By Huma Dar
Of Civilities and Dignities
On 22 June 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, asserted that burqas (or the burqa-clad?) are “not welcome” in France, adding that “[i]n our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity” and that “the veils reduced dignity.” France’s Muslim minority is Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority, estimated at six-million-strong. And this is just an approximation, as the French Republic implicitly claims to be post-race and post-religion via a prohibition on any census that would take into account the race or religion of its citizens. (This anxiety mirrors the brouhaha in Indian media àpropos the much-contested enumeration of OBCs or Other Backward Castes in the Indian census surveys of 2011, or the urgency to declare some spaces post-caste, post-feminist, and post-racist while casteism, patriarchy and racism continue unabated.)
Fewer than two-thousand women in France are actually believed to wear a niqab — some surveys indicate the number as closer to 360, which might even have increased this past year precisely as a gesture of sheer defiance. Yet in the midst of wars and recession, the French parliament found the time to engage in great deliberations over this ban. The French National Assembly appointed 32 lawmakers from both right- and left-wing parties to a six-month fact-finding mission to look at ways of restricting the use of niqab. On 26 January 2010, this bipartisan commission report suggested that access to public services and public transport should be barred to those wearing the burqa. (For what purpose, one might ask would these French citizens be denied public services and public transport: to “increase” the dignity of the “victims” of niqab in the land of liberté, égalité andfraternité?) The French National Assembly approved this legislation policing women’s clothing, and what parts of their bodies cannot be unseen in the public space, by 335 votes against just one. The France Senate voted in favor of the legislation on September 14, followed by its Constitutional Council formally endorsing the ban in October 2010. After six months grace period the ban officially came into force on April 11, 2011, coinciding with a call by UMP, the French ruling party, to initiate a debate on the “place” of Islam in France. In the meantime, Belgium also introduced a ban on the niqab in April 2010, but it has not been enforced yet because of its trouble forming an official government. At this point such bans seem quite likely in Canada, Holland, Spain, and Switzerland, and some Tory backbenchers in England have also suggested one.
Of Fines and Fine Guidelines
Now that the law is in force, a woman who chooses to defy the ban will be fined 150 euros or a course of citizenship lessons or both. A man who coerces a woman into wearing a niqab will be fined 30,000 euros, serve a one-year prison term, and possibly twice as much if the veiled person is a minor. Two days prior to the law coming into force, the French police detained fifty-nine people — including nineteen veiled women — for attempting to hold a protest at Place de la Nation in eastern Paris against the niqab ban, at that point still pending. Two others were detained while traveling to Paris from Britain and Belgium, allegedly to join the protest. On April 11, 2011, the first official day of the French ban, one woman in niqab was fined while shopping in the evening, and earlier, two more — including Kenza Drider, the organizer of the April 9 protest — were fined and detained as they actively organized and participated in a demonstration outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (So much for the patronizingly assumed “lack of agency” of women in niqab.)
Guidelines issued to the French police supposedly direct them not to require women to remove their veils in public (how considerate — merci beaucoup!), but that the victims/criminals should be “escorted to a police station” where they would be asked to “uncover their faces for identification.” Of course, we all know how safe and respectful police stations are and can be, the world over, especially for women, and especially for racialized and stigmatized women. The French government says the niqab “undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society and also relegates its wearers to an inferior status incompatible with French notions of equality,” and yet one glance at the photograph at the top is enough to challenge the touted “French notions of equality” and whether it is the niqab or the state machinery enforcing such a xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic law that “relegates [the niqab] wearers to an inferior status.” I wonder whether women or men wearing the “medical facemask, bird-flu style” will be similarly criminalized, or is this law reserved only for Muslim women — this, by the way, is also being proposed by some niqab-wearing women as a possible way to subvert the new law.
Of Desecrated Graves and Decolonial Feminisms
If this was not troubling enough, the deplorable Islamophobia/Arabophobia in France — always already simmering in the back ground [see Le Haine (Dir: Kassovitz, 1995) for a cinematic recounting of the same], and not only in the banlieues (suburbs) — has been escalating to a menacing degree ever since the discussion of the niqab ban started. Since last year there have been reports, once again, of desecration of Muslim graves (see adjacent photograph); of mosques being vandalized; of praying Muslims being compared to Nazis; and, yes, of incidents of violent “burqa rage,” one of which I will cite at some length here from the British newspaper, The Telegraph:
A 26-year-old Muslim convert was walking through the store in Trignac, near Nantes, in the western Loire-Atlantique region, when she overhead the woman lawyer making “snide remarks about her black burka.” A police officer close to the case said: “The lawyer said she was not happy seeing a fellow shopper wearing a veil and wanted the ban introduced as soon as possible.”
At one point the lawyer, who was out with her daughter, is said to have likened the Muslim woman to Belphegor, a horror demon character well known to French TV viewers. Belphegor is said to haunt the Louvre museum in Paris and frequently covers up his hideous features using a mask.
An argument started before the older woman is said to have ripped the other woman’s veil off. As they came to blows, the lawyer’s daughter joined in.
Apparently the French lawyer who violently ripped off the Muslim woman’s burqa and engaged in a physical fight with her got off with a slap on her wrist. Organizations founded by anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism Muslim feminists and their allies have been extremely vocal and explicit in their denouncement of these acts of Islamophobia and neo-colonial xenophobia — foremost amongst them is the Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR) [Party of the Indigenous of the Republic], founded in 2005. The “indigenous” here stands for the people colonized by French imperialism. PIR’s spokesperson, Houria Bouteldja, a decolonial feminist, unequivocally condemns the xenophobic ban on niqab (read her article here), and has an incisive critique of the “privilege of solidarity” as wielded by those with implicit assumptions of superiority and universality (read it here).
Of “Establishment Muslims” and Global Media
Unfortunately, but also inevitably, given the heterogeneity of more than 1.57 billion Muslims, there are some amongst Muslims themselves whose politics of collaboration or misguided and simplistic analyses lead them to support the encroachment on civil liberties and human dignity that is entailed in the enforcement of this strange ban. Prominent amongst these “establishment feminists” are the Ni Putes, Ni Soumises – Neither Whores Nor Submissive – an organization founded in 2002, based on a liberal feminist slogan. This also happens to be the title of a book by Fadela Amara, a former president of the group. Amara was active in supporting the neo-colonial 2003/2004 French law (l’affaire du voile) that forbids the wearing of any “ostensible” religious article, specifically the hijab, but also the jewish kippa, in publicly-funded primary schools and high schools. Amara — an “establishment Muslim” par excellence — was appointed as Junior Minister for Urban Policy in François Fillon’s first government in May 2007 and as France’s Inspector General for Social Affairs in January 2011.
Predictably CNN and most mainstream media always show more interest in the opinions of people associated with organizations like Ni Pute Ni Soumises rather than Parti des Indigènes de la République. For example, on April 11, 2011, the first day of the deplorable ban, CNN interviewed the current President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, Sihem Habchi, who goes on to assert that the women with niqabs are “not able to work, to marry men of their choice, or to love” — a claim that is partially illogical, partially not supported by evidence, and partially just plain dehumanizing.
The first supposed constraint proposed by Habchi obviously depends on the precise nature of “work” and for many purposes, a niqab should not pose any insurmountable difficulty. In fact when I was a graduate student in Computer Science at UC Berkeley, I remember a chain of conversations at the weekly lunches organized by Women in Computer Science & Electrical Engineering (WICSE), where women graduate students discussed the Do’s and Dont’s of appropriate attire for women computer scientists and academics. A conversation that sounded rather archaic and amusing to my ears at that point, included advice about unofficial, unwritten prohibition of any “dangly” jewelry, plunging necklines, sleeveless blouses, or otherwise revealing clothing that could potentially, and unfortunately did, act as distractions or “noise” for our overwhelmingly male colleagues and professors — as evidenced by the abundant anecdotes we shared. We finally arrived at the conclusion that our breasts, faces, ankles, toes, et cetera, in fact our presence was “noise” — “an error or undesired random disturbance of a useful information signal” in electronics — in our male-dominated field of study, and there was very little we could do except attempt to fit in (i.e., become undifferentiated, unnoticeable men-like creatures).
I recount this here only to challenge the facile assumption that opposed to the norms of clothing and modesty followed by some Muslim women (or men for that matter) to varying degrees, there exists in the imagined “West” (and Berkeley arguably being the West of the West), a land whose norms are “universal,” a land of universally available free sartorial choices, where anything and everything may be worn — well, everything except that terrible, terrible burqa or niqab. Please note that I am neither advocating the niqab or the burqa, nor am I suggesting that they not be worn, nor am I discussing the theological requirements of modesty for Muslim women and Muslim men. I am simply and unequivocally denouncing the niqab ban, as much as I condemn the compulsory donning of any particular attire (for eg. the veil or chadar in Saudi Arabia or Iran respectively), based on a deep discomfort vis-à-vis the policing of a woman’s body and her sartorial choices. And I base this critique not on some fantasized realm of free choice — in the “West” or in the “Muslim world,” as if those can be so easily torn apart — but on the acknowledgment of various norms and conditionings, invisible and intersecting, none of them “universal,” which circumscribe our subjectivities.
The second constraint entailed in wearing a niqab, as pointed out by Habchi, regards “women’s choice in marriage.” This, too, is contradicted by the fact that depending on geographic, regional, and class contingencies, many, though not all, burqa-clad women actually might have greater mobility and access to alliances and activities of their choice, even, and especially, those that go against the desires and dictates of their families or the dominant cultures — their niqabs acting as guarantees of privacy and protective anonymity. The third constraint regarding an “inability to love” — unreflectively asserted by Sihem Habchi in the comments above — is, of course, prima facie ridiculous and dehumanizing, and deserves no further comment. Like Habchi and Amara there are a number of other “establishment Muslims” akin to the “good Muslim” theorized by Mahmood Mamdani, who find warm welcome all over mainstream Euro-American media.
Mona Eltahawy, a columnist on Arab and Muslim issues, also supports the niqab ban in France, and on CNN recently, advocated similar bans in “other countries as well.” She says:
“I believe that the niqab dangerously equates piety with the disappearance of women so I support banning it anywhere… We’re talking about the disappearance of women, justified in the name of them becoming closer to God.”
Perhaps Eltahawy didn’t quite see all the inspiring and diverse photographs coming out of the Egyptian Revolutions (of 2011 and 1919) to realize that even historically niqab-clad women are anything but “disappeared,” so I am posting one from each revolution, right here. Perhaps she didn’t listen very carefully to the intelligent and articulate Heba Ahmed as Heba argued against the niqab ban on CNN with Eltahawy. As for the veiling of women “justified in the name of them becoming closer to God” — I am not very sure whether Eltahawy is talking about Christian women with the well-respected monastic institution and rules around nuns, their habits, and their vows of celibacy and poverty, or about Muslim women as such. Amongst Muslim women in France, a tiny minority — less than .03% even if there are 2000 niqab-clad women — choose to wear the niqab, with no such vow of celibacy required to get “closer to God.” In the latter case, Eltahawy might also benefit from noticing the “undisappeared” and very vocal and articulate niqab-clad women in the video below, and perhaps even decide to join in their protests against the xenophobic ban — a ban that in fact intends to banish (and thus “disappear”), from all public space, the object of her concern: the niqab-clad women.
[On the topic of the “disappeared” and the silenced, I wonder who would be next object of “legislative emancipation” in France? While in France in 1997, I visited the museum of an incredible Carthusian monastery near Grenoble, the lovely Grande Chartreuse in the Alps, and was properly awed by the monks’ lifelong vow of almost-silence. Of course, I neither saw them nor heard them, as they also vow to be almost-solitary hermits. Without going into the details of their scourge or their horse-hair habits, I wonder if the Bible recommends silence and solitude to all Christians, and if not, or even if it did, why does the secular French Republic allow them to “disappear” and be “silent”? The French laïcité seems to be outing its hypocrisies rather outrageously these days…]
Of Niqabitch or the Return of the Repressed
It is in this context of patronizing and dehumanizing xenophobia and increasing Islamophobia, masquerading as egalitarianism and a singular feminism, that a cinéma vérité style video went viral on social networks, on September 30, 2010, some days before the French Constitutional Council formally endorsed the ban. The video frames and follows two young women – one of them, Muslim – who call themselves the Niqabitch, walking around in hip-length khemars (poncho-like short burqa) plus niqab, topping ultra-short shorts and high-heeled sandals. In Paris, they strut in front of the police and government offices, and regale in their traffic-stopping street theatre, as people stop to shoot videos and photographs of the duo. The pun in the last frame, “Mi-pute, mi-soumise” [half-whore, half-submissive], is obviously a take on Ni Putes, Ni Soumises described above. Here’s the video:
This is what the Niqabitch say about their experiment in performance art:
Nous n’avons … manifesté notre réticence à cette loi en défilant dans les rues, maisplutôt fait le choix de détourner la représentation classique que l’on a du niqab… Les citoyens, eux, ont l’air d’apprécier le look; les policiers sont mi-gênés, mi-enthousiastes; les pompiers nous klaxonnent… Finalement tout irait bien si legouvernement s’imprégnait de l’état d’esprit de la rue!… Autant le dire franchement, se couvrir le visage, prendre l’apparence de Dark Vador au nom de l’islam et de sespréceptes… on ne comprend pas vraiment!
We certainly have not … expressed our opposition to this law [banning the niqab] by marching in the streets, but instead we chose to turn the classic representation of the niqab on its head… Citizens, themselves, seem to appreciate the look; the police are half-embarrassed, half-enthusiastic; firefighters honk at us… Finally, everything would be fine if the state could be suffused by the spirit of the street!… Let us say frankly, to cover one’s face, take the appearance of Darth Vader in the name of Islam and its teachings … we really do not understand! (emphasis mine)
The digital “blindfolding” — of the ogling eyes of the spectators on the street in the video — hints that the source of obscenity lies there, and yet one wonders about the millions of spectators who have seen the video on YouTube – are their gazes blocked off as well, if only in hindsight? Moreover, in spite of the disgusting leering that is explicit to us even with the Parisian spectators’ eyes blindfolded — mirrored by the sexually explicit lyrics in French — the Niqabitch mention the public reaction rather appreciatively, and uncritically propose that “everything would be fine if the state could be suffused (impregnated) by the spirit of the street!” The French “street” (read: French public) that supports the niqab ban by more than 80% does not credibly support the Niqabitch in their denouncement of the niqab ban, and therefore this pollyannaish conclusion of the duo strikes a false note.
Contemplating the actual protest – one is, in fact, uncannily reminded of a combination of nakedness and veiling, availability and anonymity, vulnerability and jauntiness, that is always already integral to the Orientalist stereotype of the odalisque. Such sexualized representations have long and complicated genealogies, thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization and empire, and thus hardly “turn the classic representation of the niqab on its head.” (See some prototypical examples here; also see Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem for an excellent and incisive analysis of the same.) The obsessive interest in mainstream global media around the hijab, purdah, niqab, and burqa barely manages to veil the racialized fantasies of “thriving” or “repressed” Muslim sexuality: flip sides of the same coin (see my earlier article here). The ascription of hyper-sexuality to Muslim men and woman is often loudly disavowed by protestations at the repression of the same. This preoccupation with the Muslim jouissance whether truly fantasized or actually present, unwittingly reveals the circulation of neo-colonial desire and fantasy, perceived lack and excess, at the contemporary moment, and through history. The obsession, in fact, gives a glimpse of the psyche and politics of neo-imperialism and its entanglement within the system of wars, global capital, and consumerism.
Moreover, what about the actual women who do use the niqab – whether due to religious piety, ethnic culture, habit, or politics – who are demeaned and criminalized by the racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic French ban? The question has to be asked if this is a form of protest that allows the real niqab-wearing women any articulation. If the intent is to demonstrate that veiled women can indeed be sexual, then such a demonstration hinges on the assumed illegibility (or fluidity) of the same. Yet such a project of making legible (or stable) cannot in itself be unambivalent — especially as in the current case, where it encodes older tropes of hypersexuality, yet pretends to be original and radical.
Niqabitch confess that they “really do not understand” the impulse to “cover one’s face.” No problem here, as one does not need to understand another’s clothing choices to stand up against the ban on making those choices. What is problematic, though, is the slippage where the Niqabitch compare a niqab-wearing woman to “Darth Vader” — the central antagonist of the Star Wars trilogy — thus unwittingly revealing the racialized alien and monster at the heart of their conception of a veiled woman.
To a critique that this protest by Niqabitch is too provocative, I would therefore counter that it is not provocative enough at all levels – or perhaps it is only so at some superficial syntactic levels, but not across the board at multiple semantic levels. It makes visible the genealogy, perhaps unwittingly, that is already implicit in the construction of the veiled seductive Muslim woman… Same old, same old. And yet there is something redeemable buried in the protest video, and not just the commendable fact that the Niqabitch duo recognized the ludicrous prejudice of the ban to denounce it in the first place, and poked fun at the Ni Putes, Ni Soumises. The Niqabitch’s performance art is redeemed, I argue, by the way it makes legible the Islamophobia that vitally animates the niqab ban. This is crucially foregrounded, perhaps again unwittingly, by revealing the facetiousness of the usual criticisms of the niqab — 1) that it poses “risks to security” and 2) that it “degrades femininity and equal rights.” These high-sounding complaints are apparently all forgotten as made explicit by the gleeful, gloating reception of this particular juxtaposition of niqab with bare legs.
Of Belphegor, Darth Vader, and The Thriller: No Mere Mortal Can Resist
The article on “burqa rage” by Peter Allen, from The Telegraph, which I cite above, explains that Belphegor, the slur used to demonize the veiled Muslim woman in Nante, Western France, is a “horror demon character.” Allen writes that it is familiar to the French as it “haunt[s] the Louvre museum in Paris and frequently covers up his hideous features using a mask.” This familiarity comes from two French films, a TV show, comic books, and video games, in themselves remakes and evocations of Arthur Bernède‘s 1927 novel Belphégor (English title: The Mystery of the Louvre).
Reading this particular hauntology against the grain, I argue that the fear and attraction of Belphegor articulates some repressed sediment of colonial guilt and fear of the indigenous people returning, both temporally and spatially, to claim the priceless antiquities that are rightfully theirs, yet stored and arrogantly displayed at the Louvre, amongst other imperial museums. The TV show cited by Allen, recounts the tale of a demon, Belphegor, emanating from Egyptian artifacts looted by the French in the course of their imperial adventures. Although the angst of the colonial connection is neither described by Allen, nor by the French lawyer as she violently attacked the Muslim woman in a burqa, yet this is a very recent, and might I add, amnesiac, etymology of the name “Belphegor.”
There exists a much older genealogy as well that haunts the popular mediatic representations as well as popular imaginary. In Christian demonology, Belphegor – related to the Assyrian god of licentiousness, wealth, and inventiveness and discovery, Ball-Peor – is one of the seven demon princes of Hell. Considered the “Lord of Openings,” Belphegor, was imagined as either a seductive young woman, or a horned, bearded, and clawed male demon, and figured in Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as in Victor Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea. The sedimented dread of the Muslims’ approach whether at Poitiers and Tours of the 8th century C.E., or at Vienna of the 16th century; the unacknowledged indebtedness of Renaissance to the knowledges preserved, transmitted, and created by Muslims; the constructions of racialized sexuality and virility that spurred the colonial project, then, as now; the unprecedented loot of colonized lands and its people that occurred in the past few centuries and resulted in wealth accumulating in Europe, thus making it the “First World;” and the contemporary covetous envy for the post-colonial oil fields and other natural resources (it used to be for silver, silks, & spices) that happen to lie in some Muslim-majority countries resuscitate Belphegor, the prince of Hell, capturing both the fear of, and fascination for, Muslims – the roots of European Islamophobia.
And now let’s move on to Darth Vader: the third greatest movie villain in cinema history, according to the American Film Institute, ubiquitously called a “synonym for evil” in Western popular culture, also evoked in the niqab debate above. In Black Space: Imagining Race In Science Fiction Film (2008), Adilifu Nama convincingly argues that master of the “dark side of the Force,” Darth Vader, “disfigured henchman clad in all black,” is “cloaked in familiar signifiers of black racial identity” (p. 62-3). Nama points out that Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader’s name before he turns towards evil, is marked both sociologically (slavery, single-mother, no male role models) and biologically (elevated blood-level of “midichlorians”) by abnormality and blackness, specifically that commonly associated with African American men in USA (p. 62-4). This racialization of evil, and its corollary: ascribing evil to blackness, that permeates Darth Vader, is extended to niqab-clad women by the Niqabitch in their statements cited above. It is this monsterization of Muslims and their xenophobic racialization as evil aliens, demonic, yet sensual and seductive that undergirds the niqab phobia in much of Europe and North America today.
A worldwide celebrity who had to deal with similar monsterization, not only because he was black, but also because he was a sensitive artist who conquered realms that black men in America were never meant to enter: Michael Jackson. I still remember the incongruity of the days and weeks preceding the unjustified, “preëmptive” attack on Iraq in March 2003 — days when the popular media was deluged by news of Michael Jackson: the “weirdo,” Michael Jackson: the Muslim Mikaeel, Michael Jackson: whose body whitened and ate into itself as a magnified reflection of the larger societal malaise. It was as if the violence of the war on Iraqis was being channeled inside American living rooms through the tearing apart of the King of Pop, as if the war on the black body had been internalized by Jackson himself. Michael Jackson was redeemed finally by the overflowing adulation of his fans, only in his sudden death, though the Muslimness was stripped away. His classic song Thriller, and its MTV visualization are a part of world legend now, and at the core of the song Michael is making fun of this fear/fascination, desire/disgust that is elicited by the racialized, sexualized Other – a veritable monster.
It seems fitting therefore that an amazing and effective performance art piece that challenges the niqab ban was performed to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In 2010, Naima Bouteldja and Fatima Ali founded Red Rag Productions, an independent film production company based in London. They are working on a documentary film called Short Tales of the Hijab, and have posted a few videos online including “Tango in Paris,” “Burqa in Paris,” and “Thriller in Paris.” On their website they accurately identify the “niqab debate” as a “recycled, diversionary trick … against a backdrop of plunging markets, rising unemployment, popular strikes and detested pension reforms” – just like Michael Jackson’s malicious prosecution diverted attention from the campaign of lies that led to the Iraq War. Bouteldja and Ali had thought such deviance “was too outrageous to be swallowed by the general public” and that such a clearly discriminatory law would be “deemed unconstitutional by the [French] State Council.” Unfortunately they were “proven wrong.” True to the spirit of Thriller, Bouteldja and Ali’s video showcases two happy and dignified niqab-clad people dancing in front of the iconic landmark of Paris, the Eiffel Tower – people whose gender and sexualities are illegible and fluid, whose niqab is impeccable, and who therefore poke fun at the culture that would read them as monsters, “disappeared” or otherwise. Here’s one of the videos that “no mere mortal can resist”: