Defend Truth


Women’s bodies are contested territory


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

In political battles, the prize is public sentiment. The nature of the battlefield doesn’t really matter. The adage that when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers has now been exemplified in France’s ban on women wearing the burqah in public. In the battle of the burqah (as with other Islamic garb), women’s bodies have become the grass underfoot.

This week, both Syria and France demonstrated that the battle to control minds is often confined to controlling how a woman is manifested in public. After two years of trying, France, at the behest of Nicholas Sarkozy has succeeded in prohibiting the burqah from French streets.  In the process, Sarkozy has promoted France as a gatekeeper of women’s rights and a great bastion of Western values. 

And while Canada, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands all mull over similar bans, Syria has defied the trend, and unbanned the niqab (face veil) there. Sarkozy’s burqa law, of course, panders to popular sentiment in his electorate and Bashaar Al Assad too has with unbanning the niqab sought to quell the wave of unrest gripping the country by tapping into popular sentiment in the country. In Damascus, as in Paris, women’s bodies are the unfortunate playing field of a game.

For Sarkozy and his friends in the centre-right UMP party, the burqah, the niqab, the face veil or whatever you choose to call it, is subversive to the French way of life. And after being dogged by two years of controversy, Sarkozy has now succeeded in outlawing the burqah. Supporters of the ban (some 70% of the French population) argue that women are coerced into covering their faces by their husbands and fathers.  They argue  that the burqah is symbolic of a more insidious repression of women by men.

They argue most vociferously that this ban is congruent with France’s policy to cleanse public spaces of religious symbols. The suggestion, however, that the ban has been enacted to uphold the rights of women is blatantly racist. It assumes a cultural hegemony over the religious values of these women, carelessly disregarding the individual’s right to an expression of spirituality, or even an individual identity. This ban does not give women more rights, it robs women of rights. It is a repulsive piece of legislation. The ban on the burqah has not been made in the interests of public safety any more than  it is an attempt to liberate oppressed women. This is a law designed to appeal to increasingly rampant anti-immigration sentiment in France. Sarkozy is at best an opportunist and his championing of the ban on the burqah is motivated principally by anti-immigration sentiment and designed to court the right-wing vote.

Political parties in Europe, are cleverly seeking to use popular dissent against immigration for political gain. Measures have been taken to curtail the influx of immigrants and migrant workers, immigration laws have been strengthened and the pressure on migrants to fully integrate with European values has been severely increased. Even Britain is not escaping the hysteria against immigration in Western Europe. David Cameron in a speech on Thursday, promised boldly that his government “would cut net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ each year rather than hundreds of thousands”.  In the French Presidential elections of 2012,issues related to Islam and immigration, the two of course, inextricably linked, will be key. Already, recent polls suggest Sarkozy’s party is fast losing ground to the far-right National Front party. The ban on the burqah and how it is enforced will, therefore, be essential in dictating which way French voters sway. With this ban, France effectively dangles citizenship like a bone to a pack of hungry dogs. Islam and Muslims provide only a face to what is actually a war against the poor, the disenfranchised, the politically impotent, the legions of otherly immigrants that have pitched their tents in the backyards of their emperor. Women’s bodies are a trifling circumstance.

In Syria, the niqab was banned from classrooms in public schools  in July last year as part of a campaign geared towards muting sectarian differences. While the ban applied both to teachers and students, hundreds of women were forced from teaching roles into administrative positions. And with a wave of Assad’s magic wand this week, veiled teachers are now allowed to return to their jobs. When the ban was enforced last year, it was done, we were told, as “protection of Syria’s secular identity”. Long before the unrest currently gripping the country, the rise of religion among Syrians was met with alarm by the Syrian government who feared overt displays of faith meant a renewed vigour in the corridors of political Islam. The ban when it was enacted was meant principally to send a message to any rumblings of an Islamist movement. The women at the centre of the storm were mere objects of realpolitik.

The West was first taught the word “burqah” as Americans were being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan. The media began to fill with images of women clad in blue robes that fit over their heads and reached to their toes, with a mesh, like a barbed wired window extending over their eyes.  The Taliban, we were told in righteous indignation, forced this dress upon women. And so the Taliban gave us a name, and context for a mode of dress that was becoming an increasingly common sight on Western streets. It is telling that Sarkozy and the French government have used the term burqah, it incites fear of a Taliban-like Islam taking root in the West. Naomi Wolf comments that the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women and when the Taliban were overthrown, Western writers often noted that women had taken off their scarves. Quite aside from the war of bombs and guns, the ideological war is fought on the bodies of women.

Women are mere playthings in this war of ideas. Syria and France, each unique in its own political situations have used women in burqahs as a front in an insidious ideological war. In a throwback to a darker time, women have been used as chattel. Women are pushed from this end and pulled from that while men get around doing the real work of ruling the world. If this is our standard of liberation, then we have failed abysmally. DM


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