– Chahla Chafiq: ‘’Choosing the veil is not equivalent to choosing a lipstick’’

Chahla Chafiq: ‘’Choosing the veil is not equivalent to choosing a lipstick.’’


Left-wing activist, Chahla Chafiq fled the Khomeini regime in 1982 to go into exile in France, where after a PHD she became a doctor and researcher in sociology. Author of numerous books including « Political Islam, Sex and Gender » (Islam Politique, Sexe et Genre), « Women under the veil » (Femme sous le voile), and a talented writer of fiction (« Ask the mirror »). French version here.

On the veil:

« The philosophy of the veil, which exists in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity, consists in withdrawing women from men’s illicit gaze. A thorough analysis shows that it is indicative of the social and political situation of the society concerned. From the moment religion leaves the realm of spirituality to become the law that manages collective and individual life, faith enters a process of ideologization. The veil becomes the banner of the Islamist political project. Ideological re-Islamisation, which has been taking place in many countries since the 1970s, is systematically linked to the development of Islamists. This is the case in Egypt, Iran, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Starting from the political vacuum created by the dictatorship and the defeat of humanist movements, political Islam proposes its ideology as an alternative offer. To change secularized laws and rules, and then establish its ideal Islamic society, it went through either the use of weapons or the use of ballot boxes. Islamists propagate the veil as an identity marker and propose it supposedly for the respect of women’s dignity. Protected and loved, they are, according to them, complementary to men. Equality is rejected as supposedly « Western » and not in line with « Muslim culture », although this principle is universal and universalisable. Islamists knowingly confuse sexual freedom, prostitution and pornography. They praise their conception of the family as the guarantor of women’s safety, provided they comply with the norms and laws dictated in God’s name. This perspective can make sense to Muslims seeking guidance in a world in crisis. Islamists rehabilitate sexist and sexual values to offer them a « reassuring » and « valuing » identity framework. This ideological offer can flourish where the social, cultural and political vacuum is widening, in a so-called Islamic country but also beyond, as in France.

There are various reasons why a woman may veil herself. But this gesture trivializes a sexual sign and symbolizes a femininity that is submissive to men. Women’s bodies are thus marked as objects of sexual lust. This goes hand in hand with the demonization of women’s liberation, presented in Islamist propaganda as a source of moral depravity and family dislocation. The question is obviously different depending on whether you wear it by choice or by constraint. An Islamist woman is not found behind every veil. But the dialogue must not stop at the question of choice. On the contrary, it must continue by exploring the trajectory of the person concerned, the atmosphere in which she lives and the social and political evolution of her environment. Some sociologists and intellectuals believe that free choice closes the subject. However, the choice of the veil is not equivalent to the choice of a lipstick. Women are forced, in the name of god, to have a sexist relationship with their own bodies. It becomes a place of sin and temptation. In the same movement, men appear to be carriers of uncontrollable virility. All this leads to establishing gender diversity as dangerous and demonizing sexual relations. What are the consequences in terms of gender equality and women’s freedom? It is this question that must be answered. The « chosen » veil, a very common phenomenon nowadays, is a trap. At the origins of Islam, when this religion did not yet exist as the source of laws, the veil did not exist. It arrived later, with Sharia law and its vision of the patriarchal family where the man is the head and protects the woman (inferior in law, she is worth half a man) and the children. For this to happen, women have a duty to serve the family. The veil is proposed to them to embody the gendered division and hierarchization of roles. It symbolically creates a gendered wall, supposed to protect the boundaries of lawful and unlawful by separating the sexes. Paradoxically, by marking women with this division, it sexualizes them. It marks their bodies as a place of temptation, disorder, sin, that disrupts the group’s chastity. Many young women who choose the veil say they do so in order not to be considered sexual objects, when it is precisely the sexual dimension of the female body that this choice exacerbates. I understand that, in some cases, wearing the veil is a choice. But, as with any other choice, this choice immediately raises another question: what are the consequences of this choice for gender equality and women’s freedom? This immediately leads me to another question: why is this choice not offered to men? Some will say: « They have a beard ». Yes, but it’s still very different: the beard is a way to show off manhood, while the philosophy of the veil is to hide femininity. So as not to awaken temptations.

The actual social and political crisis can explain Islamism’s success because of the exclusion problems and the collapse of ideologies that were intended to be progressive. The void has been filled by an identity alternative, extreme right-wing on the one hand, Islam on the other, both of which belong to the new fascism. There is a crisis of meaning, of values, so that these values, those of human rights, women’s rights and social progress, are no longer defended with the same force as before. Iran has been the laboratory for all this. Revolutionary Islam, which triumphed there, was intended to be just and egalitarian elements that are present today in European Islamism: the fight against the oppressed, the fight against corruption, the moral question. But, following this logic, we arrive at the community alternative, Islam as a religion becoming the source of social laws. I have noticed, in my work in the suburbs, that we start with the veil, then we get to the absence in swimming or biology classes. Step by step, we are approaching a communitarian alternative. Through my work on immigration, I have been able to see at work the mechanisms that allow the development of a fascinating utopia, based on identity, with the patriarchal tradition at its core, and therefore with the question of women at the heart of the project. It is no coincidence that the veil is the symbol of this strategy. Islamism has in front of itself women who have earned their rights to study or work. Some currents of Islamism (which is a multi-tendency ideology ranging from liberals to radicals) take this irreversible movement into consideration. For the latter, the wearing of the veil does not necessarily mean that women are locked in the domestic sphere or excluded from public spaces and society, knowledge and work. In their propaganda, they promote the image of a community that protects men and women from unhealthy temptations so that they can act together to build a family and a society according to Islamic norms and laws. From this perspective, propaganda for the veil is rather made by presenting it, on the one hand, as a bulwark against sexual and moral disorder, and on the other hand, as a means of restoring women’s dignity by removing them from the position of sexual objects. The veil is also becoming a lawful condition for Muslim women to access the public space. Hence inventions like the burkini. As Tariq Ramadan and his followers say: « The veil is the passport for Muslim women to become citizens. « But why should they need a passport to access the citizen space? The reality is that women have acquired rights, and Islamists are trying to adapt their strategy to this major evolution, they want to channel their strength in the direction of their project. »

On cultural relativism:

« Many feminists say, « Yes, I consider the Islamic veil to be a sexist phenomenon, but I prefer to leave this debate to Muslim women because I am white, because I am a Westerner. » These words push me into a dead end. They lock me into an identity that is stuck to my skin, from which it seems I can never escape. Yes, I would be the one to speak, because I would belong to the ummah, to that mass of Muslims whose past, present and future would inevitably be determined by religion. And here are the « white » feminists who are immediately called upon to take a benevolent distance, dedicated to neutrality! Too bad if the imposition of the veil is not only a matter of Islamic law and finds its counterpart in other religious laws! Too bad if a significant part of the women in burka are indeed « white » and western women! Never mind if these phenomena question the world and our society about the socio-cultural and political crises that they are going through! All this is casually dismissed. There is only one certainty left: I and people like me, from so-called Islamic countries, carry on our shoulders the challenges of this debate. It must take place between them, the Islamists, and us, the humanist and feminist « Muslims ». Yet, is it not true that here in the West, the instrumentalization of « culture » and « worship » to the detriment of women’s freedom is an invariant for those who want to maintain women in a state of subordination? Is it not true that the struggle for emancipation is only advanced here by deconstructing the fixed image of the « woman », an image justified by the use of « nature » and « culture »? Is it not true that this image only acts to keep women in a predetermined « being », to prevent them from transgressing closed identities, to restrict their possibilities of becoming?

The spread of concepts such as Islamophobia, which replaces the more appropriate term anti-Muslim racism, encourages these identity logics in a context marked by the development of ideological-religious movements. Indeed, anti-Muslim racism refers to a vision that stigmatizes Muslims as inferior beings and justifies their rejection, while the concept of Islamophobia serves to prevent any critical approach to the Islamic religion, as well as any fight against Islamism (hence the aberrant accusation made against Caroline Fourest and Charlie Hebdo’s journalists of being Islamophobic). The instrumentalization of this term also encourages the creation of similar concepts. Last year, Christian fundamentalist activists who prevented performances of Roméo Castellucci’s play on the concept of the Son of God’s face at the Théâtre du Châtelet raised the flag of the fight against Christianophobia. Believers who do not want to live under the diktats of the order proposed by ideological-religious movements are among the victims of their development. Just look at what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom, justice and access to democratic rights were the leitmotivs of popular protests. But Islamist orientations go against these impulses under the pretext of respect for religious identity. In Iran, this logic led to a disaster. Women’s rights have been repressed; freedoms have been violated and censorship justified in the name of respect for Sharia law. A year before the fatwa against Rushdie, in the summer of 1988, thousands of Iranian political prisoners, the majority of whom were young people under the age of 30, were hanged on the pretext that they had been soldiers in the war against Islam. A significant part of them were Muslim believers. These experiences should alert us to the dangers of visions that present Islam as the source of a global and globalizing Muslim identity and tend to justify Islamist violence against disrespect for Islam as clashes of civilization. »

On Islamic feminism:

« It does not stand up to a thorough analysis of religion as a source of law. As soon as they become a source of law, all religions, including Islam, advocate for a gendered hierarchy, necessary for gender complementarity (each person’s rights according to their duties). There are, of course, various interpretations that can allow for reforms (such as in Algeria, where women have access to education, paid work and public space, while at the same time are being subjected to inequalities justified by Sharia law, particularly in the area of family law). As for the reformist or revolutionary Islamist currents, they do not send women back to their homes either but invite them to become the actresses of an ideal Islamic society and to preserve its identity by accepting the gendered roles’ distribution advocated by religious law. Thus, in any case, as soon as freedom and equality are denied under the pretext of preserving Islamic identity, the real goal is only the preservation of the patriarchal family. And all that follows are inequalities, modestly called « Islamic equity » and justified in the name of women’s dignity. Can feminism really waive women’s freedom and gender equality? When supporters of « Islamic feminism » put themselves in the perspective of leaving the religion-law, they are led to put themselves in a secular perspective. In this case, why talk about « Islamic feminism »? Why not simply say that they are feminists and want to emancipate themselves from patriarchal laws based on religion? Moreover, well before the emergence of « Islamic feminism », feminists in so-called « Muslim » countries used open interpretations of religious texts to advance their claims, while protecting themselves from heresy accusations. However, they did not describe this approach as « Islamic feminism ». The problem is that this concept has identity consequences that benefit Islamists. The latter make Islam an identity that encompasses the past, present and future of Muslims, a clearly totalitarian approach. To put feminism, which requires an open future, in a religious perspective, is to create identity impasses and prevent the autonomous individuality of women and men.

We must be careful not to pretend that women’s equality can be achieved through religion. When religion becomes the law, it is always the woman who suffers. As soon as she is forced to wear the veil or restrict her freedoms, how could she emancipate herself? Islamic feminists claim the right to wear the veil as a political, identity or religious gesture. But if wearing the veil is lifting oneself, why, then, don’t men wear it? They must wear the beard, symbol and mark of virility. The woman, on the other hand, must hide her skin and long hair. In the end, we always come to the women’s bodies as the place for all temptations. Feminism is a political project that aims to change the current social and societal model. How can we succeed in accomplishing this project through religious law or even spirituality? We must be careful with the political recuperation of the term « feminism ». Political Islam, the establishment of a state based on Islam’s principles, can never be a democratic model favourable to individual freedoms, let alone those of women. Religion must remain a private matter, not a law that is imposed on others. And the only way to prevent laws enacted by religious authorities is through secularism. I can fully understand having faith and I am therefore in favour of the concept of feminist Muslims. But when we talk about Muslim and/or Islamic feminism, we essentialize the fact of being Muslim first and foremost. It is made into a global identity, as if there were only one way to be Muslim, one way to practice Islam. Yet, there are Sunni Muslims, Wahhabis, Shiites, Sufis, etc., with very different practices from one country to another, from one people to another, from one history to another. Like there’s not a single way to be a woman or a feminist. The concept of Muslim feminism is about creating particularities, sub-categories. And, in the end, to divide it a little more. As if it were a question of creating two feminisms: the one, supposedly « white », « western », « atheist », against the « Arab-Muslim world », supposedly united.

A simple look at the history of struggles for access to democratic rights in Islamic countries shows that there have always been approaches to re-reading Islamic teachings, but feminists have never confined themselves to these approaches or developed a populist doctrine to find a path to liberation that would be adapted to the wishes of the Muslim people. Let us recall, for example, that Habib Bourguiba’s reforms in Tunisia regarding women’s rights were based on a progressive interpretation of Islam. This contradiction crosses, and often more significantly than under Tunisia’s Burguiba, a significant number of Islamic countries that are undergoing a process of modernization without the modernizing state assuming political modernity and its democratic principles.In this context, aggravated by corruption generated by dictatorship and injustice, Islamism presents itself as a political alternative capable of mobilizing, all the more so as it takes advantage of the means that the legitimacy of the religious institution offers it. It thus advocates a return to Islam for the construction of an ideal society that would offer men and women a dignified place in a just and healthy society. The Islamic feminism theory, by making Islam the source and horizon of feminist praxis and projects, beyond the will of its creators and defenders, is an essentialized Islam that perfectly intersects the objectives of Islamism and goes against the creative autonomy projected by feminism. By creating an identity label, it sends feminists who have been acting for decades in Islamic countries back to the box of non-authentic ones. In the 1970s, the development of the feminist movement opened up new fields of research on gender relations, while Islamic feminism is first and foremost an academic invention dating back to the 1990s and an attempt to recover all movements that criticize patriarchal visions of Islam, seek to deconstruct stereotypical images of women in Islam and reinterpret Sharia law in favour of women’s rights. However, all these approaches predate Islamic feminism. For example, in Tunisia, since the 1950s, reforms that improve the personal status of women have promoted an open interpretation of Islamic principles. However, these approaches have never been described as Islamic feminism.

The preservation of Islamic identity in the face of Western culture is the key element of Islamic feminism. This identity strategy is built on a double mirage: 1/the reduction of Islam to a globalizing identity that erases the diversity of individuals’ trajectories, their modes of relationship to religion and their beliefs 2/the reduction of feminism to Western culture that transforms feminists from so-called Islamic countries into alienated beings, subjected to the imperialist West. This essentialization, coupled with the reference to the sacred, obviously undermines feminist struggles, which are based on the autonomy of individuals to become autonomous, and it is an obstacle to this becoming. It also discredits any feminist and secular struggle. »