– Yağmur Uygarkızı: Blinded by the Veil

Yağmur Uygarkızı: Blinded by the Veil


A graduate in political sciences at UCL (University College London), Yağmur has been conducting research on prostitution and veiling for several years. Her texts, available in English, French and Italian, are published, among others, on the Revolution Féministe, Resistenza Femminista and FiLiA Blog sites. She has also translated for Ressources Prostitution and TradFem. She is the co-founder of Radical Girlsss, a group of young women from the European Network of Migrant Women.

« Blinded by the Veil

Loss of critical thinking has made the veil acceptable. It took less than fifteen years for Atatürk’s secular Turkey to be veiled up. But this is not just Turkey. This is Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and more. Women have already experienced these things. The veil is only the tip of a continental iceberg of misogynist violence. The beginning of the end.

As women, we are not welcome in this world. The ongoing global genocide is a proof of this[1]. If we ever manage to see the light, then survive our early days, we must sign up to stringent terms and conditions. They will not protect us and yet we diligently abide by them.

One of the seemingly simple and yet false conditions is that the home is for the woman and the street is for the man. The private versus the public. The internal organs versus the external organs. The minus versus the plus. We know the chorus. As if there was not enough violence in the domestic sphere, we pay extra heed in the dangerous and forbidden public space. We make sure we don’t stay out too late at night. We forsake open clothes for more covering ones. We attempt to go unnoticed so that we are left unbothered. In other words, we change our behaviour in accordance with the attitude of men. Believing it will protect us. To no avail.

The veil is in line with this misogyny. It is the manifestation of a desire not to see women in the public – male – space. The veil aims to erase women. If you dare to leave your home, at least have the decency to cover your dreadful and so arousing female body. Hide the fact that you are a woman. The positive – superior – man can move around freely, you negative – inferior – woman must be contained.

The veil also acts as a leash. The woman cannot exist independently of a master. She has to be owned by a male figure to be honourable, whether this figure is a god or a parent. And the woman can only exist to their eyes of her legitimate proprietor. Vision concretises existence. If one cannot see women, then one is one step closer to eliminating us. The veil is the punishment for the fault of being born female. And this meaning is independent of its cultural or religious attachment, whether in today’s Afghanistan or in Ancient Rome[2].

Mixing your left with your right: political ambiguity playing into the hands of sexist traditions in Europe

Iran, 1936. The Shah Reza Pahlavi bans the veil.[3]

Egypt, the 1950s. The President Gamal Abdel Nasser mocks in a speech the Muslim’s Brotherhood’s leader’s request to veil all Egyptian women.[4]

Tunisia, 1957. The President Bourguiba forbids the wearing of the veil in schools.[5]

Today, for the secular feminists –pardon the pleonasm– of the aforementioned countries, not much is left of those early conquests. But what is more painful is to see widespread confusion on the issue in Europe. The debate in Europe has put the secularists in a difficult position. We are torn between a racist Right and a lax Left.

            Right with fallacy

University of Cairo, Egypt 1978. (the girls are without veil)
University of Cairo, Egypt 1995. (almost all the girls are in veil)

The Right has manipulated secularism and feminism to pursue its xenophobic agenda. It is very uncomfortable for anti-racist secularists to be hastily assigned to the same box as that of Right. Some in the Right oppose the veil because they believe it’s the intrinsic sign of Islam. To show them it isn’t, let’s take the example of secularist Turkey. Since the beginning of last century, there have been dramatic changes in the use of the veil: Turkish women swung between open and veiled days. However, the Turkish population has always overwhelmingly declared to be Muslim. So, if what is believed to be the main reason for the use of the veil has not changed, whereas the manifestation of it has, there must be another variable. One may look for epochal, political, commercial, ideological or fashion changes.

 This same Right never ponders the meaning of nuns’ veils. It never denounces the Church’s strongly misogynistic and at times paedo-criminal practices. Although it claims to be supporting women’s rights, we rarely see conservatives marching for better public provision of services for women. Of course not, in the UK where the Conservative Party has decided to render the word entirely meaningless instead. But that story is for another day.

            Left with no cause

It might be that the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau did shake the hands of the women he is greeting and that image is just the capture of an instant –I will give him the benefit of the doubt– but the reaction to it is symptomatic of the whatever is left of the Left I am describing. Instead of seeing this attitude as extremely misogynistic and xenophobic (“Girls give you cooties you can’t touch them!”), it is praised as respectful.
(Photo: Screenshot of Sara Soueidan tweet)

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Left has fallen prey to a conservative sexist trap for the sake of electoral conquest and out of fear of appearing narrow-minded (perhaps some good old marxismo-machismo played into it too, who knows). In the name of cultural relativism, the intellectual leftist class swallows everything religious misogynists shove down their throat. There is too much confusion between culture and ideology. Misogyny is not a culture. There is no beautiful sexist tradition to safeguard on behalf of human cultural heritage.

This intellectual Left prides itself on its tolerance, openness and anti-colonialism, sacrificing universalism. However, preserving certain rights for oneself while believing that others can contend with less is the real colonialism. It is not rare to hear remarks such as “at least [the veil] gives women the chance to get out of home”[6]. It seems acceptable that women can be trapped indoors. Why withhold the rights you enjoy from people who are foreign to you? Why do these so-called “Muslim women” not deserve the same rights?

In the name of religious and cultural diversity adversaries of post-colonial thinking are playing the game of the racist Right. A world of simplistic, stereotyped appearances is being built. One that blurs individuality. “Muslim women” wear veils. Arab men have beards. In Egypt, women are born with a veil on their head. A bit like the annoying dolls in Disneyland: exaggerated costumes so that everyone knows their place. It is reassuring to have one part of the world looking one way and the other looking another. Reactionaries around the world aspire to that so they can pretend there are fundamental differences among people. Us versus them. A division rendering their existence vital. As long as the pious mother of seven in Tunisia keeps her veil, no one will notice she is the mirror of the pious unveiled mother of seven in Spain. Each is comforted with the idea that the other lives worse off.

In reality, those mystical women from the Muslim world live and look like the ones from the Christian world, if it is ever possible to talk of such worlds. My grandmother is blond, has clear grey eyes. She is single, goes on holiday with her friends, manages everything on her own, dresses colourfully with no headscarf. She calls herself Muslim. There must be a mistake. It doesn’t fit the scheme. It doesn’t fit the scheme because she is not making her religion her main identity. Because she is Turkish, secularist, an artist and much more before being Muslim. A religion – a belief– is being turned into an ethnicity. This helps religious preachers in their aim of creating an increasingly fanatical world. Religion feeds religion. If you accept that a woman veils in line with her religious beliefs, you also have to accept that a mayor does not celebrate a same-sex wedding in the name of their religious beliefs.[7] Or that doctors refuse to carry out abortions. Or that, I don’t know, municipal agents should not accept our ballot papers: Why should women be allowed to vote anyway, right? Freedom of conscience. Once you accept the requests of one, you have to accept of the requests of all.

Faux-feminism, real danger

There is yet another trap some journalists, intellectuals, politicians and friends have fallen into: the “feminist” trap. Wearing a veil has become a matter of choice, of freedom: the ultimate feminist outfit! If it is so much of a free choice, why do men not cover in veils? Why is it that the most powerful in our society do not constrain themselves with clothing? What kind of freedom stipulates that not even a strand of hair can be seen? Is imprisoning oneself freedom? Are all choices liberating? Maybe the people promoting the veil as a feminist outfit do not realise the constraints it implies. It is not just a piece of cloth that covers your hair. You are not supposed to show any flesh. Every single day. Pouring rain or burning sun.

Another argument put forward under the guise of feminism is the desire to be less sexualised. By covering up, we women would be valued for who we are and not our appearance. It is not by covering ourselves, while leaving men’s behaviour unchanged that we fight hyper-sexualisation. The veil with its deformed outfit acknowledges that a woman’s body is essentially sexual. It affirms that women will not be listened to because of how we look. Instead of altering the limiting perceptions people have about us, it accepts them. I will not change my appearance to be taken seriously. What is wrong with my arm? My legs? My mouth? Why should I pretend I do not have breasts, hips, a belly, hair in order to be listened to? “In the end, the burqa is the woman treated as an object par excellence. So sexual that she cannot be shown[8]”,  claims the writer Alizé Meurisse.

Modesty. Decency. Yet more sexually assigned virtues laid forward in the defence of the veil. Oddly, men are not expected to display modesty and decency with regard to exposing skin to the gaze of the opposite sex. Why is it that women are expected to hide from the gaze of men, while men cannot avert their gaze? The “honour” of men is never questioned, even though they manage to make a woman dishonourable simply by looking at her. Men do not change their behaviour because their behaviour is the given one. They are the subject and others, women, must act accordingly. If men are aroused, it is women’s fault. Men’s existence is taken for granted. Women’s existence is a mistake. The veil is a mere eraser.

 Still another puzzling element in today’s “feminist”, or rather faux-feminist, defence of the veil is the willingness to preserve what is believed to be a Muslim tradition. Why is there so much respect for Islam? After all, it’s just another monotheistic misogynistic religion. To show how ridiculous this line of argument is, let’s reverse the roles. Imagine that feminists in Muslim-majority countries started opposing contraception to preserve Catholic women’s traditions, comforted by the voices of women telling how liberated they feel by being faithful to the Church. Nonsense.

I will leave the conclusion on this sex-based outfit to the eloquent Chadortt Djavann: “The veil is reserved for women, and it is the symbol of the submission of women to men. To make women wear the veil is to assert the ideology that stipulates an essential distinction between men and women and accords them different rights.”[9]

What’s next?

Mother, Daughter and Doll (2013) by Boushra Almutawakel.
Photo: The Guardian

I breathed in. I breathed out. I am here. I am not giving up. I came here naked. I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed. —Nil Karaibrahimgil

To comfort the insecure intellectuals in Europe: “refusing the veil does not mean accepting racism[10]” (Wassyla Tamzali). The veil is the epitome of the growing acceptance of sexist practices under the guise of foreign mystique. Among those practices, there is: the refusal of touching women, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, virginity tests, etc. The type of list one wishes was exhaustive. It is not by defending sexism that you bring in more cultural diversity. The veil subordinates women to men, settling a glaring divide between the two. It is not about freedom, it implies many constraints. Self-effacement is not a right.

The veil in Europe is a massive trend at the moment. I would like to tell my “progressive” friends that they are making a mistake by wholeheartedly defending it. They sometimes make it sound as if it was a simple outfit. It is not: it has a deep meaning. I do not understand the attempt to normalise it. I do not understand why it is accepted without question; why so many little girls, from the age of 3, are made to cover.

Feminists from Muslim-majority countries have seen how daunting things can get.

Maybe one has to see a couple having lunch outside on a sizzling hot day to understand the unfairness of the veil and the hypocrisy of the concept of modesty. This couple in question involving a man in shorts with a short-sleeved polo, and his wife in a long black cloth, with only her eyes visible, condemned to the straw, like a child, and struggling not to show her so astonishingly sensual and sinful mouth.

            Or maybe, one has to see a little girl, about seven, tumbling on her long covering black veil, attempting to play football with her brother.

            All of this can go very quickly.

            One summer you visit a traditional town of Turkey. Men and women, side by side, hairs dancing with the wind.

            One summer you come back. A veil has trapped those women’s hair. Long skirts have replaced comfortable shorts. Men are still enjoying the breeze.

            One summer you come back. There are no longer any women in the streets.

It took less than fifteen years for Atatürk secular Turkey to be veiled up.

But this is not just Turkey. This is Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and more. Women have already experienced these things. The veil is only the tip of a continental iceberg of misogynist violence. The beginning of the end.

[1] This article on the grim reality of gynocide in India is a good start: https://gulfnews.com/lifestyle/why-girls-in-india-are-being-killed-1.1127650 .

[2]  Take the example of the Roman aristocrat Caius Sulpicious Gallus for leaving the home unveiled.  “Gaio Sulpicio Gallo” http://www.romanoimpero.com/2013/06/gaio-sulpicio-gallo.html

[3] Namakydoust, Azadeh, “Covered in messages; The veil as a political tool”; May 8, 2003; The Iranian http://www.iranian.com/Women/2003/May/Veil/

[4] [“Gamal Abdel Nasser on the Muslim Brotherhood (subtitled)”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX4RK8bj2W0

[5] Kéfi, Ridha “Et Bourguiba libéra la femme”, Jeune Afrique, 28/08/2006 http://www.jeuneafrique.com/62898/archives-thematique/et-bourguiba-lib-ra-la-femme/

[6]  “Le club 28′ revisite l’actualité de la semaine”,19 août 2016, 9’12” http://sites.arte.tv/28minutes/fr/le-club-28-revisite-lactualite-de-la-semaine-28minutes-39

[7]  “Vaucluse : une maire refuse de marier deux homosexuelles”, leparisien.fr, 24/08/2013; http://www.leparisien.fr/societe/vaucluse-une-maire-refuse-de-marier-deux-homosexuelles-24-08-2013-3076783.php

[8] ,Meurisse, Alizé, Neverdays, Editions Allia (2013) : 119

[9]  Halling, Kirsten, and Djavann Chahdortt. “Entretien Avec Chahdortt Djavann.” Dalhousie French Studies 92 (2010): 139-44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41705542.

[10]  Tamzali, Wassyla, “Une femme musulmane”, Une femme en colère, Gallimard (2009): 75