Context and solidarity

July 23, 2009 at 3:22 pm (Feminism, immigration, islamism, Max Dunbar, religion)

One more thing about the burqa and then I’ll let this go.

Ophelia has been chatting with George Eaton of the New Statesman:


What was your reaction to President Sarkozy’s support for legislation banning the burka? And how do you respond to Muslim women who argue they have reappropriated the garment as a feminist symbol?


Very, very ambivalent. All over the place. I hate the idea of making special new laws on dress, and all the more so when the laws can’t help targeting immigrants or any other vulnerable minority. I also realise that Sarkozy’s motives may be very suspect, or at least a mixture of suspect and defensible. And yet, I could not help (and that’s what it was like, I had a lot of inner resistance) being pleased that he said ‘The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.’ I would much rather hear it from someone else, but I certainly do want to hear it, because it’s true. That doesn’t mean I flat-out approve of the idea of a ban – but I don’t flat-out oppose it either. I’m torn. I’m glad it’s not up to me to decide.

One reason I don’t flat-out oppose it is because community pressure can force other women and girls to wear the hijab or the burqa, and from that point of view a ban is like any other law that creates a level playing field. If no one can wear the burqa on the street, then no one will be forced to wear it on the street. This is hard on women and girls who want to wear it but good for women and girls who don’t want to. If I have to choose which should be helped, I choose the latter.

I respond with great weariness to Muslim women who claim they have reappropriated the garment. Given the reality of what happens to women who try not to wear it in Afghanistan, I think it’s simply grotesque to think it can be any kind of feminist symbol. I get the point about freedom from the male gaze, and believe me, I wish women around here would stop reappropriating stiletto heels and plunging necklines as ‘feminist symbols,’ but a stifling face-covering tent is not a feminist symbol.

I think this is a healthy reaction. There is a tendency to downplay, or deny completely, the issue of coercion in religious dress. Given the context of such coercion, arguing for the burqa as expression of sartorial liberty is, well, kind of tasteless, and only tells half the story.

David T quotes a recent judgment from the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal on the case of a Palestinian refugee:

She was writing about women’s issues and social topics before she left. A woman with her views would be seen as strongly anti-Hamas. She has studied for a long time in the West and has appreciated life there, especially as far as equality between men and women are concerned. Gazan women are told that they are to be killed if they refuse to follow the Islamic expectation that women cover up. Foreign journalists bow to this expectation for the limited period they are there. However, the Appellant would be there permanently and would not have a choice. Originally she intended to return to Gaza at the end of her studies and also intended not to wear a hijab. However, given the resurgence of Hamas in the region which take a hard and uncompromising line, she would be required to wear a hijab or face severe punishment resulting in serious harm to her.

Presently, she does not believe there will be peace while Hamas are in power. She cannot return and live a safe life. Whilst living there, her father was still alive and supported her. Such support is no longer available. Her refusal to requests to wear the hijab would ultimately result in punishment which would be wholly disproportionate to the ‘crime’ committed.

With regard to the recent conflict, she asserts that Hamas has managed to strengthen its grasp over Gaza. She recalled the early years of the establishment of Hamas and how acid was used to terrorise women and force them to wear the hijab. Many were beaten and abused because they refused to conform. She believes that the war could have been avoided had Hamas considered the lethal impact of conflict with Israel. However, Hamas was determined to defend its control, regardless of the price. Hamas is now viewed as a strong force against Israel. It is now characterised on a par with Hezbollah and Iran. She is not only against the political nature of Hamas but also the patriarchal component of its ideology. Even before it took power, Hamas used its presence in mosques to provoke people against changes in the criminal law in 2003. At that time, the Appellant wrote about this topic and sought to explain the moderate effect of the bill.

She stated in evidence that it was one thing to oppose their stance when they were in opposition. However, it would not be possible for her to express her views in such a manner today without drawing attention and a risk of serious harm to herself. She believes that Islam can be understood and interpreted in different ways. Muslim women have usually been the victims of patriarchal understanding and interpretation of Islam. To promote women’s rights against this understanding is dangerous.

She previously wrote about wearing the veil. This occurred when female supporters of Hamas and their members’ wives and relatives contributed to the phenomenon of wearing the veil. She criticised this phenomenon. She was even then blamed and taunted for doing so. She campaigned and wrote about a fairer, modern family law in Gaza. She took her campaign a step further in a case involving a woman demanding the right to divorce her husband. The conventional understanding in Islam was that divorce is the absolute right for men. Hamas still adopts the traditional interpretation of Islam.

The Appellant asserts that during the last few years, Hamas has been more rigid and fundamentalist than ever. Wearing the hijab is universally implemented in secondary schools. It is even widely spread in elementary schools. Girls as young as seven wear it. She believes that imposing a law compelling the wearing of a hijab degrades those women who do not want to conform to the code. She asserts that she stands for what she believes in and does not want to have to compromise her views. Her refusal to wear a hijab is a further ‘core issue’ on her return as she would be spotted as a non-conformist Palestinian woman. She will be confronted by men and asked to cover up. She will be bound to be questioned about her family. Her family would be disgraced and would face pressure. She faces the intolerable choice therefore of conforming, which is unacceptable to her, or an endless cycle of violence which has no limit or end.

I’m happy to add that this woman won her case and can stay.

(Also, see Rahila Gupta)

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