The politics of the veilROBERT FULFORD
In the 21st century, the Islamic burka, the fullface-and-body veil, adopted by more women every day, has become the most potent human symbol on earth.
Many say it stands for piety. No, that's wrong, says Marnia Lazreg, an Algerian-born professor of sociology at the City University of New York. Piety has little to do with it; the Koran doesn't even mention the veil. In truth, the veil stands for political ideology and male power.
It also establishes the wearer's extreme distance from the rest of us. We recognize people by seeing their faces and we acknowledge their humanity by reading what their faces tell us. Without that information humans cannot come alive to each other. A woman wearing a mask is a woman declining to be human. Unable to look anyone in the eyes, lacking peripheral vision, her hearing muffled, she becomes an abstraction. Encouraging a woman to wear the burka is like offering her a portable isolation cell.
In Europe the burka stirs public anger. President Nicolas Sarkozy says it's unwelcome in France: "We cannot have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity." Sarkozy understands that he speaks for much of the electorate. Could France actually ban the burka from its streets? That would infringe on individual rights but now begins to seem possible.
Lazreg's fascinating book, Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women (Princeton University Press), tells us that the veil comes and goes, according to the rise and fall of ideologies and the change in male perceptions of women and women's beliefs about themselves. Algeria illustrates the point. After women helped achieve independence from France in 1962, many ceased to wear the veil. It lost its political force as a form of rebellion and became an archaic custom of an older generation. Lazreg remembers her mother discarding it.
The revival of the veil among Algerians in recent years coincides with economic failure, a regional cultural identity movement and the war between Islamists and the Algerian government. Today's Islamists often coerce women to wear the veil. (Surprisingly, Lazreg doesn't mention the physical harm involved: Women who hide every inch of their skin from the sun often suffer from a Vitamin D deficiency and develop early osteoporosis, a syndrome noted by doctors in several countries.)
Lazreg grew up in a Muslim home but she reacts to a burka-wearing woman on the street in the same spirit as someone in the West: It always startles her and she always wonders whether the woman has obeyed her husband or decided on her own to take up the veil. She was shocked when she entered a shop in Damascus and saw two black forms sitting near the counter, their faces entirely covered in black, with no opening even for the eyes. "I felt crushed by their anonymity and the obliteration of their being."
That same day, she went to a mosque wearing loose slacks, a long-sleeved shirt and a head scarf. A man stopped her at the entrance, carrying a worn gray fabric, with which he proposed to cover her. She refused to wear such a dirty piece of cloth. He replied: "It is cleaner than you!" As Lazreg says, the veil is a man's problem more than a woman's.
She has no time for feminists in the West who insist, out of God knows what perverse impulse, that the veil empowers Muslim women. That kind of academic theorizing might provoke interesting conversation but Lazreg believes it's dangerous. She also argues against Tariq Ramadan, the most influential Muslim theologian in Europe, who believes "the turn to the veil" represents a new Islamic feminism.
She writes carefully, as a scholar who wants to tell the truth but still be taken seriously by Muslims. She thinks the revival of the veil does nothing for the rejuvenation of Muslim civilization; "it degrades Islam" and impoverishes its spirit. But she's anxious to tell us that abandoning the veil would not constitute a victory for the West. It would be a victory for Muslim women over morally degrading restrictions.
If men approve of the veil, it is women's job to resist their demands and recreate the independent spirit women showed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Only women can end "the politics of the veil" by making themselves agents of social change. She delivers her argument with passion and coherence but, sadly, everything is going the other way.
Robert Fulford, "The politics of the veil." National Post, (Canada) Setember 12, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of Robert Fulford.
Robert Fulford has been a journalist since the summer of 1950, when he left high school to work as a sports writer on The Globe and Mail. He has since been a news reporter, literary critic, art critic, movie critic, and editor on a variety of magazines, ranging from Canadian Homes and Gardens to the Canadian Forum. He was the editor of Saturday Night magazine for 19 years, and since he left that job in 1987 he's been a freelance writer. He writes twice a week in the National Post and contributes a monthly column about the media to Toronto Life magazine and writes for Queen's Quarterly. His most recent book is The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (1999). Robert Fulford is an officer of the Order of Canada and the holder of honorary degrees from six Canadian universities.
Copyright © 2009 Robert Fulford
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