Columnist Mona Eltahawy presents troubling arguments in her recent Washington Post article, From liberals and feminists, unsettling silence on rending the Muslim veil (July 17, 2010).
First, she argues “Some have tried to present the ban as a matter of Islam vs. the West. It is not. First, Islam is not monolithic. It, like other major religions, has strains and sects.” One wonders what Islam’s diversity has anything to do with the anti-Islamic motivation behind the French ban on veils. Had France passed a law against wearing yermulkes, it would have been anti-Jewish regardless of strains and sects within Judaism. Had France passed a law against wearing crucifixes, it would’ve been anti-Christian regardless of strains and sects within Christianity. Granted, there are different interpretations within Islam that range from requiring the woman to cover her body completely (as in Saudi Arabia, for example), to requiring covering only the hair, to not requiring any hijab whatsoever per more liberal interpretations. But the variety of opinions within Islam doesn’t make a ban on an expression of some Muslim women’s faith any less of an anti-Islamic law. In fact, the first paragraph of the Washington Post article she links to indicates that Islam was specifically mentioned in the legislation in issue. “The French Parliament’s lower house passed sweeping but constitutionally vulnerable legislation Tuesday that would bar women from wearing full-face Islamic veils in public.” Eltahawy writes “Minarets are used to issue a call to prayer; they are a symbol of Islam. The niqab, the full-length veil that has openings only for the eyes, is a symbol only for the Muslim right.” Eltahawy distinguishes between the minaret ban and niqab ban only because she herself is for the niqab ban. This distinction makes little to no difference in the Islamophobic mindset. Both the minaret ban and the niqab ban are equally alarming as both stem from xenophobia, specifically Islamophobia. It is highly unlikely that the French legislature intended the niqab ban as a means to present Muslim women with a more progressive, egalitarian interpretation of their religion; the legislation was more likely fueled by intolerance and racism.
Next, Eltahawy writes “Some have likened this issue to Switzerland’s move last year to ban the construction of minarets. On the one hand, it is preposterous to compare women’s faces – their identity – to a stone pillar.” Eltahawy preposterously missed the point of the analogy. Analogies are used to point out a similarity of a particular aspect among entities. To analogize a man to a lion, for example, is to indicate courage. It would be absurd to suggest the analogy concerns consumption of raw meat. Hence, when anti-racist activists and writers liken the French veil ban to the Swiss minaret ban, the point is to track and condemn the growing trend of Islamophobia in Europe. No reasonable reader of that analogy would have drawn similarity between women’s face and stone.
Eltahawy goes on to criticize liberals who oppose their government’s repressive measure. She goes as far as blaming them for allowing “the political right and the Muslim right to seize the situation.” She wonders “[w]here were those howls when niqabs began appearing in European countries, where for years women fought for rights?” Stopping short of calling them hypocrites, Eltahawy writes “A bizarre political correctness tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to defend women’s rights.” What is bizarre is Eltahawy’s implication that it is European liberals’ job to interpret Islam for Muslim women. White man’s burden, anyone? Anti-racist Europeans’ primary task is to hold accountable for unconstitutional infringements their own government to which they pay taxes. While they’re entitled to their opinion regarding the veil, it is not their place to inform Muslim women how to practice their religion. In this regard, Eltahawy presents a racist argument; she sees it fit for non-Muslim Europeans to condemn the veil but we don’t hear her encouraging French Muslims to protest the Catholic Church’s denial of abortion and birth control for Catholic French women, for example.
While Eltahawy feigns concern with “the concept of a woman’s right to choose,” she cites Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan’s casual observation (that is, anecdotal observation not based on a scientific survey) that some Saudi women support the French ban. Eltahawy selectively cites excerpts from Al Nafjan’s post about how Saudi women are brainwashed and conveniently leaves out this less palatable part “I don’t live in France and I don’t even to plan to visit anytime soon and yet it made me happy that women there don’t have a choice. Yes this is one area where I’m anti-choice.” In addition, because the veil is required in Saudi Arabia, it’s not too surprising that some of Al Nafjan’s friends support the French veil ban. If a government were to force its citizens to eat burgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it wouldn’t be surprising if those citizens were to support burger bans elsewhere.
Eltahawy momentarily expresses unease with the “racist political right wing” but then concludes with making her position clear that “The French were right to ban the veil in public.” With this unequivocal statement, Eltahawy entrusts Islam’s interpretation and Muslim women’s right to choose to a state in top-down fashion instead of bringing about change on the grassroots level. Not any government, but one that has had a long racist, colonial history. This is not shocking coming from someone who brandishes her normalization with “Israel” on her website: “Ms Eltahawy was the first Egyptian journalist to live and to work for a western news agency in Israel.” Ms. Eltahawy, if you cannot support the fight against sexism and Islamophobia, then please Ikhrasi!
Contributed by Qasim
1) Emphasis within quotes added.
2) The term “Islamophobia” was employed in this article due its common usage. However, “anti-Islamic racism” or “anti-Islamic prejudice” are more accurate because they imply active, deliberate agency while “phobia” conveys helplessness and lack of deliberate intention (since phobia is a syndrome that occurs involuntarily).