Leila Babès ‘’Therefore, there is nothing religious about the veil. It has to do with men having an obsessive relationship with the female body’’
Franco-Algerian, born in Guelma, Algeria, Leila Babès defines herself as a citizen of the world. She holds a PhD in political science and is a Sociology of Religions Professor at the Catholic University of Lille and at the Lille’s Inter-University Institute in History of Religions. She has been the Department of Religious Sciences’ director and initiator of the training in ‘’History and Social Sciences of Islam’’. Leïla Babès is the author and co-author of several books and articles devoted to the evolution of Islam in a secularized environment, the relationship between faith and norms in contemporary Islam, the criticism of the Salafist ideology and the Muslim Brotherhood, the question of women, Sufi mysticism, Maghreb’s cultural and religious anthropology, the aporias of political Islam, and the compatibility between Islam and secularism. Her work includes: Law of Allah, Law of Men. Freedom, Equality and Women in Islam(with T. Oubrou), Albin Michel, 2002. And The demystified Veil, Bayard, 2004. She has notably collaborated with the magazine Islam de France(1999-2000). For many years, she has had a column on Radio Méditerranée International(Médi 1). We admire this great intellectual, a scholarly professor, who does not hesitate to say that she is committed to all the struggles for freedom and equality.
About the veil:
The outcry in the Muslim world over the French law banning religious symbols in public schools has revealed two facts that are totally new in Islam history. Firstly, the almost hysterical reactions that have been expressed here and there about the veil, which has become a worldwide phenomenon, the emblematic sign of a community, clearly show a fracture in the Muslim consciousness. Never before, neither in the Caliphate period nor even since the emergence of the first Islamic ideologues at the beginning of the twentieth century −who made the veil a fundamental precept by misrepresenting it as the hijab, which the Koran reserves exclusively for the prophet’s wives −had the woman’s body been the subject of a debate involving the fate of the entire community. It is as if the social body was merging with the female body.
Secondly, what is striking is the recurrence in unison just about everywhere of a discourse that has been circulating in Islamic circles for some years now, according to which the veil is a religious belief and practice. This is a gigantic mystification whose mechanisms are easy to dismantle.
But why so much noise for this piece of fabric? Why don’t these Muslims protest to get beautiful mosques instead of those obscure prayer rooms that give such a miserable image of their religion? After all, prayer is one of Islam’s cultural foundations along with profession of faith, zakat, fasting and pilgrimage. I do not know that the veil is one of these five pillars of observance, nor is it an element of Muslim dogma, a pillar of faith along with belief in God, angels, books, prophets, and Judgment Day. There is absolutely no difference in this area of faith, worship, spirituality and status of the believer between men and women. The Koran and the prophetic tradition are clear on this. If, as the proponents of this new doxa claim, the veil was a religious obligation in the same way as prayer or fasting, then what are men waiting for to veil themselves?
One thing is certain: this trickery is the work of men, and it affects the female body. The veil has always been, since its appearance nearly two millennia ago, a means of subjecting women to men’s guardianship. This rule of ‘’branding’’ women of the clan, wives, virgins, high-ranking women, accompanied by a taboo on hair, will be found almost everywhere in the Mediterranean region. Islamists who believe that the Koran invented the veil are mistaken. The veil has nothing religious about it, it is not even the work of Jewish or Christian believers, it is a custom established by pagan peoples, Jahiliyya men, in that age of ignorance of ‘’true religion’’. The Koran does not ‘’prescribe’’ the veil. It only recommends that women wear it in a decent manner −which is not described anywhere −and that they cover their necklines. The ethical principles that the Koran advocates are modesty and a reserved attitude towards attraction between the sexes, principles that apply to both women and men. Everything else is phantasmagoria. Therefore, there is nothing religious about the veil. It has to do with men having an obsessive relationship with the female body.
It is no wonder that women are the main object of such fixation when defending a liberticidal conception. The veil is such an essential symbol for the Islamist order that it makes it possible to mark a strict differentiation of the sexes, assigning women to a particular place. By accentuating the ban on women’s bodies, it makes them incapable of discovering themselves, of making themselves visible, of taking over the public space, of gaining access to power, in short, of being equal to men. But it is on another level that the deep springs of this pathos are at play: the sexual level. For it is on this terrain that obsession has been unfolding for the past two thousand years. Moreover, the Koran does not give any other argument in the three verses relating to the ‘’veil’’, systematically calling men and their sexual motivations into question. By legislating on the veil, the divine text has tried to regulate the libidinal instincts of men, always ready to covet women indiscriminately, starting with the Prophet’s own wives. These men were neither Jews, nor Christians, nor polytheists, they were Muslims.
What can we conclude from all this? That 14 centuries after the foundation of Islam, Muslims, who today wave the veil as the community’s banner, have forgotten or pretend to forget the exercise of jihad, which the Prophet himself called the great jihad to distinguish it from armed combat; that personal effort of ethical and spiritual perfection designed to control one’s own instincts. By making women’s bodies the object of all lust, and the veil a means of ensuring their tranquillity, men allow themselves not to make this effort. Of course, it is women who pay the price for this childish attitude that allows men to take refuge in the comfort of non-responsibility. Continuing to assert that the veil is an eternal and unspecified prescription instead of accomplishing jihad is to recognize that Muslim men are uneducated men, unable to control their animal instincts. Is this not acknowledging Islam’s failure as a religion of responsibility? How do we explain this divide? How did we get to the point where Islam became the religion of the veil? After the eradication by the proponents of an exclusively legal conception of Islam of what has made this great civilization great, what is left of encyclopedic knowledge and humanism, philosophy, theology and mysticism? Preacher disciples of a handful of reactionary ‘’theologians’’, responsible for the civilizational and intellectual impoverishment of a religion that has become a prisoner of a paranoid reading that only holds on to prohibitions and obligations. The veil is truly the epitome of the state of intellectual, cultural and spiritual decay in which contemporary Islamic thought finds itself.
The Speaker in full veil:
The Saudi television channel Awtan TV has allowed women to present programmes. This would seem ridiculous and even laughable, if it were not the country of the Wahhabis and then a religious television channel. It should be noted that last March, a group of 35 religious dignitaries called for a complete ban on all female presence on television and in the press. They also called for a ban on music and concerts on television. Their target was the Ministry of Information and Culture, which was accused of being a breeding ground for immorality that was spreading on television, radio, the press, clubs and book fairs. In short, it is culture that is a source of turpitude. Above all, ‘’No Saudi woman should appear on television and in Saudi newspapers and magazines’’, they said.
It must be noticed that in this misogynist country where we spend our time erasing any intrusion of the female presence in the public space, something is always going on. The militia in charge of erasing with felt pen the parts of women’s bodies that are spread out in western magazines must be overwhelmed. No matter how much you erase, there’s always something left. Besides, Saudi women have been exaggerating for some time. They’ve had the right to vote, there’s even one in the government, they go to university −among women −, but still, and they even threaten to drive cars!
So female announcers on a religious TV channel is an event, especially in a country that considers women’s voices as obscene. The only small detail is that they are obliged to veil themselves completely, in niqâb, as can be seen in the images broadcast of the two announcers, aside from the eyes that one guesses more than one really sees. In fact, the decor had to be carefully studied because only the white of the armchairs on which the two young women are sitting makes it possible to distinguish their silhouettes, all dressed in black, including their hands, which are enclosed in black gloves.
And what do these forward-thinking ladies have in store for you? Religious preaching? Nay. One of them, Ola al-Barqi, presents a morning show and a kind of quiz game called Mosabaqat Banat. She confides that one does not need to show one’s face to build a relationship with the audience, and that the niqâb, which she considers to be in accordance with religious law anyway, allows viewers to concentrate on words and ideas. As if she would risk, if she were not masked, seeing men nailed in front of their TV sets for the sole purpose of contemplating her beauty, while she spouts out her nonsense. ‘’We don’t present ourselves’’, she added, ‘’as beautiful women putting foundation on’’. No budget for make-up and for all these satanic frivolities, that’ll save the channel money!
The Saudi cultural revolution −which will at best take a few centuries to achieve a real emancipation of women as the most archaic and obscurantist country of Islam −has many more surprises in store for us. The latest find is edifying: a television show of heavy silhouettes crammed into black tarpaulins saying that they are women, and that they are also talking. Pending the next theological breakthrough, this breakthrough of women in the Saudi public landscape leaves a host of questions unanswered. How do these women manage to be recognized when they arrive at the station’s headquarters? Do they have to lift their masks in front of female guards, wear signs of distinction, or be identified by a voice recognition system? How can we be sure that men have not taken their place, especially since no men are allowed in the studios? Why put faceless women in a program that is meant to be watched, a radio program would have done the trick. Or, since these programmes are intended for a female audience, why not put an encryption device to prevent men from watching? The point is, they can look, but move along, there’s nothing to see! If the problem is the beauty of the faces, why not recruit ugly, old women? And by the way, isn’t it God who says that menopausal women don’t need to cover up? This is a divine word that never comes from the mouths of those defending the veil.
New generations are coming in France, born here, whose sisters, cousins, mothers, have already been exposed to this tendency to take the veil for an obligation. In any case, that’s what they’ve been told. They are touched by the preachers in the neighbourhoods who reach their fathers and their brothers who go to the mosque. So, it’s partly a demographic phenomenon, but there are many reasons. There may be identity motivations to stand out. It can be linked to adolescence, to the search for self, to the weight of the environment. And also, a communalization effect that comes from the ghetto: we put people of the same belonging in the same neighbourhoods. So, there are many reasons for this.
The law against religious signs in schools went well because we didn’t ask for much. The full-face veil is a substitute for the claustration. It’s a way of showing one’s status of recluse in the public space and that’s unbearable! In relation to the law, what seems to be most relevant is to say that a person who walks down the street masked, without identity, can be anyone. And therefore, it can be dangerous. The public space is a space for living together. A space of cohabitation for everyone, that is, for people who can be identified. The full veil is antinomic to the public space as a place of exchange and encounters. You can’t talk to a person who is masked. And basically, with the full veil, we are in something, from the point of view of the Islamic norm, that is excessive. The Koran castigates excessiveness and says that you must keep the measure in everything. That is why it is said that Islam is a middle way religion. The Koran puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of not going to extremes. With the full veil, we are in the extreme. Those of the religious people who, to justify the wearing of the full veil, seek justifications to back up their obscure standards, are unknown, they have no status of recognition. They are on the margins. In classical Islam, the full veil is a marginal phenomenon.
Has French-style secularism succeeded? Asking the question in these terms suggests that this is a particular experience of separation between Church and State, an example among others. The wording may even suggest that the model is questionable. And it is. Not just in Europe, but in France itself, including by lay people who allow themselves to be caught in the trap of guilt, ashamed of belonging to a tradition judged « too » radical, « too » singular, « too » ignorant of identity concerns. In short, France would not be secular, but secularist.
In truth, by trying to frighten us, all this vulgate has come to trivialize the trial of secularism. This is all the more effective when one opposes the model to an ‘’open’’, ‘’human’’, ‘’plural’’ secularism. It goes without saying that the candidates for these reforms would be hard pressed to explain to us what it is all about and what these vague formulas actually mean. Ignorance of the real meanings of secularism or anti-secular militancy? Surely both explanations are valid, and they work in tandem. As in this detestable mania of translating the concept into ‘’ism’’, the value in the worst-case scenario, the misunderstanding of the principle is side by side with the desire to fight and the nostalgia for tribalism.
Confusionism, deconstructivism at all costs and outbidding, that sums up in three words the sling, or rather the nerve of the anti-secularists. The protest is sometimes direct, but most of the time sneaky. When it is not accused of undermining ‘’religious freedom’’, the secular Republic is challenged on the merits of its integration model or its neo-colonialist policy towards its ‘’indigenous people’’.
But to those who dream of a catch-all Republic, an empty shell designed to welcome with open arms the ‘’community plagues’’ that are collective identities when they invade the public space, others oppose its values as a civilizational privilege inherited from Christian culture. It is curious to see this new imaginary pact between secularism and Catholicism when one remembers that anticlericals were firmly convinced that the latter could only be built against the former.
The secular state is neither for nor against religious identity, it is simply positioned elsewhere, which is both outwardly indifferent −except as a guarantor of the freedom to practice worship, not of ‘’religious freedom’’ −and superior by the prevalence of its law. This is what guarantees civil peace in a pluralist society. That is why any ambiguity, any confusion about the respective roles of the State and religions, especially when they are displaced from the confessional framework as defined by the law to the conflicting terrain of identities, can only be dangerous.
Obviously, French-style secularism is an exception. Would this in itself be a fault? Basically, to which other secularism could we refer? Can we be a little, moderately, excessively secular? The two spheres are separated or not. Secularism is first and foremost a matter of state. Secondly, it is a contract that binds the whole community. It is not an alternative, an option, a personal opinion. It is a legal framework, the institutional translation of a secularization process that has affected all modern societies.
There is no French-style secularism because secularism is French. There is no shame in recognizing it. Does that prevent it from being a bearer of universality? On the contrary. The characteristic of a secular state is to be neutral, beyond religions as differences. Without distinction, without discrimination or favoritism, without relativism. And it is because it places itself in this ‘’beyond’’ that transcends religious particularisms that it is unifying, and the sole guarantor of unity based on the adherence of all citizens to the central values.
Reminding people what secularism is, explaining, clarifying, teaching, conducting a real educational campaign, that is what is sorely lacking. Why not a Ministry of secularism? »
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