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Judith Butler’s Veil

Campus Week: How a toxic postcolonial, postmodern discourse essentializes Muslim women into only their covering

Elham Manea
October 17, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

First Image: A woman in burqa, a convert to Islam, the Women’s Representative of Islamic Central Council, stands in a podium discussion on a Swiss political talk show, Arena, and argues that her burqa is an expression of “free choice.” She says that unlike the face of a man, the face of a woman is a source of temptation, and that she has chosen to follow the will of God. “This is my religion and I am exercising my right to the freedom of religion”—this is the core of her argument.

Second Image: A poster of a woman in burqa, only her eyes are visible. She is positioned among seven minarets, and underneath is the Swiss flag! At the lower end of the poster looms a short sentence: “Yes to minaret prohibition.”

Third Image: A picture of a savage beating of a female protester by Egyptian military forces. She too is wearing a black abaya but ironically is only known as the “woman of the blue bra.” The clip of the “blue bra incident” of Dec. 17, 2011, showed a limp woman being dragged by her arms along the street, with her abaya ripped open, exposing her naked torso and blue bra. Security forces surround her, many wielding batons; guards hit her and one stomps on her.

The woman on Arena is propagating the argument of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam—Salafism—portraying the face of a woman as a source of temptation, something that should be covered to protect men and society. The poster, propagated by xenophobic Swiss political forces, uses the burqa as a visual symbol for a threat endangering Switzerland. She stands to represent everything that contradicts Swiss values. The “blue bra” clip bizarrely brings in the agency of a woman, who took to the streets, while covered, to protest the actions of the army, and hence became the subject of the brutal force of a police state.

Between these images stands the body of the Muslim woman—covered or stripped—a field for religious, political and ideological battles. Islamists treat her body and its mandatory coverage as a symbol for a strict Islamist social order imposed on all living under their control. European xenophobic forces see in her a “source of an Islamization threat” that should be stopped. And the authoritarian Arab state is using the exposure of her body as a tool of intimidation, one that is meant to stop her from asserting her political rights.

Yet remarkably, when some social scientists engage in their intellectual discourses on the Muslim woman, on her body (covered or not), and on the veil (head scarf or burqa), they neutralize the context as if it is of no consequence, homogenizing her identity, seeing only her religious identity as the most valid, authentic, and relevant. The ideology of political Islam and the fundamentalist interpretation that insists on controlling women’s bodies and sexuality seem to be of no consequence. They seem to see only her veil, not the person wearing it. In fact, I argue that they too have constructed an image of a Muslim Identity, one that encapsulates the Muslim woman, hiding her humanity, personality, and diversity. They treat the Muslim woman as an oppressed member of a minority, which needs their protection in order to preserve her identity.

One established way of approaching this subject is what P. Fournier has called “left legalism,” defined by Janet Halley and Wendy Brown as “endeavors in which the left [seeks] to mobilize the implicit promise of the liberal state that it will attempt to make justice happen by means of law.” Accordingly, building on Fournier’s classification, this intellectual engagement with legalism is a project that often aspires to:

A) Give voice and agency to Muslim women through freedom of religion and defending freely chosen beliefs. Within this category, Natasha Bakht says:

Many Muslim women “wear” their religious convictions, literally, for all to see. “These veiled respondents find comfort in the cultural and ethnic distinctiveness that the veil affords them … [linking] them to the broader community (ummah) of Islamic believers and Muslim women” (Read and Bartkowski, 2000:404). The headscarf can … reaffirm a commitment to Islamic morality and identity within a modern social context, rather than manifesting a passive submission to the Islamic community (Wiles, 2007: 720). … The veil can be seen as both a display of faith and modesty or it can be more akin to a political statement related to emancipation from the West.

B) Combine forms of political multiculturalism that justify robust conceptions of religious accommodations. Bruce Ryder contends:

The rights to positive accommodation of religious practices (in Canada) which sound so fine in the law books are, of course, not always easily achieved on the ground. … This struggle is particularly challenging for religious minorities whose traditions and practices are often poorly understood. Discourses of the alien, dangerous “other” can quickly fill the gaps left by incomprehension or ignorance.

C) Portray the veil as synonymous to identity, the denial of which is considered a form of oppression. Natan Sharansky’s book Defending Identity falls within this subcategory. Sharansky argues that:

Expressions of religious identity have very different meanings in different contexts. To some women, the veil is not only a religious obligation but a manifestation of their own culture and an expression of who they are. To deny them the right to wear it becomes a form of repression.

Hence, according to Sharansky, a law banning the veil (headscarf in this case) has meant that Muslims are “coerced to act one way while thinking and feeling another.”

Others consider the whole debate on the veil (headscarf) to be a constructed discourse used as a pretext to impose a hegemonic secular or imperial Western agenda. In her article “Sexual politics, torture, and secular time,” Judith Butler argues:

The debate on whether girls should be prohibited from wearing the veil in public schools seemed to bring this paradox into relief. The ideas of the secular were invoked to consolidate ignorant and hateful views of Islamic religious practice (i.e., the veil is nothing other than the communication of the idea that women are inferior to men, or the veil communicates an alliance with “fundamentalism”), at which point laïcité becomes a way not of negotiating or permitting cultural difference, but a way of consolidating a set of cultural presumptions that effect the exclusion and abjection of cultural difference.

This type of intellectual discourse on the veil of the Muslim woman, in my opinion, is symptomatic of a paradigm of thinking that has dominated postcolonial, postmodern discourse for far too long. In my 2016 book Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK, I call it the “essentialist paradigm”—a paradigm that reduces people of different nationalities to their religious identity, treating them as one homogeneous group, in the process essentializing their cultures and religion, underestimating the human rights consequences of their academic discourse, and discarding the voices of people from these very cultures as “not authentic enough.”

If that sounds abstract, here is a clarifying example. An essentialist will not see me as a woman of dual citizenship, an academic, or a human rights advocate. To the essentialist, I am a Muslim woman; my religion is what marks me. I may not be religious at all—in fact, I may be an atheist—but that does not seem to occur to him/her. If your religion is Islam, then you are a Muslim, and Muslims are religious: They all want halal food, they do not drink alcohol, they do not engage in sexual activity before marriage, they all want to wear a headscarf, they all want to pray in their schools, and they all want to apply Sharia law in their lives.

This racist way of seeing a person is very similar to the racist attitude of their far-right counterparts, albeit stemming from a different motivation. What motivates them is not hate or the desire to harm; it is the urge to protect.

Four features characterize the essentialist paradigm:

One feature of this paradigm is the way it looks at multiculturalism and substitutes for it a de facto monoculturalism. It cannot understand multiculturalism as an approach that treats people equally regardless of their origin, color, race, religion, or gender, or that understands they are equal in rights and responsibilities. Instead, it is based on a politics of difference: dividing people along cultural, religious, and ethnic lines, and designing polices that enshrine these differences, setting the people apart, and placing them in parallel enclaves.

Another feature is connected with the first: Because of its focus on what sets people apart, it does not treat members of society as individuals with equal rights. Instead, rights are attached to groups, and become group’s rights. The group has the rights, not the individuals within it, and this view insists that each group has a collective identity and culture, an essential identity and culture, that does not change and should not be changed, and that that identity should be protected and perpetuated even if doing so violates the rights of individuals within the group.

This leads to violations of human rights, especially for women, children, and persons of different ideological and sexual orientations, which are swiftly and often catastrophically downplayed.

This brings us to cultural relativism, the third feature that shapes the essentialist worldview. It argues that human rights are culturally determined. Hence, the essentialists would insist that we only think that people are suffering when we see their rights being violated, but that in fact they are not, because they understand rights and justice differently from us.

So a child being forced into marriage at age 10 is not really suffering? When her husband insists on having sex with her it is not the rape of a child? A girl undergoing the mutilation of her sexual organ is not feeling pain? And the health consequences of that mutilation are not real?

This whole picture is very much haunted by the fourth feature: the white man’s/woman’s burden, which is formed from a strong sense of shame and guilt over the Western colonial and imperial past and a paternalistic desire to protect minorities or people from former colonies. It is a mindset that perceives the other, whether a member of a minority group or a citizen of an entire Third World country, as the oppressed, and human rights as the tools imposed by the Western oppressor.

Most troubling, it sees those who are fighting for universal human rights in their own societies as not being authentic representatives of their own countries, and in the process it ignores or justifies dire violations of human rights committed in the name of group’s rights or cultural and religious rights.

Indeed, the white man’s burden and the obsession with imperialism and Western hegemonic power are often used to silence any voices that point out Islamist violence against women, minorities, LGBT persons, and people with different political or ideological orientations.

By the same token, when it concerns the veil, the essentialist paradigm seems to ignore the very context with all its accompanying power and patriarchal structures, political and social factors, and the roles played by both the state and fundamentalist Islam in constructing a homogeneous Muslim identity and with it the so-called Muslim woman and her dress code.

The diversity of reasons why women wear the veil does not negate nor eliminate the essential role played by Islamism and fundamentalist Islam in mainstreaming the idea that the veil is part of Islamic religious identity and constructing the Muslim woman and that it is her obligation and/or right to wear the veil—something that we only started to hear in the late 1970s.

In countries where Islamists have power, the veil is imposed by force regardless of whether the woman wants to wear it or not. This is the case in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and in the areas controlled by Islamists in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria; the list goes on. Those who defy Islamists’ dress code are subject to punishment. They will be flogged, imprisoned, or fined.

But in countries where Islamists are not in power—in Islamic countries or Western societies with a Muslim minority—the veil is portrayed as both a religious obligation and part of freedom of choice.

This strategy is well suited to the Islamist fundamentalist worldview, which was best described by Karima Bennoune. She demonstrated that this worldview believes first of all in the imposition of “God’s Law,” that is, their interpretation of Sharia law, on Muslims everywhere. Second, it wants to create what Islamic fundamentalists deem to be Islamic states or disciplines diaspora communities ruled by these laws. Third, Islamic fundamentalism wants to police, judge, and change the behavior, appearance, and conduct of other people of Muslim heritage. Fourth, it tends to sharply limit women’s rights couched in the soothing language of protection, respect, and difference.

Oddly, it is precisely the very context that is often ignored by essentialists who instead choose to focus on an intellectual debate separate from reality. I find it interesting that in their writings on the Muslim woman and her right to veil, the role played by fundamentalist Islam, whether in a position of political power or outside of it, seems to be of no consequence. Judith Butler went so far as to say that this connection is nothing but a joke. In a 2006 interview she said:

I have heard debates in France, for instance, in which public intellectuals who support the ban on the veil (le foulard) argue that the veil has only one meaning. Then they … proceed to argue that it is (a) an assertion of female subordination within Islam … (b) an affiliation with Islamic fundamentalism (which is a joke, considering, for instance, the fashion in scarves that prevails in cosmopolitan areas such as Cairo).

I certainly can follow the argument that the veil has different meanings and so are the reasons why women are wearing it. But to state that the argument of its affiliation with Islamic fundamentalism is a joke is not only an understatement. It makes a joke of all the sacrifices of women and men fighting Islamic fundamentalism in Islamic and western societies. Think of the Iranian women who are being beaten in the streets and sent to jail for challenging the mullahs’ mandatory dress code.

In my opinion, these new left-wing essentialists are the modern embodiment of a strand of 19th-century Western Orientalists who thought they had a civilizational mission to emancipate the Muslim woman. Both groups see in this woman her religious identity only. Both consider her a religious entity that is part of a religious whole. Both consider her oppressed by xenophobic society/the imperial West or by male Muslims, respectively. Both think she needs protection and must be freed—the essentialists insist on her wearing a veil and the Orientalists want to take off her veil. Finally, both assume that they know best what this woman needs, and on top of it, who should speak on her behalf—namely, themselves.

Elham Manea, a political scientist, writer, and human rights advocate, works at the Institute for Political Science, Zurich University. Her latest book published in English isWomen and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK.