New Statesman Book review: “Refusing the veil” by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
You can read the original here on the New Statesman website.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a woman who prides herself on bridging worlds, denouncing racism at west London dinner parties while opposing religious bigotry down at the mosque. A committed anti-racism campaigner, she has been an almost-lone Muslim voice in the mainstream British media arguing against immigration scaremongering and retaliating against sweeping stereotypes of Muslims as anti-British terrorists. Her latest book, Refusing the Veil, part of a series entitled “provocations” for Biteback Publishing, is a passionate treatise against what she – as a Muslim, feminist and liberal – considers to be submission to a misogynistic symbol of women’s inferiority.
“The veil,” she argues, “in all its permutations, is indefensible and unacceptable”.
But this is no theological treatise aimed at challenging the textual validity of “veils”, though Alibhai-Brown does also question that. It is a fundamentally political treatise on the place of Islam and Muslims in Europe, in which Alibhai-Brown contends that Muslim women are exploiting “the weaknesses and vulnerabilities at the core of free societies”.
The book opens with her bemoaning the “bullying” of schools over the right of female students to wear face veils, arguing that “veils are now ubiquitous”, something she refers to as a “depressing and scary development”. The bullying, we are told, is happening from radical Muslims allied with well-intentioned liberals, who misunderstand the meanings behind the face veil. While the face veil has become a source of tension in certain contexts, namely schools and court buildings, establishments have typically found a compromise between upholding security requirements or other societal obligations and the freedom of religion of individuals. Sadly, discussions of mutual accommodation, itself a manifestation of the very integration allegedly at stake here, are entirely absent in favour of a confrontational binary between entitled radical Muslims on one hand and beleaguered liberal institutions on the other.
Nor is the underlying argument particularly original. Abandoning the veil as a renunciation of the “backwardness” of traditional religions has its earliest permutations in the Sixties and Seventies in Muslim majority countries, where reformers sought to emulate the west’s “success” through the wholesale adoption of European mores and habits. In Iran, this involved the forced imposition of bowler hats in place of turbans by the then Shah. Elsewhere, it manifested as a move away from the headscarf and traditional clothing in favour of European-style skirts and suits. Since then, postcolonial critics have argued against linear view of these developments, promoting instead the idea of multiple modernities, within which traditional symbols can and are inverted to produce new meanings. Contemporary academic studies of veiling widely recognise it as one such example, with multiple meanings ascribed to a garment – the significance of this is open to evolution as part of Islam’s discursive tradition. Although Alibhai-Brown quotes the academic Leila Ahmed approvingly, Ahmed’s most recent publication is a refutation of these views, in which Ahmed asserts that many women who wear the hijab, or headscarf, “now essentially make up the vanguard of those who are struggling for women’s rights in Islam”.
Indeed Alibhai-Brown seems out of touch with contemporary debates among Muslim women surrounding the significance of veiling, not least as a feminist principle aimed at challenging the very patriarchy she claims underpins it. Contemporary arguments examining how the global south has re-appropriated traditional symbols as a means of resistance and national cultural reassertion are all but lost in favour of simplistic arguments concerning the veil as a sign of commitment to backward values. This is a view buttressed by support for the views of intellectuals like the Egyptian thinker Qasim Amin, who believed in the superiority of European civilisation, or the dubious feminism of the late nineteenth century colonialist Lord Cromer who, while he did reject the veil as backwards, simultaneously opposed the suffragettes back in the UK.
Of the many critiques which can be made of this book, its lack of conceptual clarity is surely the most glaring. To pen an entire book on “the veil” without clarifying what exactly one is referring to at any point lacks intellectual rigour. This may well be the desired objective, to lump all Muslim women’s religious attire together under one problematic term – except that these varied manifestations of faith, and sometimes culture, are motivated by different worldviews. There is no single, monolithic, misogynistic worldview underpinning all of them, (although such motivations may exist among individual wearers) and consequently her objections are united by one common theme – the problematisation of the visibility of Europe’s Muslim population. This aligns Alibhai-Brown’s voice with the Swiss ban on minarets, the French face veil ban and the Danish ban on halal meat, which are all reflections of European crispation in the face of a more confident and assertive Muslim identity.
And yet, Alibhai-Brown is unwilling to recognise the continuity of her discourse with that of the far right, whose increasing presence on the European political scene has allowed them to dictate the terms of national discussions, including on this very issue. Her sole acknowledgement of this overlap is a single line when she states “these people don’t matter”. Sadly, that isn’t entirely accurate. Just this year, the French Front National (FN) captured its historic first senate seats, following a strong showing at the European elections in May. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned the FN is “at the gates of power”. Polls even suggest that FN leader Marine Le Pen could easily make the run-off in the 2017 elections and even win if up against Francois Hollande. In Germany, anti-islamisation protests, which have nothing to do with the far right, are growing. Here in the UK, the rising popularity of the xenophobic Ukip can hardly be divorced from a broader climate in which Muslims are regularly the focus of national ire. Consequently, and according to new research, Muslims are facing the worst job discrimination of any minority group in Britain, with Muslim women up to 65 per cent less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts. According to Dr Nabil Khattab, of Bristol University, the situation was “likely to stem from placing Muslims collectively at the lowest stratum within the country’s racial or ethno-cultural system due to growing Islamophobia and hostility against them.”
Alibhai-Brown herself has been the victim of this growing racism, writing recently of how she was spat at by a middle-aged white woman who shouted at her “bloody paki“ on a bus, a fact which only makes her blind spot on this all the more troubling.
The book links the veil to problems of integration and national identity, yet ignores the broader dynamics of integration – the reception offered to migrant communities, unemployment, racism, ghettoisation. The veil becomes the focal point for societal ills because, it is claimed, it represents a commitment to backward values, rather than the progress epitomised by western societies. This teleological view of progress underpins the entire book. We are given the sense of a besieged liberal Britain under attack from fanatical veiled hordes.
Alibhai-Brown claims not to want to ban the face veil, but provides all the moral arguments necessary for precisely that. Whether she supports the legislation directly or not, her arguments complement a growing tide in Europe which seeks to criminalise Muslim women, ironically in order to free them – despite themselves! Amnesty International has condemned moves to ban face veils as “an attack on religious freedom”, in recognition that restrictions on women wearing the veil in public life are as much a violation of the rights of women as forcing them to wear one. But Alibhai-Brown doesn’t even engage with the arguments concerning the co-opting of feminist rhetoric and the language of human rights in order to mask a growing tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.
The complexities are numerous – some Muslim women, such as the granddaughter of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who wears the headscarf out of conviction, also object to state imposition of the headscarf. Award-winning Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, an outspoken critic of the “veil”, believes “It is surely a basic human right that someone can choose what she wears without interference from the state”.
In a Foreign Policy article discussing the headscarf, one woman explained: “I wear it for the same reason as my Jewish friend wears a yarmulke,” but there is no discussion in YAB’s book of whether all religiously associated garments are to be problematised – the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skullcap, say – rather the entire focus is on the uniquely troubling item worn by Muslim women. This is a view that feeds into this view of Islam as distinctively troublemsome, and as somehow singularly oppressive to women.
This assumption of coercion permeates the book over and above than the myriad voices of the women Alibhai-Brown consults and who offer up a range of motivations for their sartorial choices, from resisting consumerism, to spirituality, through to political solidarity. And this simplification of Islam is recurrent in the book – elsewhere, she falls into classic orientalist depictions of over-sexed Muslims, as the reader is told “Muslim men and women spend an inordinate amount of time thinking, talking, regulating and worrying about sex.”
For all its pleas of defending liberalism, this is a socially conservative book dressed up as a liberal feminist manifesto. It expounds an intolerance regarding the visible difference of others which is distinctly at odds with core liberal principles and their very British articulation in the shape of “live and let live”.
Its feminist credentials are equally questionable, especially given that any explanation articulated by “veil”-wearing women is delegitimised through an appeal to arguments about “false consciousness” and brainwashing, denying Muslim women agency in their decisions and reducing them to passive recipients of male intent. Muslim women are described as “severely controlled”, and “hard” Muslim men, we are told, “want to banish Muslim women from shared spaces”. Although the existence of controlled women and controlling men, Muslim or otherwise, is undeniable and a serious cause for concern, the suggestion that this is the predominant case when it comes to women and “veiling” is not only at odds with academic studies (Scott, Ahmed, and others) but confirms precisely the sort of stereotyping Alibhai-Brown has spent so much of her life denouncing.
Refusing the Veil might be a revolutionary title in Iran or Saudi Arabia where it would signify opposition to a legal imposition on women. Here in Britain, where despite the undeniable existence of community pressures on women, most adult women have a considerable margin of freedom concerning their sartorial choices, it is just another call for policing women’s clothing.
In the book, Alibhai-Brown slips fluidly between Saudi Arabia and Hammersmith with no attention to the differing contexts and consequent meanings each place carries. While the Saudi government undoubtedly uses clothing as items of subjugation, it is wrong to assume that women in the UK are experiencing anything like the same subjugation. This a problematic conflation of Muslim female victimhood, which perpetuates stereotypes of passive, voiceless victims.
Alibhai-Brown presents herself as the middle ground, referring disparagingly to veils, while denouncing other women’s clothing as “tarty”. Yet the patriarchal impulse underpinning any public call to define what should constitute appropriate women’s clothing remains. In a section in which she seeks to debunk the idea that covering will protect women from rape, she doesn’t address the worrying assumption that rape itself is linked to clothing, and that discussions of rape in terms of women’s attire only confirm the view that women are somehow complicit in their abuse.
Alongside the fluid use of the term “veil”, other, disparate phenomena are put in the same bracket. Honour killings and domestic violence both end up linked, through reference to personal anecdotes, to women wearing the “burka”. It is worth stating with force that neither so-called “honour killings”, themselves a form of domestic violence, and domestic violence more broadly are in fact a “Muslim” phenomena and sadly exist across cultures. Burkas may well cover bruises, but so does make-up – neither can be causally linked to the violence itself.
According to Alibhai-Brown, the main culprit behind the rise in “veiling” is the austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi petro-dollars – but the truth is while some women who cover their face certainly are Wahabi-inclined, others may well be traditionalists or Islamist, and some even claim feminist motivations. It really can’t be overstated how problematic it is to attribute meaning to people’s choices without ever even enquiring as to the basis for those choices.
Too often discussions about the meaning of religious coverings are undertaken – as was the case of the French face veil ban – without involving the voices of the women who choose to wear the items. In her book, Alibhai-Brown sees a woman in a full face veil pushing a pram in the park, and proceeds to impute a whole series of ideas to her, without even stopping to speak to the woman – her defence? Her face being covered made it impossible to communicate. But the truth is, to quote Arundhati Roy: “There is no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately unheard.” Alibhai-Brown could have just as easily approached the woman and struck up conversation, particularly if, as she claims in her book as grounds for opposing the “veil”, she is that concerned that under every face veil could lie a battered body. In the modern age, so much of our interaction occurs without being face to face, without eye contact or the ability to read facial or body language. While you might prefer eye contact, it can hardly be said to be an absolute impediment to any form of interaction.
Many of the arguments in the book are emotional – why are babies or young girls being dressed in headscarves? Burkas hide bruises! Solidarity with women who are forced to wear them should make you remove it! Where will you get your vitamin D?! None of these are particularly original and many are completely nonsensical. For a start, solidarity with women who are legally coerced into wearing certain types of clothing might arguably be better served by supporting women’s right to make informed choices, whether in Saudi Arabia or in France. Secondly, evidently not wearing burkas isn’t the solution to ending domestic violence, with 30 per cent of British women – most of them not wearing burkas – experiencing domestic abuse. As for arguments about vitamin D deficiency, they hardly warrant a rejoinder but to note that like any vitamin deficiency, a supplement – not a political debate – is a more apt response.
A final, salient critique of the book, is its middle class bias. That the veil offends the sensibilities of west Londoners out on walk on Ealing Common should hardly provide the basis for a repudiation of a garment which, whatever its symbolic ascription, is often worn by a strata of women already facing many different challenges. To claim to do so out of a feminist concern for those very same women, while actively contributing to their dehumanisation through the use of terms like “cloaks” and “masks”, to legitimate “revulsion” by empathising with such reactions towards them, is to give credence to the very same racist and discriminatory attitudes which Alibhai-Brown has made her name opposing.
This book is a validation of quiet, middle class prejudice, the type which dare not speak up for fear of being accused of being racist, but as Alibhai-Brown herself reveals in the book, feels deeply uncomfortable with “the veil”. Rather than challenging that prejudice, Alibhai-Brown provides the ultimate insider’s reassurance that such emotions are warranted and legitimate. For such a pivotal anti-racism campaigner, it is a sad capitulation to anti-Muslim prejudice.