The veil vs citizenship

IssueNovember 2006
Comment by Marieme Helie Lucas

In the controversy over the veil sparked by Jack Straw, there is one thing that is ignored both by his supporters and his detractors: “The veil” (singular) is not a dress code rooted in culture or religion. The form of veiling that we now see spreading all over European and North American countries comes from nowhere: it is a recent syncretic outfit, picking up from various traditions, that has been invented by fundamentalists as their political uniform, as their very visible flag.

Neither the mothers, nor the grandmothers, nor the great-grandmothers of the young women wearing it now in the streets of London or New York, wore this outfit in their countries of origin - nor is it worn today in these countries. These young women are not following the cultural tradition of their ancestors. Well-meaning Europeans, who imagine that they are paying respect to “Muslims” by adapting to such a uniform, simply bow to modern far right forces working under the cover of religion and that manipulate Islam to their political benefit.

Progressive forces?

Fundamentalist forces make just the same efforts to eradicate traditional costumes in Muslim countries and communities, and to impose their political uniform. We had, and thankfully still have, thousands of traditional costumes and many forms of veiling - that is, in the places where Muslim women did veil. However, this is far from being the norm among Muslims, as veiling was ignored in many parts of the Muslim world and definitely in most rural areas where women go out to plough the land and tend the animals. Women do recall the vast traditional diversity of dresses and they do resist the introduction of the Islamic veil (singular) in our countries.

For example, women in Algeria were slaughtered in the thousands by fundamentalist armed forces throughout the nineties, because they refused to be forcibly covered. They were killed while totally abandoned by progressive forces in Europe, the very forces that now defend in the UK “the right to veil” in the name of religious rights. Sadly, this is reminiscent of “the right to female genital mutilation” they defended in the seventies in the name of cultural rights.

The “coward Left”

I have a few questions for the “coward Left”: how come only those championing the most regressive traditional or religious practices are seen as the true and only legitimate representatives of “Muslims”? How come the voices of those who reject these practices in the name of human rights are seen as inauthentic? Where are the progressive newspapers that will widely open their columns to the progressive voices of citizens of migrant descent - whether they challenge fundamentalists' diktats from a religious point of view, or whether they respond as free thinkers?

The debate in the UK seems very old fashioned compared with the debate in Muslim countries themselves. The Left would not have to “invent” a counter fundamentalist force: it is there, in all our countries, and it is also there, among citizens of migrant descent, in the countries of immigration. But our progressive forces are ignored by those who should be our natural allies.

When thousands of women of migrant descent went public in the streets and in the media, for months, in a sustained effort in all the major cities of France, to defend French secularism, it was exclusively the only two small Paris-based demos of veiled women flanked by bearded men that caught the attention of the media. And that is the distorted image the world received...

Different thus unequal

Labour MP Jack Straw is very right to fear “separateness”, and the “adverse development” of “parallel communities”. This is the aim of far-right political forces all over the planet, from apartheid to pro-slavery states in the US: “different” thus unequal. It is definitely the aim of Muslim fundamentalists who use the supposed “difference” of their “community” to climb the political ladder.

A “community” supposes a homogeneity that does not exist in reality. It erases difference within the so-called community: class difference, gender difference, cultural difference, religious difference, racial difference, etc... Citizens do not want fundamentalists to represent them, nor do they need a mediated access to rights. The French model of secularism, which promotes citizens, rather than communities, should be an inspiration to all - before it is too late.