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.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/21/2010 - 16:58


‎"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?"

Come on, guys. This is fallacious reasoning. You don't NOT do something because nothing is being done about other things! You know, two wrongs don't make a right. (As an aside, are you saying abortion is illegal in France, because if you were going to use this kind of fallacy, that might make this "argument" of yours more convincing for the undiscerning onlooker.)

The essential (and depressing!) difference between the socialist and the communist dialectic lies right here.

This issue IS a question of CLASS, notwithstanding any other class particularities yet to be resolved.

And thanks for slipping in that PC euphemistic expression "the Islamic 'SCARF'"! It's a bloody BURKA--big difference in discernment. How class-conscious do you think women who "choose" to wear a Burka are; in other words, how does a woman's "choice" to wear a burka marry up with the materialist conception of history and the nature of the proletarian?

Insofar as "your" stand goes:

"Politically combat the oppression of women using religion as an ideology."

Would you care to explain to me exactly how this platitude might manifest in reality and what "using religion as an ideology" (religion being the quintessential political arm of BOURGEOIS interest leveled at anesthetising proletarian consciousness) has to do with class struggle and the advance of communism?

So the question is, in historical REALITY, what CLASS interest does promoting a woman's "choice" (and in what context, proletarian or bourgeois, is it seen as a CHOICE) to wear a burka serve?

> 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.

This anti-woman law can be found here

still in the section of "laws in preparation" under the titel
"Projet de loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l'espace public"
togethere with documentation of the parliamentary debates.

It should soon be moved to the section of the published laws

The law innocently prohibits just to wear clothing destined to dissimulate
the face, but then excludes all those who do it professionally, e.g. cops in
their hangmen's masks. But the reasons for this are explained in the
document explaining the motives of the law, it makes clear that the law is to
establish the right of the patriarchal state to order women how much of their
body they have to cover or to display to the public.

According to the wording of the law, what appears here as a sculpture by
Houdon would be illegal and punishable as a crime if it were a living woman:
but not because most of the body is _not_ covered, but because the shawl,
the only clothing, dissimulates the face of the mostly naked woman.

Will women wearing a net in front of their face as in this image
be punished under the law, when the net gets knitted somewhat tighter?

The interesting part comes in article 4, where it changes the penal code,
making it a criminal act to force a person because of her/his gender to cover
the face.

Well, I think it is a crime to force anybody to wear what the enforcer wants
to see in the other person, but then why singling out clothing which covers
the face? My father tried to forces his daughters not to wear trousers and to
wear long skirts covering all of the legs. Would he have been punished under
this law? The rights of the Paris fashion industry to dictated women what to
wear in the next season must remain untouched...
Frankfurt, Germany

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/21/2010 - 17:14


The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay, more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If, by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests; they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.

The "dangerous class", the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue. In the condition of the proletariat, those of old society at large are already virtually swamped. The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations; modern industry labor, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character.

Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.

Submitted by Des Guasch (not verified) on Wed, 07/21/2010 - 19:36


Tell me, how will the non-wearing of the burkha make them less of a Muslim?
Tell me, too, how the wearing of burkha helped criminals pursue their activities.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, is starting a crusade of his own. Unlike his predecessors from dark ages he's not going to send an army of monks to conquer some holy site or to fight the unfaithful. He's going to do his battle on the field of fashion. Sarkozy proposed banning of niqabs and burkas, traditional veils of muslim women:

"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic."

Which might be OK if it was for the benefit of the women. But it's not.

If he was aiming for the benefit of the women he would fight for possibility to choose whether one wants to wear veiling or not. But there's not such a thing in his speech. Mr. Sarkozy made himself clear: He wants veils banned. So, instead of one way of oppression he proposes another. Instead of "you must" he says "you must not". Is that a way to fight for one's freedom? No it isn't. His only problem with those subservient women is that it's not him they are subservient to. It's not him who tell them what they have to wear.

Of course there is a deeper story behind all this. Two of them, actually.

First, France (and many other European countries) have problem with islam. Muslim groups are living in those countries but hardly integrate. Same as the Swiss ban of minarets, this is a (not so) subtle move against muslims in Europe. Despite Sarkozy's words, this IS against religion. But we're open-minded, politically correct Europeans so we can't say that.

Second, some of the muslim women are oppressed. Yes, they are forced by their families and community to be covered from top of the head to toes. And while I am all against that, banning it won't free those women. Even if the ban pass the parliament, those women won't get in a better position. They just will be out of sight. Which is a quite acceptable solution for many.

There is one word that sums these two: hypocrisy. We won't tell that we're fighting religious war, nor we'll offer opportunity to oppressed women to free themselves and integrate into society. We'll tell them what to wear so they don't poke our sensitive eyes and remind us of the problems we have. If due to impossibility to go out in their clothing they become forced never to leave their homes, we'll be sorry but at least we won't see them to be reminded about them. If they all get annoyed by this and go away, even the better.

But doing this, existing problems just gets one more layer. And beneath that layer things will only boil for a while. Until hell breaks loose.

We do not stand with the ruling class and its state. We do not stand with imperialism and its racism and communalism. it is easy to make sneering comments about complex reality. Much more difficult to change that reality in a positive direction.
1. Let us suppose all progressive forces, in the name of class, decided that forcibly ripping off the scarf is what is wanted. By the way there are varieties of Islamic headgear, and the use of words like bloody simply show you are bloody ignorant about that. But let it go. This has two consequences, both linked, if you care to listen to logic and history
a. It turns large sections of Muslims, including women, hostile to those who claim to be progressive. In the long run, the consequences can be damning. It is the economistic left, the bread and butter equals class left, that will, after the experiences of the 20th century, say this. In India, any narrow politics of that kind will ensure that Muslim women will be systematically excluded from any party building strategy ,and even the channels of building mass work with them will be blocked. for example, there exist large numbers of Muslim women's groups who fight against the conservatives like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and so on. But they all have some tell tale marker of being Muslim, often some kind of cover on the head -- THE SCARF, you know, not necessarily a full burkha. In the massive peasant struggles that broke out in west Bengal, especially in nandigram, there were plenty of Muslim women, and some did wear even the burkha. Should we always refrain from supporting such people? Should we argue that unless they take off the headgear we will not fight alongside them? Thank you, we will not do so. When we are building a mass working class party we will get plenty of women and men who do not conform to some ideal norm. The thing is, when it is people of the majority, we tend to ignore certain dimensions. Why all this bother about Ilham and the scarf? Because the Right raised it. In India, women, not only of the right wing, but als of many left parties, if they are of Hindu origin, even if not practising Hinuds, often wear, when married, some signs -- a mangalsutra, a vermilion line on the centre parting, the saree with the head covered. If we follow the argument about religions and symbols of oppression, which these too are in various ways, do left parties become campaigners for these issues as the central issues? Do we make it a condition that a woman joining a left party has to wear X, Y and Z? And let me remind that the forcible attempts at annihilating religions in the Soviet Union ended in a fiasco and the massive return of religions and their reactionary role.
b. You can make laws to protect but it is difficult to make banning laws of this kind. The women would be forced by their male kin, in as many cases as possible, to not go out. In other words, the so called progressives will play a role in ghettoising those women.

2. Politically combat etc -- it means we campaign against Muslim communalism. We do. You are welcome to come and see what we do. But we make a distinction between our campaign against Muslim communalism, since we campaign even more vigorously against fascist Hindu communalism; and the Hindu rights' campaign, for in its discourse, minorities are communal per se, because they try to preserve any sign of their identity. So how do we politically combat? For one, our comrades, especially women comrades, have been part of all campaigns for Uniform Gender Just Civil codes. That would rule out discrimination against women -- Hindu, Muslim, Christain. See Vibhuti Patel's essay in A. R. Desai Ed, Women's Liberation and Politics of Religious Personal Laws in India; Vibhuti Patel and Kunal Chattopadhyay Ed -- Reaching for Half the Sky, and articles by others in various indian languages. It also means we make this part of our socialist campaign. But we do not ally with ruling classes, for whom Muslim communalism is a target because they want to divide the working class -- Muslims are backward, Muslims oppress their women, etc. So, no goos Hindu should ally with any Muslim. This is the message. Ditto, in Christian majority countries.