COMMENT: Condemning women to the Chaar devari (four walls)—Raaza Jamshed - Saturday, April 30, 2011

Source :\04\30\story_30-4-2011_pg3_2

At a time when the world is in need of innovative social solutions, the French ban shows a death of imagination and a lack of creativity on the part of French politicians

As a Muslim woman who has spent most of her life in a supposed Islamic Republic, Pakistan, I am both familiar and viscerally sensitive to the politicisation of the female body in the name of religion.

Growing up in the Pakistan of the 1980s, I remember the fully veiled female figure as a permanent fixture of the urban landscape. Every now and then, a billowing figure in black would be spotted, often fighting her way through a swarm of irritable men. In this state-sponsored political-cultural enterprise, the chador and chaar devari (veil and four walls) were made a metaphor for Muslim identity as it came to be defined in General Zia’s regime. The woman’s veiled body and its supposed place within the confines of the four walls of her home was an emblem for legitimacy of the authoritarian regime. Thirty years later, I see a startling resemblance between that situation in Pakistan and the one we are witnessing in France today.

The contemporary Muslim world, I sadly recognise, has indeed had a long history of turning the female body into a field of political contestation. From Pakistan to Tehran to Saudi Arabia, repressive regimes have all exploited their female citizens at one point or another in the course of their respective histories. Notwithstanding this, I believe that with the legislating of the ban on the face veil, France has joined the same misogynist roster. The means of manipulation might differ but the end result is no better. France is imposing its own prescription of the usage of the Muslim veil, and it is doing so in the name of secularism, which is religiously adhered to by some senior French parliamentarians. A pressing question, thus, comes to the fore: how is France any different from the tyrannical regimes in their repression of women when it too has exploited the woman’s body as an arena of political point-scoring?

The French government passed the law banning the veil on the grounds that the veil symbolises the oppression of Muslim women. Supposedly, it contradicts the profoundly secular, La Cité, character of the state as well as the goals of maintaining a post-Revolution identity. For the French, the veil also translates into Muslim separatism and resistance towards assimilation into French civil society. What is persistently missing from the debate, however, is why and how the practice of a minority of a minority — some 2,000 women wear the face veil in France in a population of six million Muslims — could possibly become a state of exception in the Republican Universalist norms of France.

Reports posit that the ban has only helped to marginalise an already peripheral minority and deepen its sense of victimhood. It has also complicated the lives of many women who are touched by this law. It is clear that the ban is a political ploy employed as a smokescreen for which the Muslim woman is targeted as a scapegoat. Nicolas Sarkozy has politicised a Muslim religious symbol in his desperation to assert control over the French Republic due to the political threats that face his presidency and his political party, particularly from the far right National Front Party. However, this sexist trajectory is not peculiar to present-day France. A study of France’s unsavoury relationship with Islam, for which the Muslim veil became a metaphor, reveals the present ban on the veil is a continuation of a historical trend of aggressive politicising of the woman’s body.

Islam played a pivotal role in the formation of contemporary French identity. Seen as the lesser ‘other’ in the dialectical relationship between France and Algeria, the French came to regard the Muslim veil as a point of contrast between itself and the other. For the French masters, the veil became an ostentatious symbol of Muslim barbarism and backwardness. It also came to be recognised as a sign of Muslim dominance over their female counterparts as well as Muslim resistance towards French culture and values. Frantz Fanon succinctly captured the political doctrine of the French towards colonial Algeria in these words: “If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them.” Caught in the crossfire, the female figure, thus, was denied her agency as a conscious human being capable of making her own choices regarding her identity and sexuality. On May 13, 1958, a group of Algerian women were publicly disrobed of their veils in an exhibition of colonial might and dominance over the colonized Muslims.

In 2011, even though the days of colonial rule have long gone, the collective French memory is continuously refreshed. The veil remains a metaphor for Muslim resistance as it is persistently sensationalised by the French media, a media that seems to have taken it upon itself to sensationalise a bit of cloth and colour Muslim experiences to fit the present day grand narrative of the ‘Islamic threat’. Journalists, intellectuals and officials have joined the circus and formed an epistemological authority on the subject. The discourse, thus formed, is both deterministic and hegemonic. President Nicholas Sarkozy has merely seized the moment and capitalised on the existing atmosphere of hostility towards the Muslim veil. Islamophobia, hitherto intangible, has been reified into a legalised sanction.

At a time when the world is in need of innovative social solutions, the French ban shows a death of imagination and a lack of creativity on the part of French politicians. As leaders of a nation, which is home to western Europe’s largest population of Muslims, the Sarkozy government has failed to break the epistemic binary that has divided the common French masses from the French Muslim citizenry. Instead of attempting to delegitimise the identity of a female minority by political aggression, a break from the sexist trajectory would have been more befitting of a nation that claims to stand on the pillars of liberty, equality and fraternity.

On the contrary, France is today engaging itself in a policy that ultimately leads to nothing short of forceful house arrest against any woman who chooses to wear the veil. By signalling the absence of face-veiled Muslim women in public, France is therefore enforcing a law that restricts, under the threat of a penalty, a certain Muslim woman to the chaar devari (four walls) of her house. Consequently, it seems the precedent of exploitation of the Muslim female’s body, set in Pakistan by the Zia regime, is at play in France — a country that has not legislated on how much is seen of the Muslim woman, but rather on whether she is seen at all.

The writer is currently working on a Masters degree in Islamic thought from Malaysia. She is working as director of a Sydney-based NGO that works with Muslim women and youth. She can be reached at

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