Take off your veil, reclaim your dignity

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“Take off your veil, reclaim your dignity.” Thus ran the slogan for the announced million-person protest against the head-veil, called for by Sharif al-Shobashi; the slogan itself was taken from a Facebook-based campaign of the same name launched by Ismail Husni on the 107th anniversary of Qasim Amin’s death. The project as a whole is problematic on a number of levels: first and foremost, we can’t ignore the fact that we’re dealing here with men demanding that women fight for their freedom, even going so far as to dictate to them how exactly they should go about achieving this noble goal. But is the essential problem that this campaign has been conceived by men? Is the feminist cause different from that of other oppressed groups in that supporters of the cause hailing from privileged social backgrounds are not permitted to join in or stand in solidarity with the struggle? I don’t believe so; supporters can and indeed should stand in solidarity with the feminist struggle. Yet the topic at hand is less a case of solidarity than of orders from above—and if the absurdity of the situation isn’t quite clear enough, just imagine if a white American man had asked—nay, ordered—black people to rebel against slavery and take back their dignity. Such demands are insulting to the oppressed group, suggesting that the persecution they are subjected to is a result of their own reluctance to rebel against it.

Here, then, we have men who enjoy all the privileges which their gender and socioeconomic class have to offer them, ordering women, who are oppressed by dint of their gender (and in many cases their socioeconomic class too), to defy the world and to pay the price of that defiance—a price which the bright sparks who came up with this idea will never have to pay, and the existence of which has in fact never even occurred to them. For have those men ever considered what might happen to a woman or girl forced by her family, husband, or social pressure to wear the veil, if she then decided to remove it? Have they contemplated the possibility that this woman might be exposed to physical violence, mutilation or even murder? Do they think that the only thing preventing women from taking this step up until this moment has been their failure to recognise that the veil which is forced upon them is a limitation upon their freedom? Do they imagine that women have been waiting for this very intervention to become aware of that fact? Have they ever noticed that in reality, for many women the veil is a means of negotiating social conventions and circumventing the constraints placed upon women, without which they would have great difficulty going out, studying, working, and socialising? For a woman to rebel against the situation she is forced into might be a wonderful thing, but it carries consequences which that woman will bear alone, and therefore only she has the right to decide when and indeed if she is ready to pay that price. But for her to be urged to take that step by someone who has never and will never be exposed to the same dangers is patronising in the extreme.

Beyond this, what about those women who wear the veil by choice, and not because they are obliged to do so? Al-Shobashi has opined that “not every veiled woman is virtuous, and 99% of whores are veiled.” While this statement isn’t necessarily inaccurate, the veil has become tantamount to a uniform for Egyptian women, whether for the reasons mentioned in the foregoing paragraph or because the conviction that veiling is a religious duty, and so the veil isn’t particularly associated with virtue anyway; on the other hand, the women he calls “whores” are also Egyptian women, at the end of the day, and are hence subject to the same circumstances that lead Egyptian women to wear the veil. (And that’s leaving to one side my intense discomfort with his use of the ambiguous term “āhira”, also meaning adulteress or prostitute—which might be meant to refer to women who provide sexual services in exchange for money, in which case the term ‘sex workers’ is the one most commonly used in progressive societies which believe in a woman’s rights to her own body, including her right to use it as a source of income; it might instead be meant as a moralistic slur against women who practise their right to sexual freedom. Either way, it contradicts his claim to being a defender of the freedom of women). By the same logic, not every unveiled woman is liberated, nor is she necessarily untouched by oppression or in proud control of her dignity. The slogan “Take off your veil, reclaim your dignity,” then, is not only insulting to every woman who wears the veil by choice, by implying that she has idiotically thrown away her own dignity, but also presumes that such women are so oblivious that they don’t even realise in the first place that the veil might constitute a negation of their dignity, and therefore need men like al-Shobashi and Ismail Husni to guide them to truths which their little minds are too weak to grasp.

Their posture isn’t just an exercise in patriarchal power, it’s also a case of white power, for this discourse is exactly that of white feminism, which turns an arrogant orientalising gaze on Arab women and considers every veiled woman to be, by definition, a victim in need of saving—even from herself, if needs be. Take Femen as an example (leaving aside my views on their use of nudity and the objectified body): their approach to the issues facing Arab women, stemming from their identity as white European women (sure, even if they have attempted to inoculate themselves from this criticism by recruiting a couple of Arabs!), is to assume, uninvited, the burden of ‘saving’ Arab and Muslim women, when these women do not necessarily need saving or may not share the definition of oppression that Femen so blindly insist on liberating them from.

On another note, while al-Shobashi’s campaign (and that of Ismail Husni before him) might appear on the surface to be an appeal for women’s liberation and the ‘reclamation’ of their ‘dignity,’ a closer reading of al-Shobashi’s call for women to renounce the veil reveals that he wishes them to do so in order to express “their rejection of political Islam” (which these days is a synonym for terrorism). Here we encounter yet another set of problems, for what the matter boils down to, yet again, is the appropriation of feminist causes for political gain. When I say this I don’t mean to imply that feminism is separable from politics; rather I refer to the long history of exploitation by political parties, movements, and personalities, from far left to extreme right, of issues affecting women in order to achieve their own goals. Essentially, no-one is interested in women’s rights unless they stand to win immediate political capital, and perhaps the most obvious example of this is the enormous enthusiasm of political parties for the enfranchisement of women, as contrasted with their total indifference to the other issues affecting women, which they see as ‘secondary’.

What is more, while al-Shobashi’s association of the veil with ‘political Islam’ and his plea that women express their rejection thereof is a cynical exploitation of women for political gain, it’s also inaccurate, for while the link between veiling and the encroachment of Wahhabism and political Islam might have been reasonable to make in the early eighties and even into the nineties, to do so today ignores a social reality which has solidified over the last three decades: in most cases, veiling is a social custom which bears no relation to politics, and sometimes even no relation to religion either. Moreover, to ask veiled women to reject political Islam implies that any woman who does not do so is necessarily supportive of it, which is frankly illogical given—to name just one example—the fact that millions of veiled women took to the streets to participate in the 30th June demonstrations which called for the downfall of the Brotherhood government.

Since the call for the anti-veil protest is, to put it kindly, frivolous (the same goes for the Facebook campaign), so most of the reactions it has provoked have been equally frivolous, simplistic and misconceived. All have been confined to two motifs: either the idea that the veil is in fact an expression of personal freedom (a view which ignores the reality of societal and familial pressure which obliges many women to wear the veil), or the assertion that veiling is an Islamic obligation and that anyone calling for the renunciation thereof is guilty of apostasy. These indicate yet another logical flaw in the appeals for women to remove the veil: such appeals substantiate themselves by claiming that the veil is not a religious obligation, and providing fatwas and statements from religious leaders to that effect; this claim is naturally met with claims from opponents, armed with yet more fatwas and statements, that the veil is an obligation. And thus we find ourselves in a tedious cycle of interminable fatwa-swapping.

Now, there is a clear difference between a serious appeal for individual freedom and an appeal which relies on the interpretation of religious commandments and is therefore willing to enter into this kind of negotiation. So what if veiling is enjoined upon women by their religion? Does that nullify their personal choice in the matter, religion being a divine commandment that women must accept? Does the fate of our bodies hang on a fatwa from the Sheikh al-Azhar or the state Mufti setting out the limits of the freedom we are permitted to demand? And anyway, doesn’t the second article of the constitution state that Egypt is an Islamic country whose laws are rooted in the shari’a?

The very meaning of freedom is that even if veiling is a religious obligation, I have the right to choose whether to abide by it or ignore it, and even to renounce religion altogether if I wish. Does al-Shobashi, or anyone else for that matter, ever dare to call for that? Rather than asking women to remove their veils to symbolically prove their dignity and freedom, might it not be more appropriate to demand that the state, which supervises the routine violation of that freedom, take its damned hands off us, thereby restoring to women their freedom of choice and respecting their right to defend themselves? It is absurd and superficial to demand women renounce the veil as if this scrap of fabric were the only obstacle preventing the elimination of political Islam and Egypt’s transformation into a ‘civilised’ secular state when the constitution affirms that the state religion is Islam, atheism is punishable by imprisonment, and every citizen’s ID card proclaims its owner’s religion. It is even more hypocritical for al-Shobashi himself to place himself in this semblance of confrontation with the forces of repression, when he is in fact fully reconciled with those forces and their unpleasant practices, so as to score political and media points. Does he really think that hectoring women, and holding them responsible for the faults of a regressive state, makes him look like a freedom fighter for the secularist cause? Well, appearances are everything.

By a sensible labwa

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