Monday, December 18, 2006

Veiled threat

A translation from an article in Information, “the paper for left-wing Danish intellectuals”, with an interview with Chahdorrt Djavann, a woman of Turkish-Azerbaijani descent, since 1993 living in France. She is an anthropologist and also a newly-published novelist. The title of the novel speaks volumes: How Can One Be French?

The interview is entirely about the veil, which she was forced to wear between the ages of 13 and 23. She doesn't take a soft line.

[O]ne of the primary dogmas of Islamic Sharia Law is that the value of a woman is only half that of a man. A woman is forever a de facto minor, unable to control her own body, her life, or her future. And, in this context, the veil has an extremely important psycho-sexual and social meaning. In addition, we have followed a development from the 80s in which Islam has been affected by the ideologies and politics of Saudi Arabia and Iran who both finance the Islamist movements around the world — movements that gain more and more influence. So, the emblem for these movements and their political system, the “sharia state” is the woman’s veil. In the same way that the swastika was the symbol of the Nazis.
I don't really think the comparison to the swastika helps a lot except as an emotional marker of strength of feeling. However, I wouldn't dismiss the point she is making. The veil is a powerful symbol and the political controversy surrounding it pre-dates Jack Straw by many decades. It was Ataturk who banned it in civic spaces in Turkey and Morocco is moving towards the same stance. For Ataturk it was a symbol of cultural backwardness, but in the last couple of decades it has come to signify the sort of backwardness that some would like to welcome back to the futuer. As the Moroccan Minister for Education, Aboulkacem Samir, put it, "The hijab has become for women what the beard is for men, a political symbol". A symbol of militancy; a claim made on the social order as well as a signifier of identity and belonging.

It is interesting that the veil, and not the beard, draws all this ire and defensiveness. But the great dividing line, as much for militant Muslims as for Militant Westerners, is Woman. Minor or major? Dependent or independent? Brain or womb? And though to most of us, there's really no competition as to the type of woman we would like to be (with), in any long-term contest between the womb and the other parts of a woman, it is always going to be the womb that decides.

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