"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Veil–Feminist Statement Or Symbol Of Oppression?

The veil.  On the one hand it is the outward symbol of patriarchy and male oppression.  On the other hand the burqa discourages any leers, importunate glances, or untoward advances; and men must look at women as people, not sex toys.

France has outlawed the veil as an expression of laïcité – the bedrock principle underlying the concept of liberté, égalité, fraternité. We are all French first, foremost, and always, rings the anthem; and defying that secular, conformist, and egalitarian principle by wearing religious garb is an affront to la patrie.

Britain, awash with immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent and the Caribbean for decades, is used to turbans and veils; and after the riots in Brixton 30 years ago, came to grips with the volatile nature of immigration, and as a result there have been few major racial incidents since.
Between 1981 and 1986 the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone pioneered "a new strategy of making minority communities feel part of British society…”
At the heart of the GLC's anti-racist strategy was not simply the reallocation of resources but also a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not the denial of equal rights but the denial of the right to be different." Minorities should no longer be forced to adopt a British identity: they should express their own, live by their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.
Since Brixton, the minority population has increased dramatically, and in London the non-white minority population is 55 percent (2010 Census).  For the first time in history, the British white population is under 90 percent, and while ethnic groups still tend to cluster in certain cities like Bradford, Pendle, and Slough, there is considerable mixing in cities other than London.

Britain, like America is a liberal market economy.  There are no national pretensions as there are in France.  The only rule of cultural law is that of the marketplace.  Making money is good, and the arena is open to all.  The class-driven aspect of British society has long gone by the wayside as have most vestiges of colonialism and Empire; and modern Britain is one of the most dynamic socio-cultural and economic societies in the West.  This combination of an evolution to a classless society, an ethnic inclusiveness and tolerance, and a vibrant market economy have combined to reduce racial, religious, and ethnic tensions.

While it is true that Britain’s Muslims have come from the more tolerant areas of South Asia, and not from the militant areas of North Africa and the Middle East, the country’s live-and-let-live philosophy has discouraged radicalism and encouraged assimilation and nipped any subversive insurrections in the bud.

The United States is perhaps the most tolerant and inclusive country of all.  Our legacy of slavery has forced us to deal with an ‘indigenous’, large, culturally different black population; our open door policy of the late 19th century, and our porous borders of the 20th have accustomed us to ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity.  While we struggle to deal with certain aspects of race, the riots of the 60s are things of the past.  As in the case of Britain, our familiarity with immigrants, our dynamic and inclusive market economy (money is all that counts), and our transformative laws on civil rights have provided an ideal environment for tolerance.

Like Britain, we have not had to deal with waves of immigrants from North Africa or the Middle East; and the millions of foreigners in the United States are by and large Christian.  Nevertheless, our model of relative openness and tolerance has served to head off the violent clashes that France has experienced.

The riots in the northern suburbs of Paris in 2006 were the result of de facto segregation of North and black Africans, and a hypocritical attitude towards race and ethnicity.  The French talked the talk of equality and fraternity, but were as prejudiced as any against non-whites. While the riots are now past, the reasons for the violence have not gone away, resentment still simmers, and passions have come to the fore over the issue of the veil. To the old French establishment outlawing the veil is a commitment to the values of the Revolution; but to African immigrants it is a sign of continuing repression and social marginalization.  The decision to outlaw the veil cannot help but provoke continuing unrest and violence, particularly with the Middle East in religious turmoil.

Although the increase in the wearing of the veil is often reported by the press, the reasons why young women adopt the practice are not.  More and more evidence has come from surveys and interviews showing that they adopt the veil as a personal choice.  There is no harsh, unforgiving, stone-age father ready to whip them.  They do it to demonstrate identity with a larger group (Muslims); to keep hormone-fueled young men at bay; and to give them a mantle of feminine dignity. 

One such study was recently carried out by Sonia Ghumman of the University of Hawaii (2010) who investigated the reasons why American Muslim women choose to wear the veil:
"I was, however, shocked that many women wear the Hijab not just for religious reasons, but for personal reasons. Although many Westerners view the Hijab as a symbol of subjugation of Muslim women, several Hijabis in our study reported that the hijab is a means to reject societal expectations of how women should dress and behave, and that to me is female empowerment. Additionally, many women actually started to wear the hijab or continued to wear the hijab after 9/11 despite all the negative implication to dispel myths which people might have about Hijabis."
When asked what the hijab meant to them as a Muslim and as an American, most responses reflected that as a Muslim, the hijab was an act of following God’s will, showing commitment to one's religion, and to show modesty and piousness. As an American, hijab was used to represent one’s identity as a Muslim woman, show individuality, serve as a form of freedom (reported in Digital Journal)
Unfortunately in France, the veil has become politicized, and is now the flag of Islamic militancy, a potent symbol of solidarity and resistance to the Christian oppressors. By prohibiting the veil, France has been seen as taking up arms against Islam. It is too late for British- or American-style tolerance.  The resentments and hatreds on both sides in France and other European countries have become too strong and deeply-rooted.

However, it is only a matter of time for women’s universal desire to look great will prevail; and once the French see the potential for a fashionable hijab, they will likely soften their resistance:

FASHION -coat of mail                         

Banning the veil is myopic, naïve, dangerous, and wrong.  It can only inflame already burning religious and ethnic tensions.  It denies freedom of religious expression as much as banning the yarmulke would.  It rejects freedom of choice, and demeans women by assuming they cannot make up their own minds.  And, as the pictures above attest, the veil can look great.

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