The Veil: Western Feminism as a Political Tool.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy would like to ban the burqa in public places, stating that it’s “a problem of liberty and women’s dignity.” He also called the burqa “a sign of subservience and debasement.” There are two specific moments in Obama’s speech in Cairo, where he addresses women’s rights:

“it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

And also this:

“I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”

France has a particular history amongst Black Americans (Baldwin, Shay Youngblood, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright) as being a place of racial harmony and equality, a bastion of safety, beauty and expression. The country can certainly be all of these things. It is also a place I would like to visit again.

But it is important to put things into perspective, that is, recognize political agitation masked as progressive behavior. A (very) short history of the Algerian War, subject to more than a century of colonialism, Algerians began anew their fight for independence during the 1950’s. While the UN considered Algerian liberation, the FLN, the major Muslim opposition party, instituted a seven day strike in solidarity. The strike was so effective, the French, out of frustration, retaliated with violence. So began eight years of of guerrilla warfare, and torture techniques implemented by the French which included rape and electric shock. (It is worth noting that the original colonization of Algeria included “mass rapes” a tactic which was considered “a science” of conquering Africa and went on to be used widely by other European nations.)

The FLN were in no way innocent victims of peaceful protest. Women unveiled themselves to appear European, to pass checkpoints and place bombs in public places. Others carried weapons underneath their burqas and shot at police officers. The louder the call for (Arab) independence grew, the more violent native, and non-native born Algerians became. The assertion of Arab identity was an affront to French superiority. Muslim born Algerians were denied French citizenship, even those who had served in the French military–sound familiar? Full citizenship was granted upon complete abnegation of Muslim identity.

Documented in both the film, The Battle of Algiers, and Frantz Fanon’s essay titled “Algeria Unveiled” in the book A Dying Colonialism, Sarkozy’s demand encourages an abandonment of female Muslim identity. For those who choose to be covered, he is continuing France’s history of  colonialism and persecution under the guise of feminism. As history indicates this only plants the seed for forceful opposition.

  • France today has a big “race problem,” so to speak. Well, that’s sort of what they call it, though in reality what they mean is that racism is rampant throughout the country. The Census doesn’t even count blacks as a distinct group, though I think Algerians get their own category. I’ve been to a handful of presentations this year (we have a lot of visiting folks from French universities), and apparently there’s a national reluctance to even mention race or racism. Think of a colorblind racism, but magnified throughout an entire nation. They’re hoping racial inequality will just go away if they stop talking about; and trust that they really are tight-lipped about anything related to race.

    Like Sarkozy here with the burquas, French officials and civic leaders want to whitewash all ethnic difference in the hopes that ethnic conflict will also disappear. After reading this post, I think we know where that kind of thinking will get you…

  • Ben

    It’s nonsense to claim this is giving women more freedom. Although it is subversive to women, it seems as if dictating what they can wear in a country where they at least had the choice is far more damaging in the end. Although I don’t agree with what a burqa fundamentally stands for, these women should have a damn choice.

    This had some sources in one place:

  • Here in the U.S., women are expected to cover their breasts; men aren’t, in some cases. In France, on some beaches at least, women don’t have to cover their breasts. I don’t, however, hear the French government talking about forbidding us from doing so….

  • Belle, just a few quick things I wanted to point out (I am not a historian of the Middle East, so take it for what its worth, I just know some of this stuff because of my own seminar in postcolonial theory):

    The strike was not what actually triggered the war (outside of the fevered pronouncements of Algerian nationalists) but rather it was Philippeville massacre in 1955ish… I forget when exactly. Before that, the FLN did have UN recognition (back when the UN mattered) but its sporadic attacks on military outposts were part of a long line of political violence in the country, and nobody thought much of it. However, Philippeville was when the FLN butchered civilians (the elderly, women, babies) and the French overreacted, and the war proper got underway. Why is this a big deal? Because the independence movements in Africa rarely targeted civilians (whether out of morality or practicality I cannot say), even in South Africa or Kenya, but the Algerians went nuts with it. Maids who had been with a family for decades, nursing and raising the children (ahh domestic help and subject positions), would poison the kids and slip off into the night, which really did not happen in other countries. And then, of course, the war was followed by the Sand War and Ben Bella’s rule. Basically I cannot stand the Algerians and hate to see the Algerian War as anything beyond an attempt to replace French lunatics with Algerian ones. I remember in the Battle of Algiers when the little kids beat the drunk to death, or when the pimp gets shot (I can only imagine what the revolutionaries did to the prostitutes). They were puritans. Fanon sort of hinted at this, but half of his writings I find useless (colonized mind, revolutionary violence etc.) and all of his good stuff (critique of nationalism) always gets mixed up with ‘revolution’. Yeah you point out that the Algerians were not saints, but there is more to it than just suicide bombings.

    I could not find any information on the mass rapes thing (maybe wikipidia changed it), but that was not a technique necessarily used as a science of conquering Africa, no more than conquering Europe. I know a lot of stuff has been done trying to find Africa as a petri dish of European/white aggression (the Holocaust was practiced in Namibia!! A point which ignores the German reaction to French irregulars after the Franco-Prussian war), but it is built on some very select portions of history. Yeah the Europeans were brutal (and nuts), but a lot of their stuff was no different than anyone else at the time. Postcolonial theory (whichever one you want to look at) looks at the whites in particular, but does not look at anyone else, much to my chagrin, so the idea of Europeans ‘learning’ how to treat nonwhites (as opposed to each other) is pretty suspect.

    Conquerers almost always have a moral pretext to invade. The Europeans have a long history of using women. Remember Sahti? A lot of people do, but what about the European Wars of Religion, where the Protestants and the Catholics slaughtered each other, one of the reasons being saving the virtue/souls of each others women.

    Sarkozy is a putz, I was thrilled he got booed at Bongo’s funeral. Ever since he said no to the Turks trying to get into the EU he has been useless to me.

    I could go on and on about France and their relation to ‘the other’, but meh I am sure you are tired of my ranting (maybe you and SLB should do a joint piece?).

    Jeremy, where does whitewashing ethnic differences get you? The French colonial project was based on reifying ethnic differences, not eliminating (or perhaps replacing) them. And do not get salty on colorblindness, the French have screwed it up royally, but there are some good ideas there. I dunno, maybe its because I am a socialist, or a Washington Wizards fan, but I love lost causes!

  • Pingback: Banning the burqa « A Woman's Writes()

  • Paula

    Well, OK, Sarkozy may not be any of those things literally, but his statement smacks of the same Western arrogance about ME customs. People have debated the propriety of traditional wear in the ME but I would rather it come from people who actually know the culture intimately.

    By French standards, Sarkozy is a conservative, but it’s not as if people who consider themselves liberal don’t fall into the trap of using women’s clothing wrt to their own judgment about cultural practices of which they know nothing:

    Here, the hijab is conflated with practices like stoning. Also notice that while the writer wants our gov’t to “do something more”, he never quite defines it. Thus, it’s very easy for him to gain the moral high ground without paying attention to silly things like state sovereignty, which, given our whole messy involvement in the ME is pretty … dumb.

  • Paula