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Mona Eltahawy on the burqaJuly 10, 2009


July 10, 2009


It seems that Mona Eltahawy has joined the vocal liberal camp in Europe (particular France) that wishes to either discourage or entirely ban the burqa. The New York Times published her response to the burqa debate raging in France. Eltahawy begins her article stating her ideological position as a Muslim feminist and asserts, “I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa. It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it”.

I also disagree with the burqa and don’t see any explicit justification for it in Islam apart from a matter of interpreting what is modest dress.  But Eltahawy goes to as far to reduce the burqa to a symbol of misogyny– which sounds quite familiar. During the 2004 banning of the headscarf in state schools and government institutions, many French feminists actually used the same explanation to describe the headscarf along similar lines. The headscarf was described as oppressive and a symbol of Islam’s hatred for women. But I’m sure Eltahawy would find this conflation problematic yet difficult in distinguishing when she admits she concurs with Sarkozy when he stated that the burqa is a sign of submission of women and subjugation. Instead, Eltahawy believes that the best way to support Muslim women is to “say we oppose both racist Islamophobes and the burqa”, and claims, “We’ve been silent on too many things out of fear we’ll arm the right wing”.

However, the best way to support Muslim women is to respect their choice in how they express their religion and culture. It is not to impose what we think is good for them.  I find it ironic that Eltahawy who claims to be a feminist is ignoring the importance of choice, agency and the lived experiences of these women— which are essential factors in understanding women in feminist analysis.

Nor do we all agree with Eltahawy who, perhaps due to her socially privileged position is detached from the social, political and religious motivations for wearing burqa, and can’t comprehend how it can be a vehicle of success for some or a proud reinforcement of Muslim identity for others. The burqa can be understood as a symbol of the outrage Muslims are feeling as they are exposed to an increasingly xenophobic Europe.  It’s symbolic of an attempt to cling on to an identity that is being eroded in a hostile environment. I write this piece now after just reading about an Egyptian woman who was stabbed in a German court 18 times by the man she was suing for harassing her for wearing a headscarf.  It is not the burqa alone that is being undermined and discredited but Islamic dress entirely. Therefore, the call to remove the burqa cannot be devoid of such a context and for Eltahawy to think that divorcing her criticism from such a context is viable is politically naïve.

As I noted in my previous piece on the burqa in France, many of the women who wear it are converts to Islam and willingly wear it as a proud show of their Muslim identity. At university, I witnessed women who wore burqa for two fundamental reasons: they felt it was their best way of expressing their modesty and/or wished to express their Muslim identity as they saw fit. These women were very intelligent, pursuing impressive degrees, and did not all come from conservative families. Eltahawy seems to reinforce the Western assumption that it is Islamic fundamentalism that is motivating these women to wear it. There is no room to factor in the preservation of a particular identity or expression of faith.

Though Eltahawy does make a brief reference to the influence of identity politics, she discounts it with her passionate claim that the burqa is undermining women’s freedom. Whilst making this claim, she assumes a Saidian permission to narrate– in which these women are constructed as having no agency of their own, needing ‘protection’ and so must be spoken for.  However, her narration inaptly imposes a single meaning.

She then writes, “It’s one thing to argue about the burqa in a country like Saudi Arabia — where I lived for six years and where women are treated like children — but it is utterly dispiriting to have those same arguments in a country where women’s rights have long been enshrined. When I first saw a woman in a burqa in Copenhagen I was horrified”.

Eltahawy here reinforces the dichotomy of women oppressed in Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia) and the liberated woman of the West (Copenhagen and France). It’s shocking for her to have witnessed the barbarity and oppression of the Muslim world (veileing) present in the land of freedom (unveiling). She should know that such hermetic and simplistic divisions rely on historical stereotypes tied closely with power but are remote in explaining the social and political realities.  I’m sure there would be many Saudi women who would not appreciate having their existence reduced to something so demeaning—though I do not deny the suffering of those in Saudi Arabia, but my point is women’s oppression should not be a problem restricted to Saudi Arabia. Nor should it be associated with the burqa alone, rather recognise the dangers in such totalising discourses which demote experience. 

Eltahawy further points out how the burqa deprives women of identity and is symbolic of the “erasure of women”.  So a woman’s identity is solely based on physical appearance now? She is a non-person, unintelligible, unless she exposes herself. Must a woman define herself based on how much people see of her? Many women who wear headscarf and burqa argue that the lack of emphasis they have to put on their appearance makes them more aware of improving their minds rather than looking at fashion attire or physical beauty to understand themselves.

Moreover, the call to remove the burqa (and other Islamic dress) is part of an insatiable desire of the Western gaze to penetrate what is hidden and appropriate it for its own. This is done so in the guise of emancipation but also in the attempt to assimilate Muslim women into a type of ‘woman’. We’re told that the burqa dehumanizes women, so it must be removed in order to put a human face to these women. In actuality, unveiling occurs so they become comprehensible to the Western eye. According to Mina Moallem, they must signify what she calls ‘white femininity’ which, ironically in this context, entails exposing the female body to objectification. In other words, removing the burqa is part of a mimetic process.  Thus, Eltahawy’s dichotomy of the liberating West and the oppressive Muslim world is problematised further in how she ignores the objectification in which woman’s identity, role and importance is contingent upon her market value. Is not a woman erased when she wears a bikini or wears the latest fashion attire, hair done, her face painted like a doll? She becomes meaningless and one can argue, erased.

Eltahawy and Sarkozy’s call to remove the burqa may have different motivations but the implications are similar: undermining women’s choice, violating cultural and religious freedom ( in doing so exposing the contradictions in Western liberalism and its notion of freedom). Moreover, both are operating within a homogenizing framework that is ethnocentrically bias, and contributing to an insidious campaign to undermine and eradicate any manifestation of Islam.



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