” – most of whom, one suspects, will be other men. Nor did it matter to David Aaronovich, who in an article for the Guardian in 2003 expressed his confusion over how to “understand” the dress code of some Islamic women: “Take the hijab – now ubiquitous in many British cities ... I really do not know what is being demanded of me. Is it saying, ‘Don’t look at me’, or ‘Look at me’?”
Aaronovich may not have considered the possibility that the hijab isn’t trying to ‘say’ anything to him at all – the possibility, upsetting to many men, that what women wear and how they behave is not necessarily to do with him. In her recent polemic One Dimensional Woman, feminist academic Dr Nina Power hypothesises that the veil, for Western men, represents an attack on the internalised ideology of misogynist capitalism. “Aaronovich's confusion is interpretable in terms of a generalized imperative that all femininity be translatable into the logic of the market,” explains Power.
It may come as a shock, but for individual women across the world, the way in which we dress is rarely the defining quality of our human experience. The fact that our clothing choices and the ways in which we present ourselves are understood by society as the sum total of our personhood is a difficult and dispiriting reality for women today.
Anyone who has had the traumatic experience of growing up female in a culture that diminishes the personhood of women understands that the way in which they choose to dress is compromised by cultural mores, and will inevitably affect how they are judged as human beings. Context is everything, as Tehmina Kazi, the director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), explains:
“I do not wear hijab myself, but I respect those women who choose to do so. But of course, in places where women are forced to wear hijab or burqa, the garment is no longer liberating. Forcing women to go veiled destroys the real purpose of wearing hijab. It destroys the beauty of a woman reading the texts for herself and making an informed spiritual choice.”
For many women living in Islamic cultures, whether in Europe or in Asia, an independent, informed choice is difficult to come by. Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, questions the assumption that all women who wear the veil outside Sharia countries do so out of choice: “Australia’s senior Islamic cleric recently compared unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ implying that they invite rape and sexual assault. Whilst misogynist sermons are the norm in mosques across the world … a climate of intimidation and fear makes many a woman ‘choose’ the veil even in places where veiling is not compulsory.”
For every woman wearing hijab because of personal religious conviction or comfort, there is another going veiled because of social or state pressure – and this is where feminist and liberal thought often fails to make a subtle enough case for personal freedom. In the course of writing this piece, I spoke to many white Western women who questioned the difference between women wearing the Islamic veil and women going out ‘bundled up in a hat, scarf and long coat’. The answer, of course, is that there is every difference.
For secularist activists like Namazie, the veil is more than just a piece of clothing – it has become a symbol of women’s oppression under Islam, and deserves to be treated as such: “The veil, more than anything else, symbolises the bleak reality [of life for women in strictly Islamic countries]: hidden from view, bound, gagged, mutilated, murdered, without rights, and threatened and intimidated day in and day out for transgressing Islamic mores. And this is why the veil is the first thing that Islamists impose when they have any access to power.”
British columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who is chair of BMSD, agrees, citing Rahila Gupta's assertion that “we cannot debate the burkha or the hijab without reference to women in Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where the wearing of it are heavily policed and any slippages are met with violence ... This is a cloth that comes soaked in blood."
The politics of symbolism are precarious, even if one’s eventual goal is liberation. Ariel Levy’s recent essay in the New Yorker decries the exchange of symbolic for systemic identity politics – a perennially tempting strategy for anyone working to enfranchise women or ethnic, cultural or sexual minorities. Feminism in particular is prey to the same confusion of the symbols and substance of oppression expressed by the French premier, which is why bra-burning - although the practice never actually occurred - has become such a tenacious image. In the same piece, Namazie advocates veil-burning as a symbolic gesture of resistance, but pro-woman activists cannot be satisfied with symbolic resistance if we want to change the world.
If a real strategy of global resistance to the oppression of women is to be built, it is profoundly anodyne to question whether the Islamic veil is a symbol of religious choice and cultural pride or an emblem of the second-class status of women in Islamist cultures. The veil is consummately both of these things, and the liberation of women across the world will not begin with veil-burning any more than the long march to freedom in the West really began with bra-burning.
In fact, the closer one looks at the extreme arguments both for and against the veil, the more one suspects that this issue isn’t really about concern for women at all. Footage recorded in 2008 of a speech by a representative of the fascist British National Party articulates this attitude perfectly. In it, the young BNP speaker expounds upon the right of average working men in Leeds to “look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street”; he declares that the right of men to objectify and consume the female body, is “part of British history - and more important than human rights”, and laments that “they” - variously, Muslims, foreigners and feminists - want to “take it away from us”.
Never mind the rights of the women in question to wear what they want or, for that matter, to walk down that Leeds street without fear of the entitled harassment made extremely explicit in this speech. This is not about women. This is about men, and how men define themselves against other men. Even Alibhai-Brown agrees that part of the problem with the veil in the West is that it has come to represent “a slur on decent Muslim men, portrayed as sexual predators who cannot look upon a woman without wanting her.”
In the dialect of male-coded cultural violence, whether it takes place on a street in Leeds, in a Middle Eastern valley, or in the minds of a generation raised on sectarian squabbling and distrust, women are valuable only and always as a cultural symbol. The furore over the veil dehumanises Islamic women, turning them into symbolic territory over which men can thrash out their cultural differences. And this is a strategy that goes right back to the playground; there are suggestions that in one school in North West England, male students from Islamic backgrounds have been bullying female Muslim pupils regarding dress codes and segregation.
Shocking as this might sound to non-Islamic sensibilities, it is just one more iteration of the everyday terrorisation of female students into following a dress-code – the pulling up of skirts, pulling down of tops and snatching away of cultural signifiers that goes on in every playground across Britain.
Competing male ideals of femininity have long been used as an ideological basis for militarism, colonialism and social control, and powerful men have long mouthed the noises of feminism to justify their militarism. George W Bush has never been a friend to the women of the world, having used his first days in office to establish his anti-abortion agenda as a condition of American aid to the world’s neediest people. Journalist Katharine Viner noted in the Guardian in 2002 that, just as President Bush used the premise of liberating the “women of cover” from their men in the days leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan, Lord Cromer, who was British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, declared that the veiling and seclusion of Islamic women was the “fatal obstacle” to the Egyptians’ “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation.”
Cromer expounded on the notion that Egyptians should be “persuaded or forced” to become “civilised” by disposing of the veil. But on his return to England, the “civilising”, veil-burning Cromer saw no contradiction in founding the Men’s League for Opposing Women's Suffrage – a group which tried by any means possible to prevent the women of Britain from gaining the right to vote.
Wars have always been fought by men over the bodies of women. Today, Islamic women in particular find themselves in the unenviable position of understanding their bodies as an ideological battleground, whether they live in Southend or Saudi Arabia. Hawkish leaders have long approached the Islamic veil as a tool in the symbolic politics of colonialism and repression; feminists and pacifists must not fall into the same trap. If we want to win the argument for the emancipation of women across the world, we need to counter the savage politics of symbolism with a mature politics of liberation – because wherever we live and whatever we wear, women are more than pawns in a cultural war between violent, intolerant men. We are fully human beings, with battles of our own to fight for the future of humankind.