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Banning the veil: Rights of women or anti-Islamic racism and communalism?

July 21, 2010 -- On July 13, the parliament of France, on the eve of Bastille Day, voted 335 to one in favour of preventing Muslim women wearing a full face-covering veil in public. The July 13 Le Monde said the new law was strongly supported by the right. The Socialist Party, Communist Party (PCF) and Green Party abstained. Anyone who chooses to wear a face covering on religious grounds now faces a fine of 150 euros or a “citizenship course”. The law does not come into effect until spring 2011 to allow a period of “education”. There is also a year in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros for anyone found guilty of forcing a woman to wear a veil, a penalty which is doubled if the “victim is a minor”.

Earlier this year, the Indian organisation Radical Socialist issued a statement taking up this wave of Islamophobic legislation in Europe.

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Statement by the Radical Socialist organisation, India

May 26, 2010 -- In country after country in Europe, political forces ranging from liberals (Belgium) to the openly right wing (Sarkozy in France, the Northern League in Italy) have been initiating actions to ban Muslim women from wearing the veil, or seeking punishment for those wearing it. The Netherlands and Italy already have regional or local restrictions, as do twenty municipalities in Belgium.

Now the Belgium lower house of parliament has voted to ban the burkha in the name of protecting Muslim women as well as security. This has had immediate impact in a string of countries with Christian and white majorities – from France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands inside the European Union, to Australia, with various prominent politicians calling for similar measures.

Two basic arguments have been put forward in defence of such actions. The first is that the veil, in any form, is degrading to women, and Islam is contemptuous to women. The second is that the veil hides the face and obscures the public interpersonal exchange -- which is supposed to be a gain specifically of Western civilization, as well as the fact that by so hiding the face it creates a security problem.

Our response to this is very clear. We are absolutely certain that Islamic fundamentalism/ communalism is repressive towards Muslim women, and not merely by seeking to impose various forms of control, by imposing social inequality, and so on. We have seen some of its horrible forms in the well publicised case of the Taliban and its rule in Afghanistan.

But several very important considerations compel us to warn that the picture, if we stop at this point, is utterly false and misleading. In the first place, there are diverse views within Islam. Second, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, imperialist ruling classes of North America and Europe have been busy creating a new “other”, this being Islam, which is supposed to stand against all the values of the Enlightenment, modernity and so on, and is seeking to erase progress.

It is quite true that Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary force. But what is forgotten or suppressed is the role of the imperialist West in fostering this Islamic fundamentalism – Saudi Wahabism as a bulwark of the imperialists and a sure supplier of oil, a precious commodity ever since the early 20th century, controlled by Britain and France in west Asia till the USA managed to support Saudi Arabia and got in. Islamic fundamentalism was also supported against Arab progressive bourgeois nationalism – e.g., the Islamic Brotherhood against Nasser in Egypt. Islamic fundamentalism was the chosen instrument of the USA in its proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, when opposition to the ill-judged and politically illegitimate Soviet invasion was used by the imperialists to shore up fundamentalist forces, out of which grew the Taliban. Finally, it should be remembered that even in Afghanistan after its spurious liberation the anti-women laws are much in force.

This leads us to the next issue. Attacking colonial subjects for their attitude to women is not a new strategy for imperialism. British colonialism and its allies pursued this strategy throughout British rule in India, from James Mill depicting Hindus as degenerates because they ill-treated women and by implication suggesting that colonial rule was therefore necessary, in the interests of women. Attacking Muslims because of the veil is a similar strategy. It is worth noting that in Belgium only a minority of Muslim women wear the burkha. In 2009, only 29 women were apprehended by the police in the municipalities that have already banned the burkha, while the total number of Muslims in Belgium is about 400,000.

Among those who wear the veil, there are those who do so out of choice, as well as those who are compelled by family and community pressure. Those who wear the veil out of choice do so either because they have internalised all the patriarchal, anti-women assumptions behind it, or because, as minorities, they are choosing to express their identities in that particular fashion. We disagree with their choice. We believe that ultimately, the dress code, targeting women, reflects reactionary views. In a very difficult situation, the New Anti-Capitalist Party of France, when one of its candidates, Ilham Moussaid, was targeted for wearing the headscarf, argued in a statement:

  • Ilham herself saw no contradiction between wearing a headscarf and abiding by the secular and feminist principles of the NPA.
  • The NPA leadership felt that notwithstanding Ilham’s own feelings, it considered the headscarf to be an instrument of subjection of women.
  • The NPA made a distinction between the debates within the social movements over Ilham’s headscarf, and the hysteria promoted by the right-wing parties. It would engage in serious debates within the social movement. But the right was hypocritical, considering that Sarkozy was willing to embrace the pope, and that bourgeois parties spent millions on financing private high schools, in particular Catholic ones.
  • The NPA also criticised the Communist Party for its opportunism, since on other occasions it too had counted women like Ilham in its list of candidates.

Like the NPA, we consider that the demand that women must cover their heads is a part of instrument of subjection of women. But, like the NPA again, we agree that if women have adopted this through choice, we need to politically discuss the issue and struggle to change the situation. In India, as in the West, the Muslim minority can be and are often targeted. We don’t hear anything when Hindu religious symbolisms are used, or when Hindu women are subjected to all manner of religious commands that make them inferiors. What seems “normal”, “civilised” for the majority community, appears different for the minorities.

In other words, we argue that every religion is historically an ideology of, among other things, gender oppression. It does not follow that calling for bans on all religions or religious customs is the correct way to fight such oppression. Classical Marxism did not require the inscription of atheism in the program of social movements. On the contrary, in his 1874 critique of the Blanquist émigrés from the Paris Commune, Engels rejected their call to abolish religion by decree. His view has been completely confirmed by 20th century experiences, as when he wrote that: "persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions."

The more minorities are persecuted for belonging to minority religions, the more they turn to so-called community heads for material and spiritual help. As a result, ghettoisation leads to the growth of minority communalism. However, classical Marxism, with essentially European and a little North American experience, had not dealt with the further complexities introduced by colonialism. Colonialism and its attendant racism means we must additionally reject persecution of minority religions because they constitute a dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, no less than political or economic persecution and discrimination.

In most countries where Islam is the religion of the majority, religion is still the dominant form of ideology. Retrograde, more or less literal, interpretations of Islam are used to retain entire populations in submission and cultural backwardness. The first victims are the women. In such countries, struggles for socialism must involve, from the start, an ideological struggle against religion as an instrument of oppression. But while women’s liberation must in all such cases involve liberation from the headscarf or its grosser forms, to impose “freedom” by law on women would be a travesty of emancipation. Neither women wearing the hijab or the burkha, nor men wearing the beard, should have the police set upon them for that reason.

Like the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other fundamentalisms aiming to imposed a puritan interpretation of religion as a code of life, if not as a mode of government, Islamic fundamentalism is a real danger to social progress and emancipatory struggles. By taking care to establish a clear distinction between religion as such and its fundamentalist interpretation, the most reactionary of all, it is necessary to fight Islamic fundamentalism ideologically and politically, as much in the Islamic countries as in the midst of the Muslim minorities in the West or elsewhere.

But that cannot however constitute an argument in favour of a public prohibition of the Islamic scarf. This amounts to singling out Islamic fundamentalism while remaining silent about other religious fundamentalists. Has there been a call to ban campaigns against abortion by Christian extremists?

Turning to the argument about security, we reject this outright. This is nothing but the profiling of particular groups of people as dangerous. There is no evidence that wearing the veil in public threatens public safety, public order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. And rather than help women who are coerced into wearing the veil, a ban would limit, if not eliminate, their ability to seek advice and support. Indeed, the primary impact of legislation of this kind would be to confine these women to their homes, rather than to liberate them. Nor will the act of treating Muslim women who believe that it is pious to wear the veil as criminals help in integrating Muslims in those countries.

Our stand can therefore be summed up by saying:

  • Oppose the ban on religion or custom specific dress as a form of racism and anti-minorityism.
  • No legal sanctions for following particular religions.
  • Politically combat the oppression of women using religion as an ideology.

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