The right instrumentalise Islamophobia but use the liberal trope of universal values to cover up a variety of political contexts, argues Floyd Codlin
“Say it loud,
I'm Muslim and I'm proud,
I'm beautiful in hijab and I'm beautiful without,
I may be straight, I may be gay,
I'm Muslim and I'm proud either way!” - Somaye Zadeh
Muslims do not wear the burqa nor the hijab in a cultural and societal vacuum, and although it can be worn as a sign of religious piety, it can also be worn as a rejection of what are seen as certain western hypocrisies. In short, they are not inherently either liberatory or progressive.
As Mihret Woldesemait notes:
[I]n the 1970s, a new veiling movement emerged that appropriated the veil as a sign of an authentic identity and an instrument to accommodate a changing modern world. This neo-veiling movement, furthermore, standardized a set of Islamic norms and practices that would use the veil as the embodiment of inner piety and ethical states.[i]
In one sense we have been here before. In 2016 it was concerning the Burkini and Muslim women being fined on French beaches for wearing them. Although the ban was welcomed by the Front National (of course), certain ‘liberal’ feminists and the centre right, it was also enforced by a number of communist mayors in the south of France.
However, this ban took place in a political context (as indeed does the current row).[ii]
Back in 2016, the specific context was the appalling treatment and vilification of refugees and migrants in Calais. Yet as Al Jazeera made clear:
The number of refugees who arrived on Europe’s shores plunged by nearly two-thirds last year, but the number of those who died on the often perilous journey in the Mediterranean Sea rose sharply, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the EU border agency Frontex has said. About 364,000 people seeking work or refugee protection crossed the sea between January and December, compared to more than one million in 2015, Frontex said in a statement on Friday.[iii]
This did not stop the usual rent-a-reactionaries deciding that throwing refugees and migrants under a bus was a public duty. The nastiness spilled over, via the right-wing tabloids and broadsheets, plus sections of social media who whipped up imaginary fears of a migrant invasion.[iv]
To move to 2018, it quite clear that Boris Johnson, far from being a truth-to-power iconoclast, is in fact using his privilege and taking the opportunity to punch down when commenting upon what Muslim women look like when wearing the Burqa, despite claiming he was writing from a ‘liberal’ position of live and let live.
We have to situate the current discussion in the language of colonialism and the anti-colonialist struggles that occurred over the last 300-400 years. Part of the discourse of colonialism was to posit itself as the 'Enlightenment' against the savage ‘other’. The banning of the veil (akin to the banning of the kilt and tartan in both Scotland and Ireland) is not liberation, but rather a social and cultural form of domination.
It was based upon a presumption of the superiority of western civilisation and its values. In turn, it made the point that those who opposed it had to be backward savages. The veil, Hijab, Naqab, Burqa etc. are pieces of cloth but they are also much more, in that they occupy as much a social space as a religious one: furthermore, we live in an imperialist country. This in turn means that critiques of the Burqa from the right and elements of the centre are taking place in a current context of Islamophobia that pretends it’s progressive.[v]
Those defending Boris Johnson suggest that the wearing of the Burqa represents submission to a hard-core religious conservative dress and politics that challenges the liberal society we all live in. This was recently said to me in a debate, and the assumption made by such comments is that this is a way to embarrass the left, in particular feminists.
I also find it odd that those defending Johnson, who like to talk about the primacy of belief without interference, seem to think that this does not and should not extend to Muslims. That’s even before we get onto the assumption that wearing the veil makes the wearer by definition a “hard core religious, conservative”, though being the latter has never bothered right-wingers before if the religion is Christianity.
“These are the facts,
I won't stand for your racist attacks,
I won't be banned or sent back,
Whether beige, brown or black,
I'll say it loud, I'm Muslim and damn I'm proud!” - Somaye Zadeh*
The imposition of disrobing in colonial societies – for example, the French in Algeria – was not about 'liberation', rather it was a top-down attempt to build a ‘modern’ society. In both countries its aim was to attract a new native client base to French imperialism. The resistance to a ban on the face veil took many forms. It also mirrored the developments and strands that can take place within anti-colonialism.
The Front de libération nationale (FLN) in Algeria was in favour of a modern society including the whole panoply of women’s rights. Yet at the same time they saw the French as just changing the parameters of objectification; Arab women were/are still subject to the exoticisation of orientalism and this is still a valid point for today.
Frantz Fanon, in a discussion of how veiling can be a symbol of the imposition of modernity and of resisting colonialism, suggested that
This woman, who sees without being seen, frustrates the coloniser as she opposes the colonisers' standards of liberation, she asserts an identity, and even power, of her own, thus refusing to acknowledge the validity of, and inherent power in, her coloniser's unveiling, subjugation and rape of her own culture.[vi]
On January 24th 2017, Katarzyna Falecka, in The Conversation noted that Fanon described the French colonial doctrine in Algeria as follows:
If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.
Fanon was a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front who considered women’s ill treatment by the French army to embody the whole country’s situation. For him, it was impossible for the colonial power to conquer Algeria without winning over its women to European 'norms'.
In 1958, during the Algerian war of independence, mass 'unveiling' ceremonies were staged across Algeria. The wives of French military officers unveiled some Algerian women to show that they were now siding with their French 'sisters'. These spectacles formed part of an emancipation campaign aimed at demonstrating how Muslim women had been won over to European values and away from the independence struggle.'[vii]
Maria Boariu throws further light on the subject of the veil and colonization:
Before discussing the colonizer's attitude towards the veiled woman, a brief overview of the modern discourse on transparency is needed. The 18th century brought the ideal of a perfect transparent world. Rousseau's ideal was a transparent society. In 1787, Jeremy Bentham elaborated the plan of the Panopticon. It was an architectural figure that consisted in a tower central to an annular building divided into cells.
The occupants of the cells were isolated from one another by walls and subject to scrutiny by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. The Panopticon thus allowed seeing without being seen. For Foucault, such asymmetry of seeing-without-being-seen is the very essence of power because ultimately the power to dominate rests on the differential possession of knowledge.
The metaphor of the one that is seen without being able to see the observer turned to be the most dramatic frustration the French colonists experienced in Algeria. Veiled woman could see the foreign colonizer, but the colonizer could not see her. The veil became a barrier to the visual control of the Western eye.[viii]
What all of this suggests is that the wearing of the veil in the Arab world as well as in the Arab diaspora is linked only partly to culture and religion. But it can also be a resistance to an imposition of what are seen as Western values. Even if Muslim women were to affect a western style of dress, that would still not mean they were not oppressed, only that their oppression would be of a different nature.
As discussed below, sexism is still rife in Western society, with the Presidents club scandal being but one recent example of how objectification continues and that a woman’s body continues to be judged.
Moreover, it needs to be remembered that Boris Johnson added the words 'at this current time' in his article, which was meant to be against Denmark banning the burqa. Thus it is a clear signal that banning it is something he would consider. Also, some of the reactions to his article give the impression that it is him that is being maligned and slandered.
Constant political attacks over a number of years have had two effects on the Muslim community: one, some youths have been more radicalised (though we should not over play this); two, religious conservatives have gained more standing in the community. Both are understandable reactions to oppression and Islamophobia, but it is also important to stress that this does not mean an explicit rejection of all things to do with western liberalism.
Can right wingers really be feminists?
When on 19th June 2017, Darren Osborne drove a van into pedestrians outside a mosque in Finsbury Park, injuring at least eight people and killing one, he didn’t do it as a homage to women’s liberation.[ix]
On July 4th 2018 in Belgium, the two men who targeted a 19-year-old woman, inflicting injuries upon her with a sharp object and calling her a 'filthy Arab' weren’t getting their inner Greer on.[x]
On 31st of July 2017 in the UK, the man who punched a Muslim nurse wearing a hijab and tried to tie it around her neck, wasn’t doing it out of sisterly solidarity with Muslim women’s oppression.[xi]
The examples given do predate the current outrage over Boris's anti-Muslim comments. But since he made those comments, Boris Johnson has been encouraged to get his inner Enoch on by his fellow conservatives, and by opinion polls. There have also been a number of recent attacks on Muslim women since he wrote his column. What the perpetrators share with Johnson is a distaste of Muslim women, while at the same time believing that Islam is oppressing them.
The same right-wing establishment and commentariat who tried to provide context for Johnson’s Islamophobia also wailed 'PC gawn mad', when the Presidents club scandal broke.[xii] The fact that it was a ‘charity’ event was meant to offset the fact that working class women were being groped and sexually harassed, and so on.
Some were also outraged over the fact that the ‘Grid Girls’, female models who parade on the starting grid and stand with the drivers’ name boards before every grand prix, were axed from Formula One. Yet we have sections of the establishment in politics and the fourth estate pretending that punching down on marginalised Muslim women is somehow predicated upon their being ‘feminists’ and standing up for women’s rights.
These political acts are coming from the same people, who brought us the 'Hostile Environment', the Prevent programme, 'Go Home' vans, descriptions of migrants and refugees as a 'swarm', the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, and constant Daily Mail/Express/Evening Standard headlines warning about ‘The Muzzie in our Midst’.
Being anti-Muslim (while pretending that you’re anti-Islam) is the picking of low hanging fruit for the right and far right and so, no wonder they are so eager to do so. Oh and for those still trying to put a square Boris Johnson into a round hole of women’s rights, he’s quoted in the Guardian as describing driving a Ferrari in this manner:
It was as though the whole county of Hampshire was lying back and opening her well-bred legs, to be ravished by the Italian stallion.[xiii]
Perhaps he is not someone whose opinions regarding women’s rights should be at the top of anyone’s reading list.
*Poem by Somaye Zadeh and © to same on her website; www.somaye.info
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/…/nice-france-burkini-ban-respo…, and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/…/those-who-rage-against-the-b…/, and https://www.theguardian.com/…/french-police-make-woman-remo… also; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/…/burkini-ban-protesters-hold-…/
[xii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/president-club-what-happened-who-went-guestlist-charities-dorchester-hotel-groping-women-men-only-a8175611.html and also, https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/presidents-club-more-women-speak-out-as-scandalhit-club-shuts-amid-groping-claims-a3748966.html.
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