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What-not-to-wear imperialism

By Alice Aslan - posted Monday, 20 July 2009


In his opinion piece titled “Sarkozy and the burqa”, published recently in On Line Opinion and written in support of French President Sarkozy’s latest proposal to ban the burqa from public places in France, Kees Bakhuyzen makes an absurd connection between outlawing this piece of cloth - which only a tiny number of Muslim women wear in Europe - and the equality between men and women.

Rather than questioning the real political motives behind Sarkozy’s manipulative symbolic gesture, Bakhuyzen views this proposal as a progressive step to fight against the rise of Islamism in Europe and the western world.

The issues regarding the veil and burqa, the Islamic clothes claimed to be the sign of female oppression, often occupy public debates in France. Although some French politicians and public commentators purport to defend Muslim women’s rights with such polemics, this selective and symbolic preoccupation with these issues is in fact embedded in French history, colonialism, racism and French-style paranoid secularism. In her book The Politics of The Veil (Princeton University Press, 2007), American historian Joan Wallach Scott provides a critical and in-depth analysis of the significance of the veil in such political debates in France.

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France is well-known for radical secularism called laicite which draws a very strict line between the state and religion, and which aims to protect the state and citizens against the potential harmful and oppressive affects of religion. As Joan Scott notes, based on the principle of laicite, in 2004 the French government outlawed the wearing of “conspicuous” religious signs such as “a large cross, a veil, or a skullcap” in public schools.

Turkey, a Muslim society, is another country that has adopted a French style of strict secularism since the early 20th century, and it bans the female university students from wearing the headscarf at universities.

In the French colonial history, unveiling and liberating the Algerian women, in other words what-not-to-wear colonialism, became a mission that justified the French colonial rule in Algeria in the early part of the previous century.

Moreover, controlling and ruling other people by re-creating and re-designing them and their lives in European image and vision characterised the European colonialism in general.

What-to-wear colonialism was another type of colonial approach that impacted on indigenous peoples. In the past, the European colonisers, along with the Christian missionaries, got always outraged and offended by the sight of the naked natives in exotic places in America, Africa and Australia. The colonisers banned the natives from going out naked, and compelled them to dress in European style.

What-not-to-wear-colonialism surfaced as what-not-to-wear imperialism during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In her article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? (American Anthropologist, 2002, Vol.14, No.3, September), American anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, well-known for her work on women and gender in the Middle East, points out that the overwhelming support for the invasion of Afghanistan under the pretext of saving and liberating Afghan women from the oppressive Taliban regime resonated the justification of the colonial rules in Algeria and Eygpt in the previous century with a false concern for Muslim women’s liberation.

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Abu-Lughod notes that the Western supporters of the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan was mostly obsessed with the burqa that was imposed on Afghan women by the Taliban rather than the urgent needs of these women in a war-torn country such as food, shelter, safety and security.

The proponents of the Afghan war got disappointed by the Afghan women who did not throw off their burqas even after the Taliban was defeated. As Abu-Lughod points out, this reveals the lack of understanding about the realities of the Afghan women’s lives. The burqa that symbolises “women’s modesty and respectability” and that separates public and private space was not invented by the Taliban, but “it was the local form of covering that Pashtun women in one region wore when they went out”.

Furthermore, author Liz Fekete notes that especially after 9-11 a “paternalistic feminist” discourse has arisen in Europe that describe Muslim women as the victims of Islamic patriarchy and dictate to them not to wear the veil (“Enlightened Fundamentalism? Immigration, Feminism and the Right”, Race & Class, 2006, Vol.48, Issue 1).

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Alice Aslan is a writer.

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