By Mona Eltahawy
Saturday, July 17, 2010; A13
The French parliament's vote this week to ban full-length veils in public was the right move by the wrong group.
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. Many Muslim women -- despite their distaste for the European political right wing -- support the ban precisely because it is a strike against the Muslim right wing.
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. 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.
But underlying both bans is a dangerous silence: liberal refusal to robustly discuss what it means to be European, what it means to be Muslim, and racism and immigration. Liberals decrying the infringement of women's rights should acknowledge that the absence of debate on these critical issues allowed the political right and the Muslim right to seize the situation.
Europe's ascendant political right is unapologetically xenophobic. It caricatures the religion that I practice and uses those distortions to fan Islamophobia. But ultra-conservative strains of Islam, such as Salafism and Wahhabism, also caricature our religion and use that Islamophobia to silence opposition. Salafi ideology, which is unapologetically misogynistic, has left its imprimatur on Islam globally by convincing too many Muslims that it is the purest and highest form of our faith.
The strains of Islam that promote face veils do not believe in the concept of a woman's right to choose and describe women as needing to be hidden to prove their "worth." Salafism and Wahhabism preach that women will burn in hell if they are not covered from head to toe -- whether they live in Saudi Arabia or France. There is no choice in such conditioning. That is not a message Muslims learn in our holy book, the Koran, nor is the face veil prescribed by the majority of Muslim scholars.
The French ban has been condemned as anti-liberal and anti-feminist. Where were those howls when niqabs began appearing in European countries, where for years women fought for rights? A bizarre political correctness tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to defend women's rights.
There are several ideological conflicts here: Within Islam, liberal and feminist Muslims refuse to believe that full-length veils are mandatory. In Saudi Arabia, where the prevalence of face veils is great, blogger Eman Al Nafjan wrote a post on Saudiwoman supporting the French ban: "I have heard Saudi women, who are conditioned to believe that covering is an unquestionable issue, sigh as they watch uncovered women on TV and say, 'They get this world, and we get the afterlife.' These are the women 'choosing' to cover, brainwashed into living to die."
But the problem is not just "over there." Feminist groups run by Muslim women in various Western countries fight misogynistic practices justified in the name of culture and religion. Cultural relativists, they say, don't want to "offend" anyone by protesting the disappearance of women behind the veil -- or worse.
For example, French women of North African and Muslim descent launched Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) in response to violence against women in housing projects and forced marriages of immigrant women in France. That group supports the ban and has denounced the racism faced in France by immigrant women and men.
Cultural integration has failed, or not taken place, in many European countries, but women shouldn't pay the price for it.
Europe's liberals must ask themselves why they have been silent. It is clear that Europe's political right -- other countries have similar bans in the works -- does not care about Muslim women or their rights.
But Muslims must ask themselves the same question: Why the silence as some of our women fade into black, either as a form of identity politics or out of acquiescence to Salafism?
The pioneering Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi famously removed her veil in 1923, declaring it a thing of the past. Almost a century later, we are foundering. The best way to support Muslim women would be to oppose both the racist political right wing and the niqabs and burqas of the Muslim right wing. Women should not be sacrificed to either.
Let's move away from abstract discussions and focus on the realities of women. The French were right to ban the veil in public. Those of us who really care about women's rights should talk about the dangers in equating piety with the disappearance of women.
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.