– Hélé Béji: « The submission offered by the veil is a weariness of freedom. »

Hélé Béji: « The submission offered by the veil is a weariness of freedom. »

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Born in Tunis in 1948, Hélé Béji is a Tunisian writer and thinker, an essential pillar of intellectual life in Tunisia. She went to study at La Sorbonne in Paris and in 1973 became the first Tunisian woman to obtain an aggregation in Modern Literature in France. She then became Professor of Literature at the University of Tunis before working at UNESCO as an international civil servant. In 1998, she founded the Collège international de Tunis, which she still chairs. She works on decolonization and postcolonial alienation, highlighting the uneasiness associated with the quest for freedom and identity regressions. She has written about ten books (including Islam Pride. Behind the Veil) and has participated in several collective works. A great scholar and fine analyst, she has published numerous articles in prestigious intellectual journals.

French version here


« We are witnessing a return of the religious in Tunisia: Perhaps because the promises of happiness of independence were not kept and ended in disillusionment? The social weight of religion increased in the 1980s. But at the political level, the state continued its authoritarian modernism. This voluntarism was uncompromising. It promoted women’s private freedoms, while it violated public freedoms. This secular, secularist, Westerner despotism had allowed women to free themselves in all areas. You could swim in a bikini, not fast during Ramadan, not worship any god, express your unbelief, forget your faith. But it was forbidden to criticize the government. At one point, these private freedoms came up against an obstacle: the lack of public freedoms. Gradually, women’s rights were extended to human rights claims. This is where the 2011 revolution comes in. A revolution that saw Islamists triumph. The extension of democracy, in countries where the people are still pious and conservative, has opened political representation to religious ideology. This was expected. The revolution has diversified political demand to the entire « civil society ». But civil society is not a panacea. There is no naturally good, virtuous, enlightened « civil society ». It is also dangerous, sectarian, obscurantist. Society is as uncivil as it is civil. In a few weeks, we saw a non-religious revolution recovered by the Salafist currents. The veil has made a dazzling breakthrough in the streets, the administration, the benches of the Assembly, universities, schools and beaches. A theocratic zeal invaded the neighborhoods, sentencing young atheists to prison. Amina, the Tunisian Femen, was arrested for stripping her chest on Facebook. Her action had the merit of showing that oppression did not end with revolution. (…)

But Tunisia has made a major breakthrough in the constitution of a state that will never again

fall prey to radical Islamism. The process is irreversible, it’s like the French Revolution. With this difference that the choice of compromise, that is, not to have forcibly eradicated the political success of the Islamists and not to have adopted a violently anti-religious discourse as did the first state nationalism, was a wise one. Wisdom has prevailed over ideology on both sides. In Tunisia, Islamists had power for three years, through the polls, and their failure to govern disqualified them. People discovered that religion was not enough to solve their daily problems. Islamists understood that Tunisians loved life, the world, the spirit of the times, that their history had nourished them with a form of epicureanism and freedom that would never submit to the oppression of fanatical stupidity. This avant-garde spirit has just been illustrated by President Béji Caïd Essebsi’s announcement of a reform of inheritance law, in order to abolish the inequality between boys and girls in terms of inheritance. It is a new revolutionary August 13th, as in 1956! »

About the veil:

« I’ve always worn the bikini. In Tunisia, in the 1960s, we all wore mini Vichy bikinis à la Brigitte Bardot, our breasts tightened in gathered balconies. We used to go out on the streets in shorts. Until the emergence of active political Islam, there was no question about nudity. If we had been told that one day it would be a fight to go swimming in a bikini, we would have laughed. Today, on the beaches, bikinis have not disappeared, but we must endure the presence of this new sea monster called « burkini ». What a disaster! Yet the women’s emancipation movement had gone very far with the pioneering laws of independence.

I wanted to do a job on my fear (of the veil). I remembered Montaigne’s humanism: « Everyone calls barbarism what is not of their use. » I avoided calling the veil « barbaric », but deep down, my emotion is the same, a mix of anger and pity. The veil destroys the universal feminine. From now on, the female world separates itself between the veiled and the others. This enmity contrasts with the historical solidarity of women. In writing, I wanted to overcome this barrier, this gap that opens the « civil war » between women. But I do not submit to its fate either. I say that one day they will unveil themselves, but not by force. The discourse on secularism is no longer effective in the face of the veil, because it is the freedoms of conscience established by secularism that allow it.

The veil is not an act of pure submission, but of self-assertion, ultra-individualistic, the « right of individuals to be themselves », however absurd their conduct may be. If it were only a symptom of ancient domination, it would be easier to fight. But it is a symbol claimed and not suffered, both rebellious and mimetic, as a fashion phenomenon, eccentric and gregarious, an intimate and spectacular way to appropriate one’s time. It is the puritanical costume of another feminism, which exhibits its intimate, sexual or mystical predilections. It is a religious « coming-out », an « Islam pride ».

If we analyze the veil as a mere archaism, we do not understand it. It’s a postmodern symptom. The veil reflects a postmodern approach, that of personal choice. That’s what makes it so popular. Democracy allows all cultural gestures, even the most regressive ones. One can claim: « In the name of freedom, I don’t want freedom’’. These women think they are free to act, even if for others – including myself – it is a false freedom. They may retort that the monokini is a form of women’s sexual enslavement; this puritanical argument is reminiscent of feminist discourses against women’s objectification. The veil is one of the various signs of planetary rallying: the Dalai Lama’s frock, Madonna’s cross, punk hairstyle, tattoos, LGBT badges…. Muslim religious fetishism is no stranger to this modern existentialism. French Muslim women express themselves through Western culture’s codes; it is Western modern thought that has spread the ideology of cultural identity as a humanity principle. The conspicuous paraphernalia of prudishness now competes with that of pornography.

By taking an interest in these girls behind their veils, I also detect a great fear of the outside world, of pressure at work, of the harshness of competition, of moral loneliness, of the disappearance of the family. The veil and the failure of progressive ideologies cannot be separated. It is the most visible expression of Muslim world’s failure in political and moral self-accomplishment. It is a phenomenon that says something about the powerlessness of modern states in the face of the new evils caused by modernity, the new despair linked to sexual misery, the end of the protective home, forced celibacy, love failure, single-parent families, half-orphaned children, the destruction of human bonds, drug addiction, the cult of performance, corporate stress, etc. Democracies are seeing a renewed quest for restoration, the sanctification of the family as a refuge value. This is what this desire for « Islam » says in advanced societies. Religion focuses in itself all these gaps.

Tradition is not only obscurantism. It is to be distinguished from religion. It is also a narrative full of civility, gentleness, delicacy, concern for others, to which modern time no longer makes room. Despite its great pacification of bloody internal wars, democracy has failed to create a humanism between the old and the new, it has destroyed the ancient usages of civility, sedimented by centuries of transmission. Gratuitousness, human impulse, spontaneity, feeling, grace of relationships are replaced by an impersonal juridism that regulates all our conduct in a society that is less and less welcoming. « Communitarianism » is not communitarian, it is a reaction to individualistic excess, a rejection of absolute solitude. Islam, especially for these young girls, may be a way to reconnect. The submission it offers is a weariness of freedom. Obscurantism is fixation on origin, but tradition is an aesthetics devoid of religious uniformity. Obscurantism makes us believe in a golden age that never existed, a utopia of purity, which we want to restore through cynical and inhuman means. We’re turning tradition into a monster. In fact, the religious ideology known as Salafism or Islamism dehumanizes tradition faster than any transgression in the modern world.

Legislation that would completely prohibit the veil may be justified in the light of the historical struggle for women’s emancipation, but it is not effective, it misses its purpose, or even is counterproductive. Of course, I would rather not see girls in burqa or burkini, it revolts me, hurts me, upsets me, but I don’t think banning is the right solution. If you ban burkinis on beaches, you risk increasing the veil in the suburbs as a reaction sign. On the other hand, I am absolutely in favour of the law prohibiting the veil at school, because they are minors who must be exempted from the diktat of recruiting families or the neighbourhood. Veiling a little girl is a practice that is detrimental to children. There is no question that the state must protect them in every way. »


« We must be able to criticize Islam without suffering this anathema. Islamophobia has developed as a result of mass murders committed in Islam’s name. We have the right to be afraid of criminal conduct claiming to be of a religion, to be afraid of its message. It is a salutary anguish. But it should also be noted that Muslim society has a soft face that the modern world no longer knows. In Tunisia, habits of life and social ceremonies are marked by the old spirit of the medieval city, by a profane Islam made up of gestures, politeness, urbanity, respect for the elderly and love of children, bonds, and the taste of others, regardless of religious dogma. The question is whether this tradition will be stronger, more resistant, superior to the ideological empire of its destruction. »


« You cannot essentialize a religion since all of them have had their share of atrocities in history. We can simply try to analyse the temporal gap between Muslim peoples’ psyche and that of Western peoples who have abandoned religion. The ratio of times, old and new, has not found its correspondence. A part of the population still lives in a society where the death of God is nonsense, where belief is nourished by the childish imagination of heaven and hell. The philosophical work of doubt was not accomplished there. By trying to speed up this process, we are causing great violence. There is an anachronism of Islamic consciousness in relation to modern consciousness. Is this due to Islam’s inability to adapt to modernity, or to modernity’s inability to welcome the figures of the old with culture and intelligence? Or both?

The suffering of modern society feeds the religious. More than a crisis of democratic representation, it is the idea of progress that no longer works. Liberal progress has not kept all its promises: it has led to social inequality, the destruction of human ties, uneasiness linked to excessive performance, competition, stress, loneliness, family breakdown, etc. The Muslim myth, which cultivates the human bonds of a traditional society and wants to preserve them, is rooted in this defeat of democratic individualism.

It is when Islam becomes the instrument of power that it oppresses. In mosques, educators have also done nothing to raise youth to a love of the arts and culture. If young French people learned Arabic at school, they would understand that it is the language of poetry, of the avant-garde theatre, of the Thousand and One Nights, of desire, as filmmaker Nacer Khemir says. Arabic is not just Koran’s language. Without knowledge, we have no access to this intellectual, cultural and artistic universe. Fantasy replaces truth. The sacred texts are misused, the works unknown.

Islamism should not be confused with tradition. If we, modern people, neglect tradition, we abandon it to fanatics. There has been a double educational failure in France: the preaching of imams in mosques, which has been allowed to take place, and republican education, classical culture, which has become ineffective in the media hurly-burly. On the one hand, the republican school no longer knows how to transmit the love of knowledge – perhaps immigrant families’ illiteracy has failed in school duties… On the other hand, instead of trying to form minds in mosques, on the model of the Jesuits for example, through an education worthy of our time, they have been fed with a scholastic and a mystic who have made the world unintelligible to them. Islamism is the crippled expression of this misunderstanding of the world.

Religion, Islam, is a source of inequality and oppression. Remember Diderot’s religious. Muslims experience female emancipation as a torment. The worst is that women have internalized this torment. Islamism thrives among women, that’s what worries me. Radical Islam is the fascism of the weak. One of the major causes is the failure of decolonization. But this says something about the powerlessness of modern democracies in the face of a return to faith. Perhaps if, in today’s society, relationships were less based on hyper-individualism, atomization, loneliness, intimate despair, Muslims would not seek to restore a previous life, pray together, feast and worse, fight. It is on the tragic background of dying-together that we must think about the living-together.

(…) Islam is also the symptom that the religion of progress no longer works. Paul Hazard writes in The Crisis of European Conscience: « The French thought like Bossuet, and suddenly they think like Voltaire! It’s a revolution’’. However, there are many Muslims who still think like Bossuet, others like Voltaire. This clash of temporalities is a challenge for the social contract! »


« It is democracy that gave cultural identities the right to express themselves, but these identities do not necessarily have a democratic conduct. Humanists must reconsider their approach to belief. Humanism is the art of correspondence between the old and the new. I have fought tirelessly against the concept of « cultural rights », which is in vogue everywhere, even at UNESCO. Cultural law is not constrained by any law; but an unconstrained right is only a disguised appetite for force. Cultural rights conceal unlimited pride that leads to a war of all against all. That’s what multiculturalism is all about. Conversely, human rights are « natural » rights, they discard cultural bias in the consideration of the person. No culture can claim a capital of impunity. However, a religious right is by definition an absolute order. Who would dare to vote against God? (…)

Cultural rights are a scourge for thought and society. Personally, I am absolutely not offended by the caricatures of Mohammed. But I know that others in front of these images are physically uncomfortable. Not because it’s religious, but because it’s like you spat in their father’s face! In our society, consideration for the father or genealogy is beyond religious. It is still a sacred form, eminently respectable indeed. But my sacred part is that we must be able to laugh at everything and more, that we have the right to demystify everything. In short, that everyone accepts to be shocked, hurt or offended. If the « unlimited pride » of laughter becomes a « cultural right » that tramples on the sense of dignity, it disrupts social relationships. Obviously, no kind of caricature, no offence justifies the slightest bloodthirsty revenge, that goes without saying. As far as I am concerned, I try to call for lucidity. I would like to point out to my compatriots that the diversity they demand from you, they refuse it in our country. We have created culturally stifling societies. I say: You are proud of your « identity », you are anti-racist, so be it. But which Christian, which Jew would you admit in a political election? »