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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2010 > October 2010 > Restricted Free Agency

Restricted Free Agency

Again with the veil?

Friday 1 October 2010, by Sana Saaed

I never thought that my body could serve as potentially the next front of the ever-erroneous but still somehow existent ‘clash of civilizations.’ Yet with the way things seem to be going these days, it seems that the bodies of millions of women around the world are grotesquely the appropriate abodes for deep-seated but nuanced racism, long-standing sexist trajectories, plans for cultural survival and ill-thought out plans for integration.

The recent debates over the place of the niqab and, by extension, the hijab in Western liberal societies delve deeply into the contents of a woman’s closet for the sake of reconciling issues pervading anything materially tangible. Spearheaded by the 2005 French ban on the adornment of ‘conspicuous religious symbols’ in public schools, the body of the apparently unchanging Muslim woman has become central to debates across the world, ranging from Quebec to the United Kingdom regarding the apparently imperialistic encroachment of Western livelihood and culture by a big, bad monolithic Islam.

France reasoned, in 2005, that the hijab – the veil which only covers a woman’s hair – was not only counterproductive to the rights and freedoms of women but also adverse to the profoundly secular, LaCité, character of the state as well as the goals of maintaining a post-revolution identity constructed upon Enlightenment principles regarding citizenship, the role of religion in society, the structure of government and absolute rights and freedoms. What was missing from this debate, but discussed at length in Joan Wallach Scott’s 2007 book Politics of the Veil, is the historicization of the perceived tension between the French and the French Muslim citizenry; there is little contextualization of the relationship beyond apparent issues of ‘assimilation’ and ‘integration.’ Rarely discussed is the role of France’s unsavory colonialist past in North Africa and the role of the veil as a form of violent and cultural resistance. While not, of course, fully indicative of the current situation in France, its role as a strong feature in contemporary French identity, much like that of the 18th century revolution, cannot be denied let alone ignored.

But what of the proposed niqab ban in Quebec? The barring of niqab-clad teachers in Egyptian schools and such students in Irish Catholic schools? The burqa— often also erroneously conflated with the niqab— ban in Belgium? France? Proposed banning of the burqa and niqab in Italy? Australia? The United Kingdom? What of the long-standing hijab prohibition in Tunisia? The Turkish prohibition of the hijab in universities? What of the recent support given to the French prohibition of the burqa by al-Azhar? To what extent can this growing phenomenon of the prohibition of the veil be discussed within the framework of identity politics and, in some cases, xenophobia? To what extent can we generalize across borders?

The reality is that in an attempt to deal with various issues– secularism, control of the rise of so-called ‘radical Islam’, cultural integration (or, more appropriately, gentle assimilation) and assertion of a homogenous identity for the sake of state-building— these governments and institutions have not gone to the root of problems, but rather have opted for partaking in a long-standing historical trajectory of controlling social and political norms through a woman’s body – any war’s greatest and most easily accessible front. And in this fight the greatest victim is not only the woman who, it is claimed, is being given sexual salvation and protection but also her agency and bodily sovereignty.

If we agree that the veil – in any and all of its forms – is not only a brightly coloured patterned threat to the secular foundations of a particular state and its identity but also a threat to the dignity, rights and freedoms appointed to any and all women by way virtue of her basic humanity, does not state-enforced non-discriminatory discrimination, which in turn antagonizes the community of faith with which she identifies, serve to further marginalize her? How true are we being to the very principles we claim to be protecting when we create a legal – not social – hindrance to a woman’s access to public services granted to her by virtue of her status as a tax-paying citizen? If a woman is forced to wear any form of the veil, is not forcing her – as well as those who make a conscious choice to wear it – to remove it, administering a similar violence?

There is an underlying assumption in the actions of the aforementioned states and institutions, as well as those who support such prohibitive measures, which is not only age-old but also deeply dangerous in our modern context. There is a complete denial of a Muslim woman’s agency, hers by virtue of her basic humanity, in making decisions regarding her faith, her body and her sexuality. Why are not the long flowing robes of men, their long beards and skull-caps prohibited or discussed in a similar fashion? Is it because a man is incapable of being coerced in the manner we consider all women to be coerced in terms of engagement with their bodies, their sexuality and public contrary to what we have defined as being conducive to “the good life”?

Many women are, without a measure of a doubt, forced to wear one form of the veil or another. But by targeting these already marginalized women, we not only further isolate them but also those women who have made conscious and rational decisions in how they choose to pursue their interpretation of living a “good life”. In both instances we also deny and simultaneously restrict a woman’s agency to be in charge of herself.
My body is not a front for socio-political warfare. My agency exists, whether or not I am granted such a supposed privilege, and it works within various frameworks. This is not a feminist declaration; this is not a political or moral assertion of any sort. Rather, this is a declaration of a woman, with enough bodily insecurity to go around, who thinks it is time for these discussions and debates to find a new, less fleshy and less gendered, abode.

Sana Saeed is a Canadian freelance writer and graduate student at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. Her personal blog can be found at