Muslima Media Watch has posted a link to an article concerning Islamic garments, particularly worn by women, by Nursel Guzeldeniz for Online Opinion:

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.

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.

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).

The right-wing politicians and public commentators who pretend to care for the rights of Muslim women have made use of this paternalistic discourse to promote their Islamophobic, racist and xenophobic agenda that involves anti-immigration policies and state coercion of minorities especially against Muslims in Europe. A similar discourse appeared in Australia during John Howard’s era.

Fekete says, “An assimilationist, monocultural society needs its feminist cheerleaders”, and highlights that various western feminists have become accomplices to these conservative racist government policies.

The proposal to ban the burqa by Sarkozy, obviously not a socially progressive political leader, seems to be another racist political instrument to intimidate the Muslim-Algerian minority in France for political advantage.

Wouldn’t it be more productive if we put all our energy into genuine feminist projects to empower women from all backgrounds through education, employment, generating a critical understanding of women’s issues and creating public awareness about women’s rights rather than preaching women what-to-wear or what-not-to-wear?

Maybe our obsession with attacking Islam has blinded us to the fundamental issues that impact on women’s liberation and equality such as education and employment? If we killed all Taliban men in Afghanistan, would this help improve the Afghan women’s rights? Or in fact have the Afghan men ever got the opportunity in a war-torn country for decades to develop a different male worldview that values the equal female participation in Afghan society?

People are the product of their socio-economic circumstances. Even 1,000 years from now the situation of women in Afghanistan and tribal parts of Pakistan would not change without providing and maintaining political stability, security, education and employment opportunities in these countries.

If Muslim women in theocratic Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran are subjected to discrimination, aren’t they themselves also to blame for it? We all know that women in fact have so much power and influence in society and on men, as mothers, wives, sisters. If they really wanted to change such repressive regimes, they can. But they are probably conformists, and accomplices to such patriarchal political and social systems, just like some Australian women who do not seem to advance women’s rights in this country where subtle patriarchy lingers. But at least these days the Iranian women are revolting against their discriminating and repressive Islamic state.

There can be no cultural relativism about the equality between men and women. In western societies, there may be some minority Muslim men who claim that Islam and Koran entitle men to superior rights over women. But well-educated, powerful women would never put up with such dominating and stifling men. If the western states provide Muslim minority women with equal education and employment opportunities as other women, the influence of such men would be only marginal.

Unfortunately in a western context, there’s a patronising, victimising and humiliating discourse on women from Muslim background that denies them any individual identity and self-autonomy and that is never attached to other women, for instance, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu women. Just like a bird seller who cages birds in order to release them in return for money, the western societies over and over again declare Muslim women “the victim” in order to save and liberate them boosting their western superiority.

This attitude is embedded in a worldview based on hectic activism of saving and liberating others that requires a constant supply of victims. And this worldview also reflects a confusion of detraction with iconoclasm that leaves no room for critical thinking and understanding. Lack of generosity, self-righteousness and the age-old identity politics of superior-us and inferior-them are other characteristics of this worldview.

As Lila Abu-Lughod highlights, instead of “seeking to ‘save’ others (with the superiority it implies and the violence it would entail)”, western nations should address global injustice, and work towards eliminating it so that there is no need to “save” others.

Moreover, if it’s pathetic, patronising, paternal and patriarchal to impose a certain Islamic dress code on women in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, French government proposal to ban the burqa is as much pathetic, patronising, paternal and patriarchal. Instead of banning Islamic dress, western governments should show equal respect towards women from all backgrounds and provide them with the same socioeconomic opportunities. In an environment where Muslim-identity is respected as much as other identities, Islamism can’t flourish.

France and other western countries should also provide Afghan women – with or without the burqa – with scholarships to study in these countries if they really care about the rights of Muslim women. But they should also remember that these western-educated Afghan women will in the future hold them accountable for invading Afghanistan and killing Afghan people.

The likes of Kees Bakhuyzen don’t need to worry. No one can hold well-educated, powerful women – Muslim or non-Muslim – back in life. Maybe we need a sea change in western societies: We need to stop exploiting issues about Muslim women for commercial and political interests, and instead should provide a critical public understanding of issues that affect heterogeneous groups of Muslim women from various ethnic, national, linguistic, socioeconomic and other backgrounds. We need to understand that Muslim women don’t need a nanny and they can look after themselves. We just need to give Muslim women a break!