Open letter from Algerian woman activist on the wearing of headscarves

Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist and founder of  Secularism is a Women’s Issue. She is a champion of secularism in governance and opposes all forms of religious fundamentalism. She has written an open letter on 23.03.19 on women in New Zealand donning headscarves in solidarity with the victims of the Christchurch Mosque massacres:

Betraying women and free thought in the name of Christchurch massacres

To people of goodwill, solidarising with victims of the Christchurch massacre
To New Zealand Prime Minister,
To Mount Royal’s University directors in Calgary, Canada
In response to massacres perpetrated by extreme-right white supremacists in 2 mosques in New Zealand on March 15 2019, several symbolic actions took place that aimed at conveying to Muslims – who were attacked as such, since they were praying in the mosque when it happened – that they could count on their fellow citizens’ solidarity. New Zealand’s Prime Minister was praised the world over for her humane response to the massacres.

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Women in Iran protesting compulsory hijab face imprisonment

While being moved by the generous intentions which motivated these symbolic actions, we nevertheless take distance from some of these which, in fact, will further increase the alas already prevailing confusion between personal religious faith and communal identity politics.

Here are two examples.

New Zealand Prime Minister Ms Jacinda Ardern, followed by other officials (and then by ordinary citizens as well) saw it fit to wear a so-called Islamic head covering during their public functions.

We believe that there were many other symbols that could have been chosen in order to comfort Muslim believers, than one which is contested the world over by women of Muslim heritage, – believers and unbelievers alike.
Rather, it comforts fundamentalists in their efforts to gain political visibility through their wide spread promotion of the veil, thus also asserting their grip over Muslims and over Islam itself.

Iranian women – who, for the past few months, have been thrown into prison, flogged and tortured for taking out publicly that very veil which, for decades, has been imposed on them by law, and who have been holding it on a stick at crossroads in silent peaceful individual protests – may not, actually, feel very much comforted by these well meaning New Zealand’s top official women. Alas, it does not seem they enjoy the same degree of support from the authorities and the people of New Zealand.

Nor are Algerian women who a few days ago commemorated in street demonstrations the numerous women and girls who were murdered in the nineties by fundamentalist armed groups for not covering their heads.

Nor are the women everywhere in Muslim contexts, from Mali to Afghanistan, from Sudan to Aceh, Indonesia, or throughout the Middle East, who were repressed and/or killed for the same reason, whether by fundamentalist states or by fundamentalist non-state actors.

No doubt, neither New Zealand PM nor those who followed her are aware of having made an unholy political choice by selecting the wrong symbol for expressing solidarity with victims. But isn’t it problematic, at such a high level in politics ? At the times of Al Qaeda and Daesch – i.e. when no one in the world can pretend to ignore what happens to women who do not conform – isn’t donning the veil somehow short sighted ?

Could they not find another symbol – less contested, less charged with women’s oppression – for Islamic identity, if that is the identity they wanted to emphasize? Any progressive scholar of Islam could have suggested more progressive and less anti-women alternatives. (What about zakat ( charity) for instance : it is one of the pillars of Islam, while the veil is definitely not one… ). And they could also have reflected on more secular symbols to re-assure the affected Muslims into their citizens’ rights to protection and equality of treatment.°

Meanwhile – under the same pretext of respect for Christchurch victims, – the Mount Royal University’s authorities in Calgary, Canada, just de-invited Mr Armin Navabi, an Iranian-Canadian ex-Muslim atheist, who was scheduled to deliver a talk a couple of days ago. Mr Navabi had been invited by the Atheist Society of Calgary. He was persecuted in his country of origin for being an atheist; he is the founder of Atheist Republic, an online news and information site designed to provide support to “non-believers around the world.”

Said Navabi after being de-programmed:“ “What do they want? Do you want to have less conversation? Isn’t less conversation exactly what leads to people having extreme radical positions? I mean the less words exchanged between us, the more fists and bullets are going to exchange between people. Having more conversations is exactly what you need in the face of some tragedy like this”. That seems a pretty reasonable and dispassionate view, certainly not one which should be censored.

De-programming Mr Navabi is clearly taking side against those of us who fight for freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and for Muslim fundamentalists who deny us these rights. The University authorities hinted at the fact that they were pressured by students and staff.°

Rather than solidarity with victims, in both these examples we see, alas, government and intellectual authorities taking – wittingly or unwittingly – a political stand in favour of the Muslim extreme-right ; a stand that is also comforting the fundamentalist claim to be the only ones who truly represent Islam, Muslim believers and all citizens of Muslim descent.°

While indeed solidarity is very much needed, we call on well-meaning people to select other symbols when showing solidarity with the Christchurch massacre’s victims. Symbols which would not lead to ideological compromising with the Muslim far-right, under the pretext of fighting the anti-Muslims xenophobic far-right.

One extreme right is not any better or worse than the other; both commit crimes against the lives and the fundamental human rights of people, women included.
Both reinforce each other, the crimes committed by one legitimizing – in their own eyes – the crimes committed by the other.

It would be a major disaster if the racist homicides perpetrated in Christchurch against Muslim believers would, in the end, benefit the Muslim extreme-right. Let’s make sure it does not happen.

12 comments

  1. I absolutely support Marieme Helie Lucas comments about the cancelling of the atheist speaker in Canada. But the wearing of the veil as a statement of solidarity is a very different issue. Of course in places like Iran and Algeria women have been attacked and killed for not wearing the veil. It is important that the left does not confuse solidarity with Muslims with support for fundamentalism. But at the moment, the actual enemy of Muslims in Christchurch was a white nationalist killer who sees someone the wearing of a veil as a legitimate target for execution. The circumstances are very different so the symbolism of an action are also different.

    A woman I know who decided to wear the hijab for a day did her regular 15 minute duty outside the school gate 1km from the Linwood Muslim centre where some of the killings occurred. Within that 15 minutes, she was told at least six times to fuck off by passing drivers. No one on the staff is now under any illusions about the level of racist abuse Muslims, and particularly women, are subjected to on a daily basis. On the other hand, giving zakaat would be an invisible act of solidarity in terms of sending a message to the people whose white supremacist politics have given support to this killer. And of course, in a sense, people have done that too, because crowd sourcing pages have raised large amounts of money to support the survivors of the massacre.

    Ironically, I’ve just recently been engaged in an argument with a woman who also objected to the veil because, as a woman, she saw it as a mark of women’s subservience and wanted to raise veiling as an campaign worth raising now. In my opinion it would actually divert attention from the solidarity issue into a campaign Islamophobes could feel comfortable in. I asked her if her solidarity with women forced to wear the veil would extend to supporting their right of return to her “home”, from whence they had been expelled in 1948. I haven’t heard from her since.

    We have to see the differences between our situation in New Zealand, where White Nationalism is the immediate threat and the situation of struggle in Muslim majority countries where Islamic fundamentalism is the threat. Different situation, different tactics.

    Cheers,
    John

  2. Hi John, I agree that there are differences with compulsory hijab and wearing it as a solidarity gesture. It is shocking to hear that the woman outside the school was subjected to so much abuse, at such a time too.

    I’ve had discussions with quite a few women about the headscarf gesture and I think it is important to consider the negative side of the action. The solidarity given in the context of a horrendous mass murder doesn’t mean we should ignore the wider underlying meaning and symbolism of the hijab.

    As many Muslims do not wear the hijab and more liberal Muslims actively campaign against it we should think whether we are hindering that struggle unwittingly? One woman told me she would not wear a headscarf as none of her Muslim friends wear headscarves, so it would have felt strange to don one in solidarity.

    The idea that a woman must show her modesty by wearing a headscarf- to “avert the gaze of men” is religious purity culture. There are ways to show horror and dismay at mass murder that are consistent with humanist and secular values.

    It is also worth thinking what would happen if the attack had been in a Sikh temple? Would all the men be performing the gesture of wearing turbans? We know they wouldn’t. It’s women who are expected to be nice. What are men doing to show solidarity?

    Finally, I think there are parallels with the case of a woman who was teaching in one of the Gulf States. She wore a headscarf as a mark of politeness as a guest in another culture. Her female students pulled her aside one day and told her that her wearing a headscarf made it harder for them to advocate for not wearing a headscarf.

  3. Hi Daphna, I agree with the points you’re making about the veil, and your parallel about a Sikh target is a good one. But I think raising the veil as an issue would be a mistake. That a Zionist has already tried to do just that should raise alarm bells. There’s also a tone in the open letter that tends to conflate any form of Islamic traditionalism with ISIS and Al Qaeda. Again, while I get that for a woman from a Muslim country campaigning against the veil, there’s something to be said for de-emphasising the distinction between run of the mill conservatives and hardliners (they all want women in traditional dress), here, that just feeds Islamophobia. And there are radical Muslim women who choose to wear the veil – it isn’t a litmus test. A response to such a horrific event as this, that then alienated the Muslim community would be a disaster.

    • The large scale outpouring of support for the Muslim community at the commemorations indicates that there is virtually no base of support for the actions of Tarrant. NZ’s tiny white supremacist groups have never manage to get beyond a dozen or so members despite trying to build since the 1970s in the case of the National Front.

      So is it necessary to take up a symbol that women have been waging a struggle against in dangerous conditions for 100 years now?

      Do women’s struggles ever get priority?

      Why haven’t men been asked to wear a tunic or a skull cap?

      • I would never call for women to wear hijab. A few men did decide to wear the headgear, but the profile of that was low and the incidence definitely less. The reality is (and yes, it is in the sexist nature of traditional costume that men shift earlier and women are expected to dress more traditionally for longer – same in Japan where men adopted Western suits, Muslim countries where men wear Western clothing, our own culture where women’s clothing, including headscarves lingered on). But clothing is not, in my opinion, a key organising principle in New Zealand. It is different from the Muslim world, where I absolutely support the women in Iran etc fighting the compulsory veil. It is far from compulsory in some countries. We had a case a few years ago in Christchurch where an Afghan man tried to make his wife abandon the veil because he wanted them to “fit in”. She felt so naked that she decided to take her own life. I think it has been a real eye opener though for those who have decided to wear it, to see how widespread the everyday vitriolic racism has been from a racist minority. I think a campaign against that racism is necessary and I think that campaign has to encompass the Muslim community that suffered so directly from this attack but also suffers this ongoing day to day racism that is barely noticed by white non-Muslims (but experienced too in other forms by other non-white populations). That’s what Muslim women in Christchurch seem to be prioritising right now. So I don’t think it is a case of women’s issues never getting prioritised. It’s about the issue of women being abused, spat at, having their hijab physically torn from their heads, all of which NZ Muslim women have been describing as commonplace, being prioritised over White Westerners focusing on the hijab as a negative symbol, a campaign easily sold to any white New Zealander, but a bit Orientalist when it’s being picked up right when Muslims have been slaughtered, not for wearing the hijab, as has happened in the Muslim majority world, but for being visibly foreign. And as I say, I was very quickly being approached by people wanting this to happen, who turned out to be Zionists, very keen to shift the focus from the massacre to an anti-hijab, and so, anti-Muslim campaign.

        I agree that the white nationalist movement is small, but it is a bigger population who see Muslims as dangerous. I have 12 year old students at my school telling me the Muslims want to enslave all non-Muslims. What would an anti-hijab campaign tell them? There is a danger on the left of just being contrarian (and hence permanently marginal and irrelevant).
        Cheers,
        John

  4. I think the increased awareness of the abuse is a real positive, however it’s not something that men are going to learn directly, so again it is one sided. I also agree the issue of wider anti-Muslim, anti-foreign sentiment and racism is much more of a problem than the tiny white nationalist movement here.

    The xenophobia in broader society has not been stirred up by white nationalists who have virtually no sway at all in NZ society but by the Labour Party – who as recently as the last election campaigned on anti-immigration policies and then went in to coalition with NZ First – a party that has for its entire existence specialised in anti-immigration and anti-Chinese campaigns. National (to a lesser extent) also plays the anti-immigrant card when it finds it useful.

    So the prime minister wearing a headscarf and being praised for it deflects nicely from the culpability of the capitalist parties for the ugly ideology that underpins NZ nationalism and xenophobia.

    Redline writers have been supportive of the commemorations, the fundraising campaign through Give a Little, attended and supported the anti-racism rally and march, so it’s not a case of being contrarian. Hearing what the Algerian socialist woman had to say and applying critical thinking rather than follow the leadership of the prime minister on this issue is what Redline should do in my view. Nor am I condemning the headscarf gesture, I simply think it may have more going against it than for it.

  5. I have appreciated your comments John because they have made me reflect on this issue more than I would have otherwise. The more I’ve thought of it the less it appeals. Just a couple of further points:

    Assuming that most of the verbal and physical attacks are by men it’s a bit off that women are to be on the receiving end of it, or in the front line of defence.

    I’ve always been a keen secularist and I think sometimes the left give way on this too often. I do this myself out of politeness occasionally, but for instance prayers (usually in the form of karakia) have crept into public life and it is the non-religious people who are always expected to be tolerant and obliging.

  6. Marxists are internationalists. So why would we support a gesture in New Zealand that is, effectively, a slap in the face for women’s liberation in the Arab and Islamic world? For instance, in Iran a female lawyer has just received a 38-years prison sentence for defending women activists who have been protesting against veiling. Perhaps women in NZ contemplating wearing the hijab should, however well-intentioned they may be, should have a thought about that,

    And isn’t it typical that Jacinda Ardern should lead the way in this sort of feel-good, shallow gesture? I wonder how many of the liberal middle class women who copy her – and let’s face it, it is primarily liberal middle class women who are following her gesture – are going to be out campaigning against Jacinda Ardern’s racist immigration policies. Donning the hijab gives middle class women the ‘feel’ of doing something and the frisson of being exotic for a few hours for a few days without doing anything to change the material conditions of society. It’s like exercising a luxury that is available in the imperialist world.

    Moreover, not all Islamic women wear these restrictive forms of clothing. Among the Tuareg Muslims, for instance, men cover their faces more than women. But you won’t find non-Muslim NZ men wearing *those* facial coverings. *That* would be a bit more radical than women donning the hijab here.

    There are several ways of showing *serious* solidarity. One is to campaign against immigration controls and emphasise international working class solidarity and the other is to campaign against imperialist domination and imperialist-imposed under-development/super-exploitation in the Third World. These require drawing a sharp line between genuine progressives and Jacinda Ardern – Ardern is in the enemy camp on both those sets of issues – and her party rather than trailing along in their wake.

    Unfortunately, we live in an imperialist country with one of the most vacuous political cultures on the planet. We need to fight that and all its manifestations.

    Phil F

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