– Wassyla Tamzali: ‘’To refuse practices harmful to women is simply to be feminist.’’

Wassyla Tamzali: ‘’To refuse practices harmful to women, whether they come from the Islamic tradition or are very clearly prescribed by Koranic texts, is not to be Islamophobic, it is simply to be feminist.’’


Wassyla Tamzali is a great Algerian feminist. She was a lawyer in Algiers after fighting for Algeria’s independence and before becoming Director of Women’s Rights at UNESCO. Today, she devotes herself to writing, the development of art in her country and the fight for gender equality in Algeria, and more broadly in the Arab world, as president of the Maghreb Equality Collective.A demanding intellectual, abolitionist and secularist, she constantly reflects on the links between feminism, democracy and secularism. In her work, she deploys critical thinking, in movement, in fertile comings and goings between the two shores of the Mediterranean as well as between the past and the present. Here are some quotations from her reflections, which you can find in full in the collection of articles below from which they are extracted.*

French version here

On the veil:

« Accepting the practice, Maghrebine or not, Muslim or not, of hiding one’s hair, of not being treated by a male doctor, of not shaking hands with men, that is, accepting practices of strict sexist segregation, seems to me to be a bad answer to a real problem. Refusing the veil does not mean accepting racism! To lead the discussion in this way is to show bad faith, the same bad faith that made feminism in my country refuted as belonging to the Western world, a world that has committed the greatest crimes in our countries, it is true. Feminists were presented as the objective allies of Westerners. The same is true for democracy and the « Party of France ». I have suffered too much from that bad faith to accept this one, coming from feminists and democrats. And not only me, the individual, which would already be a good reason to protest, but us, intellectuals from countries of the south, from non-European countries, who are fighting against the use of culture, resentment and anti-Western hatred to stifle democracy and freedom. We are fighting against the regimes we know, and must we add, the opposition of those who should be by our side and whom we ask to use the same rigour towards us as towards their society. We must go back to more reason. If the veil debate overshadows the debate on racist discrimination, then what about the subjugation of women that disappears behind the absurd debate on their right or not to hide their hair, to lock an individual in their erotic body? Hasn’t feminist thought uncovered everything that could link women to their reproductive sexuality and their exclusive belonging to the tribe that decides their fate? How can it not forcefully say that the veil is indeed the symbol of this enslavement of women and that its scope cannot be altered by its frivolous use or misinterpretation by some? We hear ‘’Islam should not be stigmatized.’’ I am not going to say that the veil has nothing, or so little, to do with religion. I am one of those Arab feminists who no longer have a voice because they have shouted to demonstrate the terrible weight of patriarchal society on women and the little influence of Islamic spirituality on morals in this regard. That’s right! I simply want to remind you that the fear of stigmatizing Christianity has not stopped the struggle of feminists for the essential conquest of the right to abortion and the freedom to dispose of their bodies. This was a much more serious and proven dogma than the veil in Islam. So, what’s good for one religion isn’t good for the other? The left, a certain left, feminists, some feminists, by their attitude, lead us to believe that what concerns Islam is outside our thoughts. Can we say that what drives feminist thought in general is not good for so-called Muslim women? We already have enough trouble as it is for intellectuals to add their voices – and what voices! – to those who think with Tariq Ramadan that there is a ‘’Muslim woman’’ gender.

About girls, who in France claim to wear the veil:‘’They have fallen into a trap. Some started to wear the veil for play, for provocation, but also for rebellion against the dominant order, finding there a definition of freedom. I want to tell them that you cannot express your freedom by throwing yourself hands and feet tied into a culture whose objective is the domination of women. The movements of the 1970s were the rejection of any identification. Today, people only stand up to claim their identity and, in general, a victim identity.’’

‘’The veil is experienced as a bulwark against gender-based, symbolic or expressed violence. There are schools and universities, places, in Algeria, where one can no longer be unveiled. In Algerian Arabic it is said that an unveiled woman is naked, which says a lot. It is an illusory rampart. In my book, I show the escalation of violence in the Arab streets where there are more and more veiled women.’’

‘’The more you repress sexuality, the more it is present. Men’s eyes are becoming increasingly heavy and concupiscent. This repression leads to real pathological deviances that result in the most barbaric acts against women, with the Afghan burqa (or full veil) representing the most accomplished and theatrical form of these deviances. If women and girls, by veiling themselves, believe that they are safe from men’s desires, the opposite is true. The concealment of women’s bodies has the effect of increasing sexual crimes and harassment, exacerbating women’s fear and men’s greed. (…) At the heart of this madness is the obsession with virginity[…] and the disproportionate importance given to the preservation of the hymen. Although Muslim men want to get married, and only to virgins, births outside marriage are numerous and lead to a wide range of aberrations, abandonment of children, infanticides, murderous fury of fathers and brothers against pregnant girls and abusive use of sodomy and its clinical traumas.

‘’I will never say that the veil is innocent. Never. It is much more than a religious sign, as is a cross, for example: it is THE sign of women’s oppression. It’s a serious matter to trivialize it. I have trouble understanding Quebec women who support the demands of veiled women. They would never think that the hijab is without consequence for themselves or their daughters. Why is this more acceptable for a Muslim woman?’’

‘’I grew up in a Muslim family, in one of the first generations of women to be unveiled in Algeria. There is a tendency to deny this part of history, but in almost all Arab countries, from the 1920s to the 1960s, women said no to the veil. They went out, they went to college. It showed that you can be an Arab and a Muslim and not cover yourself. Religion does not prescribe anything on this subject. « The veil is not Muslim, it is patriarchal, » wrote Mohamed Talbi, a leading expert on Islam. It is a political tool to dominate women. In some countries, it starts very early, with 4-year-old girls already covered from head to toe.’’

‘’Wearing the veil cannot be claimed as an act of freedom. Even if, in the West, veiled women study, earn a good living, go to the movies, have a husband who does the dishes. Even if it’s a personal choice, you can easily alienate yourself. I find that they reinforce a vision of a woman’s place in society that emerged from the old patriarchal model. They take for granted the discourse on women in certain interpretations of the religion. That’s what we must deconstruct. Meanwhile, the wearing of the veil is spreading in the Maghreb and everywhere else. Even today, in some Paris suburbs, girls can no longer go out without their hijab. Their brothers are watching them. It was unimaginable 15 years ago.’’

‘’The left must understand that wearing the veil is a political act to which we must respond with a political act: how is it possible that a left that claims to be feminist accepts to veil women, denying the whole political struggle on women’s rights and on the place of women’s oppression that is the body? In my opinion, the left has not grasped the extent of the problem. The veil is no longer the sign of an anthropological culture but of a political culture. And I do not accept a political culture that discriminates against women. With reasons that seem common sense, we kill the resistance. Paul Ricoeur speaks of tolerance. But then, it means that we tolerate people making mistakes, so it is relative, and it puts into perspective the position that maintains that women’s oppression begins with the oppression of the body. So, in this way, the left is putting its entire struggle into perspective.’’

‘’Not all defenders of cultural differentialism follow through with their separatist logic. They acknowledge the discriminatory nature of these practices (the veil), but they justify their position by defending the interests of the little girls and women who are subjected to or who submit to these rules. Thus feminists, intellectuals, political leaders embark on many and long explanations of the multiple and paradoxical uses of the veil in France, of women only swimming pools, of husbands’ refusal to see their wives examined by men or enter the office alone, even when the doctor is a woman. Respect for these practices, they say, allows women to move more freely, benefit from health care, go to school, university, work, be respected in the suburbs, etc. Although praiseworthy, pragmatism is a way of giving up on reality. Pragmatism, like common sense, is formidable. It allows doctrines and ideologies to advance in disguise and settle quietly in societies without any substantive debate. This is what I had, in vain, explained to a Dutch diplomat who wanted to convince me that it was necessary to consider the reality of prostitution, to make it more acceptable to women, rather than to try to fight it. Deal with itis an effective discrimination endorsement machine. I replied to this diplomat that, in the Human Rights Department at UNESCO – where I oversaw women’s rights – they were not dealing with it, but against all degrading forms of discrimination. To accept prostitution out of pragmatism is to accept the prostitution system, and that is not acceptable; to accept the veil out of pragmatism is to accept the causes of sexist segregation, and that is not acceptable. To refuse practices harmful to women, whether they come from the Islamic tradition or are very clearly prescribed by Koranic texts, is not to be Islamophobic, it is simply to be feminist.’’

‘’Islam has become a « black » continent, before which we stop thinking, before which even left-wing men and women abdicate all forms of intelligence… But this debate is taking place because tolerance of the other in what they are is part of the values defended by left-wing intellectuals… For only fifteen years. Because intellectuals of the left used to defend freedom and sovereignty! It was only in the face of this unbearable thing, racism, that the concept of tolerance was invented. So yes, tolerance is about accepting the other even if they are wrong. And that is a good thing, because it opens a dialogue with otherness. But the fight against intolerance has a limit: the intolerable. In other words, how far should tolerance be developed? Normally, in a society, this « how far » is limited by the principles and values that the society has set for itself. I regret that women’s rights have not been included in it, that the Western world has tolerated anti-feminist practices.’’

‘’One cannot compare obedience disguised as a choice which, in fact, is only consent, to real choice. All over the world, the veil is not a choice, but a consent. There’s a difference between consent and choice. Free choice is made through a critical mind, which will constantly analyze the domination relationships to which it is subjected. As for consent, it is carried out in relation to ideologies that are above the person. So, she can’t discuss these ideologies, she submits. She freely agrees to respect the idea or ideology, which is superior to herself, without questioning this superiority.’’

On cultural relativism:

‘’Feminism is a movement that may have originated in a specific place, but that does not prevent it from being universal. We must defend this autonomy from the people of our countries who accuse us of being under the Westerners’ control, but also from the Westerners who accuse us of imitating them, with the former colonizers’ pretense. They think they hold the keys to the universe and, when we start talking about equality and freedom, they think we are imitators. This is not true. I am thinking of the independence movements that still drive our countries, even when they are led by illiterate men and women who have no idea of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but who continue to send their children to school, who continue to protect certain freedoms that are at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it is up to us intellectuals to be the avant-garde. I claim this because a country does not form without a vanguard and an elite, even if this attitude is despised. It is despised by the people in power because we are competitors in the production of thought, but also by a certain European intelligentsia today, formed by pseudo anti-elites. The new elite today bases its power on the fact that it no longer wants to recognize itself as an elite and that it wants to give a voice to the oppressed. But it is always them who speak for the oppressed. It is a pseudo given voice because they are the ones who continue to interpret things. Today, even in universities, we find postmodern waves which, under the guise of giving a voice to victims – whether they are former colonized, Maghrebi victims of racism, prostitutes victims of sexual slavery or homosexual victims of homophobia – refuse to allow us to reflect on their condition as victims and take away the voice of those who defend them to supposedly give it to these victims but, in the end, it is always them who speak.’’

‘’My old Marxist background refuses an essentialist approach to culture. In our drama there was « premeditation ». I am talking about the « return of the ancient tribes » in a rhetoric: I am talking about the return of the ancient tribe of the golden age myth. In the aftermath of independence, did we not see ourselves as a great and wonderful tribe, as a group of brothers more than citizens, a word that does not have much meaning to this day? (…) With regard to women and codes of honour, I will simply talk about the resurgence of archaic morals. This resurgence was maintained and encouraged by the authorities in power, who saw it as a way to better contain men’s « pride ». In a way, men are left in control of a territory, femininity, which is granted to them by power in exchange for its absolute power over the rest!’’

‘’We know now that there is no future for women outside democracy, just as there is no democracy without the recognition and participation of women as free and equal subjects. It may sound like a slogan, but that is the reality of the situation. The situation of women in Arab countries remains, against all reason, what we know it to be, and this « incredible » state persists. Why? Why? Women’s subjection is an important part of these countries’ political systems. It is a distribution of power within the male community. Those who exercise public power monopolize wealth and reserve themselves all rights over the city. Even the poor ordinary man has a substitute for power over women, he is content with it, with all the pathologies that we observe. The Arab man is a humiliated man, his only territory of satisfaction is women. We can then say that these two barbaries of which Gilbert Achcar speaks (that of the military dictatorships, on the one hand, and that of the Islamist forces, on the other) support each other in a scaffolding that threatens to collapse. The Islamist doctrine against women serves perfectly the sustainability of the regimes in place.’’

‘’I claim the right to speak as a « person of Muslim culture » – I say « Islamic » for whom is religious. But even the left excludes us as secular Muslims; it refuses to give legitimacy to our voice. There is also a second point: the question of the European left’s backward racism, the refusal to consider that Islam is part of the history of thought and that it can be subjected to the evolution of thought. The story ends where Islam begins. It is as if to say that human rights is a concept that is only relevant between the Urals and the northern shore of the Mediterranean. This reverse racism starts from a good intention – to fill the gap of solidarity, to underline the equality between cultures – but it has a counter-effect, that of placing this culture outside of thought. In this way, the resistance process is excluded from thinking. On the other hand, the only solidarity approach, in my opinion, in the globalisation context, must be one that brings together the different resistance groups from the different cultures.’’

‘’What strikes me in the Mediterranean region are the similarities, even if we, women from the Northern Mediterranean and Southern Mediterranean, have come a long way since what Germaine Tillon described in theHarem and the Cousins. The observation is that the differences are more political than cultural. Equality between women and men in societies is a political issue that has nothing to do with mentalities, tradition or religion.’’

‘’We Algerian women are the heirs of a generation of women who embarked on a political struggle before the arrival of modern feminism at the forefront of history, and who have not been without influence on it. On the Simone de Beauvoir’s centenary, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in these heroic times and I noticed that alliances had been forged around the defence of Algerian heroines, which were found years later, in France, for example, in the women’s movement. We were at the forefront.’’

On Islamic feminism:

‘’The Islamic feminist movement was born in Europe. It was launched by converts who find unusual funding or who are not commensurate with the funding that the feminist movement finds. That is the first question we can ask ourselves. The other fundamental question concerns the theory developed by Islamic feminists. They believe that women’s rights can be found within the Koranic legality. So far, I agree. For many women, reading the Koran has given them more rights than in real life. They find respect, moral incentives… as in all religions, for that matter. But the problem is to move from moral incitement to legal obligation. However, when we move on to the legal part, we realize that there are inequalities.’’

‘’I didn’t think I would be caught up in Algeria by this oxymoron that is making a hit in the West, « Islamic feminism ». This Western movement born in Barcelona has little interest and place in our country where Islamists advance with their faces revealed. In our countries we do not speak of « Islamic feminism », and feminist Muslim women especially don’t. But, in for a penny, in for a pound. It is through a casual tautology that Islamic feminists sweep away centuries of struggle: we are free because we are free to be free. Results: we do what we want if we say we do it freely. Thus, voluntarily alienating oneself is an act that « produces » freedom. If I voluntarily agree to be the second wife of a polygamist man, would my « choice » make polygamy a practice of freedom? If I choose to wear a veil, does it become a symbol of freedom? I am not against the practice of the veil, everyone is free to do what they want, but against the speeches that make the veil a paragon of freedom for « Muslim » women. This is what « Islamic feminism » tells us. What is striking about this article*is that it ignores this position’s political dimension. The aims of its followers, led by Tarik Ramadan, go beyond women’s liberation concerns. They want to convince people of their religion’s virtues and to do so, they want to spread the idea that Koranic laws are the way to freedom and equality. If it were so, we would know it, we who have been fighting for decades for this. We have opted at long last for the separation of civil laws from religious laws. We can’t reform, so let’s split up! The main political objective of the so-called « Islamic feminism » offensive is to delegitimize our struggles, to delegitimize feminism, which is declined without adjectives, and especially not Islamic. It’s as absurd as saying Islamic human rights! Let us not import these false debates. The Egyptian and Tunisian Muslim Brotherhoods and Salafists of all latitudes have responded to these scabrous positions. Their aims jeopardize women’s rights when they exist, as in Tunisia, and are radically opposed to the conquest of rights where they are not recognized, i.e. the rest of the Arab world. They removed any doubts we might have about the merits of the Islamic way for women. A dead end if you commit to it.’’