EDITORIAL. Ash Narain Roy. X. XX. X
Culture War on
by Dr. ASH NARAIN ROY
The French Senate has passed a bill banning the veil on public streets and other places. Ironically, it affects less than 2,000 women and yet, it has been hailed as a symbolic defence of French values. Italy, Switzerland, Netherlands and Canada are also considering similar action. The lower house of parliament in Belgium has passed a bill to ban clothing that hides a person’s identity in public places. Barcelona City in Spain has announced a ban on full Islamic face-veils in some public spaces like municipal offices, public markets and libraries. Now Italy’s Northern League Party has introduced a bill in Parliament seeking ban on burqa.
Europe is clearly divided over the burqa move. Even those Muslims who believe Islam does not require a woman to hide her face say it would stigmatize the French Muslim population. France has about 5 million Muslims which is the largest in Western Europe. Raphael Liogier, French sociologist, says Muslims in France are already targeted by hate mongers. The ban will “officialise Islamophobia”. It will keep them cloistered in their homes.
The supporters of the move say the ban is meant to help Muslims integrate with the rest and not stigmatize them. It is argued that banning the veil will send an important message to women on a global scale. When women are fighting for their rights and dignity in Afghanistan, so goes the argument, how can France continue accepting the very thing they are fighting against?
Given the passion the issue has aroused across the world, the burqa has ceased to be just a garment; it has become a weapon in the war of ideology—a war in which women are the battleground and their rights and freedoms are at stake. It amounts to perpetuating the “practice of waging culture wars on the bodies of women”, says Asma Afsaruddin, Professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University. “In this case, the bodies are those of veiled Muslim women serving as ideological sites for passionate French debates about national identity and cultural authenticity”, she adds further.
For all the female emancipatory rhetoric about this legislation, the paternalism of those who are agitating for it is unmistakable. If no one has the right to force women to wear the burqa, then no one has the right to force them to desist either. Both these arguments, feminists contend, smack of paternalism and condescension. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has linked the ban with an attempt to protect “the dignity of women” and prevent their “oppression.”
The same Sarkozy recently intervened on behalf of Roman Polanski, who was wanted on charges of statutory rape of a young girl in France. The current French first lady, Carla Bruni, hardly serves as a poster girl for the dignity of women. She has posed nude for commercial purposes.
The Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi in her book Iran Awakening has said that Iranian women began to challenge misogynist rulings on the part of the Khomeini government when they started gaining better access to education - especially religious education - which provided them with valuable knowledge of their rights found within Islam. A universal ban on the burqa in France will prevent some of the veiled women from getting an education or holding jobs.
The current paranoia in French society over the burqa is primarily about race, says Joan Wallach Scott, in her book The Politics of the Veil. Anti-immigration sentiment is being fanned by right-wing groups in France, as in much of Western Europe, directed primarily against Middle Eastern and Muslim groups.
There is paranoia in Europe about ‘Muslims taking over’ the continent. The tabloids are creating a frenzy about Islam. The story may be about proposed mosques, requests for Korans in local libraries or lessons on Ramadan in schools, but the cumulative narrative never changes.
According to this narrative, Muslim immigrants, with their veils, their Sharia Law, their Mosques are engaged on a great mission to transform the country into an Islamic state, street by street, town by town. It’s of course an absurd distortion of the facts, but at a time when many Muslim groups are claiming to wage a jihad and most terror attacks in the world has a Pakistan or Afghan connection, there are many takers for such a view. Exaggerations and falsifications can be seen on both sides of the spectrum.
Unlike Britain, which emphasizes multiculturalism, France focuses on assimilation and wants the new immigrants to discard their old countries and cultures and to integrate into the mainstream. The integration debate is poorly veiled racism. The new immigrants consider it neo-colonial arrogance. Islamophobia and racism are a dangerous cocktail that will have far-reaching consequences.