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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Hijab & Burqa

Published on Sep 15, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Hijab (The Headscarf) - Yes; The Burqa - No


Banning the burqa in the West might be one way to ban Islamist fundamentalism and the barbaric subordination of girls and women in certain immigrant communities. For this reason, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and French Minister Fadela Amara have again called for this ban. Earlier today, French immigration Minister, Eric Besson, called the burqa "debased."

I would hope that the French take their argument further. In the past, they have mainly cited security concerns: Burqa wearing women might be "racially" attacked or burqa wearers themselves might be terrorists or criminals who are planning to attack or rob civilians.

I would hope that the French also argue for such a ban on women's rights/human rights grounds, as I have already proposed. Thus, clothing which completely covers the face and head in a way which muffles speech, hearing, and vision, which limits or prevents all human communication and identification, and which, in effect, functions like an isolation chamber is, by definition, a violation of human rights.

None of this applies to hijab, the Islamic headscarf, which has already been banned in France in school and which is the subject of protest and controversy across Europe.

With all due respect for the good intentions of the French, perhaps Western governments should not automatically or necessarily ban hijab for women; the matter is tricky and complicated for girls as we have seen, as city after city across Europe has discovered. Indeed, this is a complex and challenging matter.

Today, in Holland, in the very country that is putting the sober and very brave parliamentarian,Geert Wilders on trial for exercising his political free speech—another bright Dutch light, Trouw historian Tineke Bennema has called on "women who were born in the Netherlands to voluntarily put on a headscarf 'out of solidarity' with the hijab wearers." You know, like the Danes allegedly once wore the yellow Jewish star.

Bennema: This is not the way to atone for all the Dutch Jews who were so cheerfully handed over to the Nazis.

One can argue that looking "different," wearing clothing that represents only one religion may, indeed, arouse prejudice and fear and lead to ostracism, especially among children. Visually representing one's religion in the public square may also interfere with one's ability to be seen neutrally in a courtroom, (as a judge, a witness, a plaintiff), classroom, hospital, (as a nurse, doctor, or patient), office, etc. For this reason, an American judge told a priest to remove his clerical collar before testifying in a court case.

However, in order to ban hijab in an even-handed way, one would also have to ban the Catholic hijab worn by nuns, the Jewish headscarf worn by ultra-orthodox and Chasidic women, and the various Hindu and Sikh head coverings. Doing so might interfere with the separation of religion and state that many Western governments hold dear.

But there is another reason to consider not banning hijab for adults. I spent last week in Rome, at the International Conference on Violence Against Women, An Initiative of the Italian Presidency of the G 8. I am deeply grateful to the Italian government, specifically to the Italian Minister for Equal Opportunities, the Honorable (and beautiful) Maria Rosaria Carfagna for this opportunity. Here is where I spent time with a dynamic, truly amazing group of religious and secular Muslim feminists. Three wore hijab, two did not, and one wore it sometimes, but not always. Most agreed that headcovering is more of a custom than a religious commandment and that one can be a very good Muslim without it.

My point: They are all modern, eloquent, high achievers; smart, strong, strong-minded, pro-Western, pro-integration, and pro-women's rights. They have won my heart and I view these Muslim feminists who are fifty years old or younger as the true descendents of Second Wave Western feminism. They, too, believe that women's rights are universal, not culturally relative: They cannot understand why so many western feminists and academics are willing to sacrifice this principle. And, religious or not, they also believe in the importance of separating religion and state.

Left to Right: Zeyno Baran, Seyran Ates, Phyllis Chesler, Valentina Colombo

Left to Right: Zeyno Baran, Seyran Ates, Phyllis Chesler, Valentina Colombo

I want you to meet them. You will be hearing from them from time to time right here at my blog. Allow me the pleasure and privilege of introducing you to some of them and to their work.

Samar Al Mogren

Samar Al Mogren

Samar Al-Mogren

is a Saudi Arabian journalist and novelist. She sometimes gets into trouble, but she remains untroubled, almost sweet-tempered about it. Her latest novel, about women in prison, is a bestseller in Arabic.

Zunaib Al-Suwaij

Zunaib Al-Suwaij

Zubeida Al-Suweij

is an Iraqi-born American who is the Executive Director of the American-Islamic Conference in DC. She is the granddaughter of the leading ayatollah of Basra who personally raised her and who supports her world-work. Zainab founded the Conference precisely in order to offer American Muslim students an alternative to the Muslim Student Association on campuses.

Seyran Ates is a Turkish born lawyer whose work on behalf of battered Muslim women immigrants in Berlin I discuss in my book The Death of Feminism. Seyran was shot by extremists and nearly died for her work—which includes her efforts to expose and abolish honor killings. She plans to open a mosque in Berlin where the hijab will not be allowed! Her new book, Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution will be out next month.

Zeyno Baran is a Turkish-born American citizen who is the Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. Baran is an expert on terrorism and oil, and is currently working on a book The Other Muslims. Moderate and Secular which will be out in 2010.

Elham Manea, an Egyptian-Yemeni citizen of Switerland, is a professor of Political Science who specializes in the Middle East. She is also a journalist, a novelist, and a human rights activist.

Shada Mohammed Nasser Mohammed is a Yemeni citizen and a lawyer who has handled many high profile cases for women as well as politically "sensitive" cases. For example, she represented Amina Ali Altuhaif and Fatima Badi in criminal cases, and many child brides who sought divorces from forced marriages.

We spent as much time together as possible. Our little group also included the divine and magnificent Italian, Valentina Colombo, who is a Professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies, and the very wonderful Manda Zand Ervin, the founder and Director of the Alliance of Iranian Women, whom I have known for a number of years.

Then there were the utterly humbling, hard-working, non-hijabbed and non-burqa'ed Afghans, (I will write about them separately), the gorgeous Africans wearing every variety of headgear, braids, and jewelry—but their stories, and those of the compassionate and sophisticated Europeans and Canadians must wait for another blog.

My point here is this: Those Muslims in our group who wear hijab are as independent, fabulously feminist, and personally powerful as are those who are bare headed. Many are religious, as I am. I think this broke some ice. I look forward to another kind of interfaith dialogue, one between women of faith who are also feminists. Dialogue with close-minded fundamentalists is impossible.

In conclusion: I would not want to blithely support a movement that would force any such women to remove their headscarves against their will.

I understand: Many head scarved girls and women are not modern, educated, independent, pro-integration or for women's equality and for them, the headscarf might be the very symbol of all that is holding them back and a way of visually signifying their rejection of modernization and assimilation.

As I said: This is tricky…but let me be very clear especially for those people who might be puzzled by my apparent "defense" of the Islamic Veil.

Recently, I challenged a piece by Naomi Wolf on the subject of the Islamic Veil/Burqa. My objections stand. I distinguish between hijab (headscarf), niqab (face mask) and burqa/ chadari (full body bag). Wolf mixes it all up. I do not view any of the Muslim women with whom I worked as exotic "others" nor did we discuss their marital status or marital sexuality—something that Wolf did overly much in her article. I do not describe these Muslim women in terms of how they look (their various curves) but rather, in terms of their ideas and the work they do—although I must say: Some of the headscarves were highly fashionable, colorful, eye-catching, and very viewer-friendly.

Here are some problems to solve:

In a world in which girls and women are being beaten and murdered for refusing to wear hijab or for failing to wear it properly enough—how can we safeguard their right not to wear hijab while, at the same time, safeguarding the right of adults to wear hijab if that is their choice? This is something that we must solve in the West and perhaps, by example, elsewhere.

As we wrestle with this problem, let's avoid cheap comparisons and false moral equivalencies. The bikini is not the same as the burqa. The state is not forcing me to wear a bikini and neither the state nor my family will kill me if I refuse to wear it. Further, no one will stop me from making a fool of myself and, at my age, actually wearing a bikini to the beach.

And, pointing out that women are treated as sex objects in the West does not mean that putting women in body bags proves that they are more respected or better protected. Those who make this argument fail to understand how thoroughly women are sexualized and also sexually abused in the Muslim world.

To be continued.


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