Now that the law banning Burqa and Niqab has come into effect in France, there is time to further develop and re-publish an earlier post of mine that has appeared at a different venue than this one.
Almost a year ago I wrote to Mona Eltahawy - then a well known journalist and public speaker, now famous on Twitter and CNN - to give her my feedback on an article she had written for The Guardian. In this article, Mona was in particular praising the burqa banning laws France and Belgium were about to pass. Here's the mail I wrote to @monaeltahawy in its almost original form, with a few new thoughts and points added.
Meanwhile I have read your article in The Guardian. I support many things you say but I come to another conclusion, meaning that I can’t get myself to support a ban on burqas or niqabs in countries like Belgium or France.
I consider myself a liberal guy, rather on the left side of the political spectrum. This “burqa ban – question” is really putting me (and people like me) in a big dilemma (and then again, it's not). I am forced to choose between voting with right wing, xenophobic politicians and thus - as they want me to believe - supporting oppressed Muslim women or women’s rights and liberal beliefs in general.
As you say, wearing the face veil has really taken an upswing, in Egypt and elsewhere. If you look at the audience of an Oum Kalthoum concert back in the 1960s, you don’t see hardly anybody wearing a scarf or a veil. Nowadays, it is quite the opposite in the streets of Cairo or in Gaza City. There are many reasons for that and I guess you know them better than I do.
Coming back to the right wing political parties in Europe: As you correctly say, they don’t give a rat’s ass about Muslim women. They put this topic on top of their agenda in order to gain votes from a constituency that is xenophobic or in general fear of today’s circumstances of life. Globalization, migration, search for an identity and a feeling of insecurity are the keywords here.
My joke yesterday on Twitter was actually quite serious: Belgians are fighting for ever among each other and there is even talk of the country being split up in two, or even three. And now we finally have one thing they can agree on – banning the burqa, banning the niqab – thus targeting the weakest members of Belgian society: women, foreigners, Muslim, foreign Muslim women. This is really a great achievement and a powerful sign of unity coming from Belgian politicians!
the last tango in Paris: good-bye liberalism
Now, is banning the niqab in public places in Belgium or in France helping Muslim women or is it detrimental to their lives in European societies? Once again, as a liberal person, I don’t have the definite answer. (It is easy when you are a right wing politician, you always have the definite answers…) It is hard for me to tell who is wearing the niqab out of conviction and who is forced to wear that dress (with all the religious, political and cultural baggage that goes with it). But is the "forced issue" really important at all when looking at Europe where in France for instance only 2000 women (out of a total population of 66 million people) are potentially wearing a burqa or a niqab? Or is it only relevant when looking at far away places like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan? And has the Saudi or Afghani dress code for women any relationship with the religion of Islam? Or is this dress code rather the obvious and ugly face of a patriarchal and basically rural society?
As a liberal, my first reflex is to allow everybody to wear what they like to wear, thus allowing them to live their conviction. As a person concerned with women’s rights, I want to help women that are oppressed. So are we helping them if we ban the niqab in public? I don't think so. Will they be allowed to be seen in public without the niqab or will they be forced to stay at home for ever?
Since I wrote my original letter, I have come to know many (young) women on Twitter - well, don't let us exaggerate here: some women on Twitter - who, to my knowledge, wear the hijab and wear it with pride, because they think it is the right thing to do. I never had the impression that these women are oppressed and somewhat "less developed" (culturally, politically, mentally) than their non-hijabi or non-Muslim colleagues. They are smart, they are fierce, they like fun and they are witty. On the other hand, I was told of a case the other day where a young Muslim woman decided to take off her hijab and unfortunately had to take much abuse for that (from both sexes). This is bad and makes me sad. But in Muslim society, like in any other society, it is a rough track when you want to go your own way.
There is another point you mentioned that I support: We have to fight not only right wing European parties but also the Muslim right wing, as you call them. (Well, "right wing" and "liberal": It is hazardous and mostly too reductive to use these terms in a political discussion. Everybody has a different understanding of "brands" like these, and most of the time, they miss the point.) And we have to support liberal Muslims as much as we can. Only, there is a problem: how can we support them when our society as a whole turns away from liberalism day by day? What kind of liberalism, what kind of open - open-minded, open-hearted - society can we offer them? For me the key to an integrative and all-embracing society is an understanding and accepting of "the other", within a concept called "live and let live". As an European liberal, I really have a hard time to make my society more repressive, to introduce more laws banning this and that, just because some particular groups of people are lagging behind in their development towards a liberal society - and with some I mean everything fundamentalist, be it Christians, Muslims or Atheists.
Do Europeans liberals just don't get it, as was argued before? Don't they understand that in order to enjoy their lifestyle of the rich and famous, the Europeans have to keep their societies rassenrein? I don't want this purity and I will never vote for it. But when politicians like Sarkozy, Wilders or Le Pen lead the pack, it is a real danger.
My friend @AmoonaE is an aspiring surgeon, lives in France, wears a hijab and has had a first hand experience with the new niqab-banning law in France. Today she tweeted the following: "those who say that the niqab ban concerns only a handful of women are wrong; it feeds the hate against all Muslims. #France #Islamophobia." Read the rest of her today's story here.