The Veil: Wrong Answer to Racism

Manal Jabour

On February 10, the French parliament decided by a vote of 494 - 36 to outlaw Muslim headscarves in state schools. The ban applies to all conspicuous religious symbols, including skullcaps and crosses, but the headscarves have been in the spotlight. If ratified by the Senate, the measure will become law in September. Thus will end a chapter, but only a chapter, in the stormy debate that has dominated France for the past two months. Islamic leaders and political movements all over the Muslim world have joined forces with the media on this issue, hoping thereby to increase their influence.

The affair has sown confusion in the Arab world, as can be seen in the ambivalence of the intellectuals. Some call the French law a deadly measure that infringes on the right of women to choose their garb. Others see the veil as a symbol of repression, but in the present heated atmosphere, they hesitate to take a position. One Egyptian commentator, for instance, who refused to give his name, said the following: "If I write against the veil I'll be looked on as an apostate, but if I support it as symbolizing women's right to choose, I'll be charged with betraying my principles." (Ha'aretz January 1.)

The Lebanese poet Adonis is among the few outstanding Arab intellectuals who did not get cold feet. In an interview with al-Mustakbal, a Lebanese TV station, he said that although the French decision may derive from a desire "to defend the Republic" – and although he is personally against the veil – he thinks it "a mistake to impose the idea [of secularism] by force, even if it is basically correct."

The resurgence of this debate, two centuries after France declared itself a secular state, signifies the crisis into which globalization has catapulted Western society. The friction between the rich global North and the poor global South puts values to the test that formerly seemed unshakeable. The debate about the veil conceals a great deal more than what appears on the surface, enabling us to assess the political currents in French and global society.

The veil as a response to the radical right

The immediate spur to the problem in France came when a state school, the Henri Wallon Lycée, expelled two sisters, Alma and Lila Levy, because they insisted on wearing Muslim headscarves. The decision was based on a French law of 1905, which separated church and state. This law had replaced the century-old Napoleonic Concordat, which had subjected religious institutions to state tutelage, confining them to spiritual matters.

In recent years, however, there has been a sharp rise in the number of women wearing the Muslim headscarf. This fact prompted French Premier Jean Pierre Raffarin to support the initiative for the new law. "Secularism is not negotiable," proclaimed President Jacques Chirac in backing the move.

What is the fuel of this debate? Why does it break out precisely now – and in Europe?

French Arabs have been thronging to the Islamic movements in reaction against xenophobia and discrimination, which are on the rise. The racist right wing is using the Muslims as a scapegoat – especially Muslim immigrants.

Jocelyn Cesari, an Algerian scholar from Columbia University, brings out another dimension, linking the Muslim migration to Europe with the processes of impoverishment spurred by globalization. In a paper entitled, "The Muslims in Europe and America," which was published in Le Monde Diplomatique, she writes: "The candidates for migration to Europe are usually those elements that suffer most from economic hardship and have the least education in their original society." The migration to Europe, Cesari continues, is connected to "the poverty that afflicts the societies in North Africa, India and Pakistan." As a result there are "huge social gaps which will have to be closed within European society."

The gaps are not being closed. Many Europeans, on the contrary, are turning their backs and closing into themselves, forming a separate economic and social unit. This has caused broad sections of the Arab community to do likewise, closing into themselves, though in a different way: the withdrawal is to the mosques.

The events of 9-11 provided fuel for racist movements like that of Jean-Marie Le Pen (who took second place in the first round of the presidential elections in 2002). Those events gave a dangerous boost to the notion that Islam = terror = everything that threatens Europe and the West. There was a growth of incitement against foreigners, who "grab" French jobs.

The destitute conditions of many Muslims in Europe, as well as the right-wing extremism, are pushing some of them to take "defensive" measures, as though to tell the Europeans: "We're not going to let you reject us. Instead, we're pulling away from you ourselves, in our own way." The turn to Islam is thus a reaction against rejection by Europe. The Islamist political movements exploit the process to increase their power, which has suffered erosion because of the measures taken against them since 9-11.

Others too have stirred the brew of the veil debate. Some see Chirac's support for the law as an attempt to outflank Le Pen with a step that will win popularity – not necessarily for worthy reasons. The president's pose would be more convincing if we saw him jousting for social equality and against discrimination.

Such are the causes behind the renaissance of the veil. But what about the effects? This renaissance, we shall hold, is a false response to a true problem, and as such it breeds harm. Zionism too was a false response to the true problem of anti-Semitism. Unlike Zionism, however, the veil harms the very group that has adopted it. Both phenomena occur as a reaction against the right wing by closing off, rather than confronting it.

A radical feminist response

Dr. Nawal El-Sa'adawi, feminist and intellectual, is among the most penetrating opponents of the veil. Sa'adawi used the "World Social Forum" in Mumbai (January 2004) to condemn those Arab dictators who cooperate with Islamic fundamentalists in order to win popular support. She did not spare globalization either. She views the veil as a means by which the male-dominated regime preserves its privileges.

"In this war women are besieged by a double pincer assault - that of corporate consumerism and the free market on the one hand, and religious political fundamentalism on the other: ostensibly at odds they actually combine to maintain the subjugation of women, to control their minds and their bodies by patriarchal imprisonment, veiling and domestication." (From "An Unholy Alliance"

Sa'adawi vehemently opposes the Islamist movements that use the debate to shore up their power at the expense of women.

"This is no more than the age-old patriarchal struggle over women's heads, the fear that they might begin to think and throw off the bonds of slavery, of an inferiority enforced on them in all religions and in all societies. For the Muslim men who raised their voice in protest this was an integral part of their struggle to maintain men's control over women, men's control over their minds. This was above all the desire of Islamic fundamentalists to preserve the political power they exercise in society, a cornerstone of which has always been power over women." (Ibid.)

The women who march for the veil, Sa'adawi holds, have fallen into the trap of false consciousness:

"Strangest of all however was the spectacle of young women in the streets of Paris and Cairo and other cities demonstrating against the French government's announcement in defence of their right to wear the veil, and of God's divine commandments in defence of this symbol of their servitude. This is a signal example of how 'false consciousness' makes women enemies of their freedom, enemies of themselves, an example of how they are used in the political game being played by the Islamic fundamentalist movement in its bid for power." (Ibid.)

A class-conscious response

It is far from accurate to present the donning of the veil as a way of defending individual freedom. The freedom to choose depends on the alternatives placed before Arab women. The renaissance of the veil, we have pointed out, signifies the adoption of an isolationist identity in the face of the rising right wing. The veil's first victims are the women themselves. Arab and Muslim men, in contrast, need not wear anything that sets them apart from the rest of society. The women who don the veil withdraw from that society, under the pretext of protecting themselves from the "dangers" and "temptations" of the West. In this way they foreclose, as if by choice, opportunities for advancement and integration.

Nor is it just the women who are harmed. The headscarf propels the whole of Arab society into a cul-de-sac. The Islamic organizations lack real answers for fighting discrimination, unemployment and the radical right. Instead they propose that the Muslim community in Europe isolate itself. Consider your misery, they say, as a test for passage to a better lot in the world to come. Keep your eye on the pie in the sky.

THE QUESTION is one of identity. Most Muslim migrants belong to the working class. They come to secularist Europe in order to work. It will be up to them to decide who they are to be: Muslims first or workers? If they choose to be Muslims first, they are likely to find themselves blocked from their rightful place in European society, which will continue shunting them to the margins. If they choose to be workers first, they will be able to place their struggle in line with that of the working class in France, Germany and Switzerland, despite all the artful attempts by the bourgeoisie and the right wing to divide them.

In saying this, we are aware of the mistaken notion held by many European workers that the "foreigners" are their enemies. The struggle will be hard, no doubt, but it only becomes harder when Arabs wrap themselves in religious symbols, flying from the fascist right directly into the arms of the fundamentalists. The latter have no weapons by which to defeat the right. Such weapons are only to be found in the camp of a united working class.