Five years after the French parliament passed a law forbidding children from wearing the headscarf or any other “conspicuous” religious symbol in schools – read forbidding Muslim girls from wearing the veil in public schools, the French government has recently indicated it was prepared to legally ban the burka. In guise of defending Muslim women from what is seen as a ‘submissive act’, the French government spokesman Luc Chatel argued that women’s rights were compromised by the garments, suggesting that the government is seriously considering bringing in legislation to prohibit full veiling in France .
It seems that only several thousand French Muslim women, out of a Muslim population of five million, wear full veils, which politicians have described as ‘walking coffins’. This assumes that all Muslim women are coerced into wearing the veil, though research has shown that outside countries where veiling is mandatory, such as Afghanistan or Iran , Muslim women veil for a variety of mostly political reasons. Some veil in reaction to their more assimilated parents, others in response to the westernisation of society; and for many others veiling spells not deprivation but rather freedom from male harassment.
Interestingly, Jewish TD Alan Shatter stepped into the debate, calling, in a letter to the Irish Independent ‘for the current government to have the courage to publicly state that such treatment of women in Ireland is also unacceptable’. As a Jew I wonder how Shatter would react to a similar proposal to ban male Jewish headgear or female Jewish head cover as required by the Jewish religion?
While French and Irish politicians pretend to defend women from coercive practices, the bodies of women have long been a terrain for contesting the honour of collectives and states. I agree with the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi who argues that Muslim states often impose veiling instead of educating women and dealing with fundamental social issues such as unemployment and emigration, and that forced veiling is an aspect of patriarchal control.
Despite all the contradictions, and bearing in mind the huge difference between forced and elective veiling, I firmly believe in Muslim women’s right to veil. I also believe that the figure of the veiled woman has long symbolised the west’s orientalist colonial fantasies: the east as an unknown, veiled country, which the west needs to unveil in order to dominate and control.
Many Europeans say they are disturbed by fully veiled Muslim women, yet they are not as bothered by masked surgeons or dentists, or by veiled nuns: in the current age of Islamophobia the figure of the veiled Muslim woman spells the threat of the unknown and uncontrollable, and seen a ‘body out of place’.
Interestingly, a member of the Irish Hijab Campaign, an Irish woman who converted to Islam, spoke recently in Trinity College about veiling as her feminist right to choose, and as her right as an Irish citizen. Thus, rather than the veiled Muslim woman being ‘body out of place’, the (Irish convert) veiled Muslim woman demonstrates the confusion involved in according the status of a ‘body out of place’ to an Irish woman. The veil, supposedly foreign to ‘our own culture’, blurs the boundary between immigrant and indigenous, making it necessary for state racism to intervene in order to defend society.