The decision by a few mayors in France to ban burqini has brought the issue of the veil to the fore. The discussions and debates around this issue, regardless of the political position of the participants, both in main stream and social media, too often start from false premises. Starting points of the defender of the bans are “values of secularism, French values or the question of security.” Those who oppose the ban mainly base their argument on “Islamophobia” and “cultural imperialism.” The question of women’s rights, equality and freedom is also discussed but as a secondary issue. I believe that these premises are false and do not help to reach a progressive position; a position which takes into consideration the respect for civil rights, rejects discrimination among citizens as well as women’s rights. In this article we try to deal with these issues and try to establish a progressive and egalitarian position.
The veil comes in different shapes and forms, scarf, full cover (chador), burqa, niqab and the new fashion burqini. Islamic movement in the past 4 decades have tried with all its might to spread the veil in any society under Islam or in “Moslem” communities. The veil has become the banner of the Islamic movement. Any place the Islamists gain power they force the veil on women and punish severely those who refuse to wear it. Iran after the defeat of the 1979 revolution was the first country where the veil became an important issue of clash and protest by the women’s liberation movement, the left and anti-Islamist trends in the society as a whole.
Still after 37 years the issue of the veil is top on the agenda of both the Islamic regime and women’s liberation movement. Every year the Islamic regime unleashes its brutal forces on women and women refuse to veil themselves as it is prescribed by the regime. Indeed the ever-changing and innovative veil “fashion” by women in Iran is an effective form of protest which ridicules the Islamic veil and it is a testimony to the regime’s failure to subdue women into the darkness. Now we observe that in Turkey after the coup d’état the same situation is unfolding. The veil is not only the banner of the reactionary Islamic movement, but also the symbol and tool of women’s oppression. Any progressive and the left movement must understand the real characteristic of the veil and oppose it. However, does this opposing view mean we should ban the veil or defend the law to ban it?
Legal vs. political
The fight against the veil could mainly take two forms, political or legal. Even though we do not completely reject the legal process, but the political one should be our main route to oppose the veil. To focus on the legal process, it is in fact destructive and it is usually doomed to fail. On the other hand to totally reject the legal process is wrong as it fails to see the role of law and political power in implementing progressive changes in society.
Let’s elaborate on these points. For example banning the veil for underage girls is an essential aspect of protecting children’s rights. Thus, when it regards the protection of children against abuse legal power plays a decisive role. This is to recognise the oppressive role of the veil and to declare that the veil is a tool of women’s oppression. By banning the veil for underage girls we try to diminish the abusive impacts of the veil in particular and religion in general on children. This is an important step toward protecting children from abuse. We should not shy away from expressing our view on the veil fearing from siding with racists or disrespecting people’s right to freedom of religion and expression.
Respecting unconditional freedom of expression or beliefs does not mean to respect the beliefs themselves or to respect the content and form of expression. As progressive left, as communists, as freedom-loving and egalitarian tendencies, we must respect the right of any individual to believe in any religion and to practice it, but equally we should not respect the religion or beliefs that do not respect women’s equality and freedom, spread and reinforce superstitions, do not respect children’s rights etc.
However, as it regards adult women, they should be free to choose whether to observe the veil. Here we need to respect their right to freedom of religion and expression. It is true that in some situations women are forced to observe the veil, but imposing a blanket ban on the veil in order to assist those women who wear the veil unwillingly, we risk creating a diversion in our struggle for women’s rights and against misogyny and the destructive role of religion.
We must also take this point into consideration that in the past decades, in the absence of a strong Marxist and left movement to take a strong position against both poles of terrorism, i.e. state terrorism and Islamic terrorism and to mobilise the third pole, the Islamists have managed to portray their fight against state terrorism as a just “anti imperialist” struggle. The brutal attack on Iraq in 2003, the constant expansion of Israel in the occupied territories and its brutality against the Palestinians, and recently the intervention of NATO in Libya and bringing to power tribal Islamists there and bombing of Syria and the increasing discrimination against and stigmatisation of Moslems in the West have led many women in Moslem communities to wear the veil as a sign of political opposition and protest against the Western powers and Israel. This political choice should not and cannot be dealt with by legal means. Any repression of this freedom can only provoke a political reaction which has an adverse effect. Working toward creating and mobilising a progressive alternative is the only positive and effective solution to this problem.
By this argument we arrive at this totally false concept. What is cultural imperialism? Cultural imperialism has long been used by nationalist movements of the developing countries to silence the left progressive movements. Fighting against colonialism has been extended to the spheres of culture or political values that have originated in the West. For example, women’s rights and freedom in many of the former colonies and countries under the rule of Islam are identified as cultural imperialism. Many left populist tendencies have also joined this reactionary attack on freedom and equality, or have apologetically defended the reactionary nationalist, or Islamist movements. In Iran, women’s liberation movement was at first mainly attacked by resorting to this ideological battle. The Islamic regime tried to impose the veil, gender apartheid and complete misogynist rules and traditions on the society by calling women’s rights cultural imperialism and the populist left was disarmed in the face of this ideological attack, as they, too, regarded adherence to so-called western values as cultural imperialist. Therefore, Women’s liberation movement in Iran had to fight against both the forced imposition of the veil and anti-women Islamic laws and traditions and against the populist left. Worker-communism succeeded in discrediting these ideological falsifications and distortions. As a result one does not hear these arguments among the Iranian left and women’s liberation movement any longer.
However, this point of view is alive and kicking among the international left, particularly the nationalist populist left of the developing countries. During the past week this concept has appeared often in opposing the ban of burqini in France. A very telling historical example of dominance of cultural imperialism in similar discourses is Algeria, where after the end of independence war women’s situation deteriorated considerably in the society and Islamic values and traditions gained the upper hand.
Another false ideological concept that has appeared in the past decade is Islamophobia which has had a negative and reactionary effect on our struggle for women’s equality and freedom and for progressive values. What is Islamophobia? Let’s dissect this term, in reality it means to have phobia against Islam. Is this wrong, racist or discriminatory to have fear of Islam and Islamic movements? To my opinion No. If one is wary of any religion, including Islam, or feels threatened by Islam’s or any religion’s expansion in the society, this is completely justified. It goes without saying that religion has been one of the main means of spreading hatred, war and killing in the world throughout the history. Religion and nationalism are the two main ideologies responsible for killing and torturing millions and millions of people. It is irrelevant whether one agrees with the interpretation of Islam given by the Islamic regime, Al Qaida, Taliban, or Daesh. In the past 4 decades many brutal, inhumane, reactionary and misogynist movements have been formed using Islamic ideology.
Taking all these points into consideration one is absolutely justified to fear Islam and Islamic movements. Thus, using the term Islamophobia not only does not help the struggle against racism and discrimination, it actually damages it and has an adverse effect. This is an intimidating method trying to silence whoever is critical of Islam. By the same token, the Israeli state and its defenders use anti-Semitism to intimidate and silence those who are critical of its brutal and oppressive measures and practices. They have succeeded in creating an important obstacle for the movement in defence of Palestinian people’s rights. Can we use the terms Judo- phobia or Christianity-phobia? If these terms sound odd or wrong, so should the term Islamophobia. But, there is a widespread discrimination and racism against Moslems. How are we going to address this problem? Well, we should simply address this issue as discrimination against Moslems instead of Islamophobia. The latter does not imply discrimination against Moslems but instead has many different implications which are misleading and dangerous. This term is being used by the Islamist movements to silence critics of Islam and Islamic movements, taking their decency hostage. It is a method of blackmail and intimidation.
The defenders of the ban resort to the argument of defending secularism or its French term laicite which entails wider legal implications than secularism as it is used in non-French context. However, both of these terms politically signify the separation of religion from the state, i.e. the state should not be religious, should not defend any particular religion and the judicial and legal systems must also be separated from religion and in a secular country there should not exist a national religion and citizens should not be identified by religion. This seems to be the widest and most inclusive meaning of these terms. However, this does not include restrictions on freedom of religion as long as this freedom does not impose any restrictions or abuse on others. By this definition one can defend the banning of the veil for underage girls and wearing the veil in governmental institutions and schools, but not banning the veil by adult women in public spaces. Resorting to the values of secularism to ban burqini on the beaches is over-stretching the concept of secularism.
Manuel Valls, the French prime minister stated that the veil or in this case burqini is the violation of “French values.” This is a nationalist argument which must be rebuked and discredited by progressive and left movement. He further states that burqini is a political choice. It is true that for many this is a political choice. Nevertheless, the state has no right to suppress this political choice. Unfortunately the war of terrorists has created a situation in which extreme reactionary movements have found the upper hand in political and social discourse. Many civil rights have been erased by Western states under the excuse of fighting terrorism. The state terrorists have launched a brutal war in the Middle East and North Africa, committing terrible atrocities and at the same time have abolished many civil rights in the West and imposed police control over people’s lives. France is under official state of siege under the excuse of threat of terrorist attacks. We have witnessed police brutality and extensive infringement of basic workers’ and individual rights in recent months. It is self-evident how these two poles of terrorism play in each other hands and impose regressive and oppressive measures on the society.
⏭ Asar Majedi is a Member of Hekmatist Party leadership & Chairperson of Organisation for Women’s Liberation