Concerning the French ban on the wearing of burqa, “the law imposes a fine of 150 Euros ($190) and/or a citizenship course as punishment for wearing a face-covering veil,” according to media reports. The law was passed last October by the French senate after almost a year long debate. Proponents of the ban raised the issue of security, arguing that the veil would conceal one’s identity. Opposition countered that the matter was irrelevent since only a mere 1% of the Muslim women in France arefully face veiled. Instead, they argued, this was a political catch for Sarkozy whose popularity had been wavering.
The discussion indeed exceeds beyond security and political opportunitism. It is embedded in the trancedental dichotomy that drives a wedge between the Occident and the Orient. Remember, the French law imposes a pecuniary fine OR a citizenship course! The latter is intended to coerce the Muslim women to preen up in order to “fit in.” The French national identity is constructed upon Frenchness which accounts for laic state edifice, if not its Christian heritage. According to this reasoning,Muslim women who appear to be in defience must be educated to be “more French.”
The French obsession with the Muslim women’s dress is not confined to her face veil. Recently, four Muslim students in Seine-Saint-Denis district of Paris received warnings by their school administration because their skirts were too long to threaten the secularism principle of the state. The simple headscarf is also problematic for the French regime. That is why the banning of the ostentatious symbols in public schools was welcomed like no other prohibition in early 2000s. There was an unsung clandestine consensus over the fact that its mere target was the rapidly growing Muslim population in the country. From the regime’s perspective, young Muslim women needed to be French inside out. And that included their Western appearance. That is to say that their access to citizenship rights such as education became contingent upon their compliance with French laicite. The legitimization of this stance by the regime found its philosophical roots in the pravelent Western view of Islam as the main reason behind agression against woman. In the Western mind there is an exigency to salvage “her” from the trappings of religion. The model to be pursued is the Western woman who is, according to the French, liberated, emancipated and empowered, thanks to reformation and secularizing public sphere. The ubiquitous exploitation of female body in the West, by the way, is impertinent to the discussion at this point.
Is France alone in this war of religions or rather war of secular space versus Islam? Indeed not. Italians, Danish, Germans carry similar concerns. Italy imposed a similar veil ban recently. Denmark is considering a ban on the headscarf. Germans introduced the ban for public servants and teachers in some of their states. But the most stark examples come not from the West, but the Muslim world itself. Tunisia, under the French ecole, imposed a harsh ban on any kind of headcovering in public realm including the streets, parks and the like, in the name of modernization, under Bourgiba regime for many years.
Turkey followed suit. The regime, from the outset, saw Islam as the main reason that led its people to “backwardness.” The panecea was therefore became the privatization of religion, or better, secularization of the public sphere. To the dismay of the regime, nevertheless, the kind of secularization that was anticipated did not take place. Turkish women with headscarves who became conspicuous in urbanized areas, in particular, after 1980s make the case in point. Since 1981 the headscarf has been banned from universities and public spaces in Turkey. Over the years however, the scope of the ban was expanded to most private institutions as well. The process gave way to patent ostricization of Muslim women by the hand of the state, in the name of its unremmiting commitment to westernization. Meanwhile Muslim women moved from the periphery to the very center of the city life asserting themselves into the public realm despite the stifling ban.
The more they pushed their way into education and work place demanding their citizenship rights, the more the state reacted by punishing them and people or institutions supporting them. These were not backward or oppressed women, in any sense of the word. And what was the result? Two political parties (RP and FP) closed down in tandem, another turned from the verge of closure (AKP) by the Constitutional Court all within a decade, one female parliamentarian ousted from the National Assembly (I, the author), a defendent denied from her testimony at the court room (case of Hatice Sahin), a patient who lost her life at the emergency room (case of Medine Bircan), thousands of men who lost their jobs because their wives wear headscarves and millions, yes millions, of women who were forced to quit their professions over the last three decades. All done in the name of westernization!
A 2007 Gallup poll found that nearly half of all women in Turkey say they wear the headscarf in public. So what they’re wearing to cover their hair is very much of an indegeous entity ensconced in Turkish culture. Today as Turks approach to the next general elections that will take place in June 2011, theTurkish regime is facing another challenge: Headscarved women want to run for office. After my own election in 1999, no other Muslim women “dared” to run since then. But today, as all political parties concur on increasing women representation within the parliament, Muslim women chant: We also deserve to be elected! So far, parties chose to be callous to them.
As I ruminate over the treatment of Muslim women by their nation-states with an intent to dissuade them from dressing in Islamic code, in various geographies, I cannot stop bumping into the same question over and over again: Do these states really want Muslim women to become educated and economically independent, two fundemantal sine quo nons of empowerment? Or shall I doubt their seemingly genuine intention of emancipation?
Merve Kavakci Islam, PhD is a Lecturer of International Affairs at George Washington University and Howard University. She is the author of recent Headscarf Politics in Turkey: A Postcolonial Reading.