It was a quiet May evening two years ago, and we were at an upscale restaurant in Madaba, a small town in Jordan known for its Byzantine-era Christian history. Right across our table sat a pretty, young woman. Wearing a green headscarf, her eyes lined with kohl, she sat there smoking hookah and chatting casually with a man.
Even as the woman seemed to enjoy her date out, a journalist-blogger sitting next to me at the table — we were a group of Indian scribes visiting Jordan to cover the Pope’s tour of the country — chose to pity her. “It’s so sad that she, like other pretty women here, has to cover her head,” she said. Not a surprising view. In an age of selfies that are put through several filters before being posted on Instagram, modesty is old-fashioned stuff, reserved for the grannies. But the more serious flaw with her observation was that the hijabi Jordanian woman was sad. Sad? This wasn’t Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, where covering up is not a choice. Jordan, like most Muslim-majority or Middle Eastern countries, has no law that tells women to cover their heads. And women we saw there – walking freely on the streets, working in restaurants, smoking hookah (yes, many!)— looked anything but sad.
And yet, “oppressed”, “sad”, “helpless” are tags that are too freely, too unthinkingly, too carelessly attached to Muslim women wearing headscarves. Such descriptions took off during Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan in the late ’90s, and rightly so, but have since been so abused and hardened, that it’s almost impossible to give an alternative view without being dismissed as “a defensive Muslim” or a “pseudo-secularist” . Try giving examples of educated Muslim women who sport stylish headscarves out of choice — an increasing trend around the world, including in many Indian cities — and they are invariably boxed as “radicalised”, “Wahabbi-ised”, “Arabised” and what not.
So, when news of four police officers forcing a Muslim woman to take off her “burkini” (I wish it could just be called a full-bodied swimsuit with a hood, for that is what it really is!) at a beach in Nice, France, went viral, I dismissed it as “the same old hijab controversy”. I should have been more optimistic. For, the condemnable incident did have one positive outcome — people were not looking down on the poor Muslim woman on the beach, but were enraged with the policemen. They shared cartoons equating the French cops with the Taliban in forcing women to dress up the way the men want. France was not the liberator here, but an autocratic state that did not respect a woman’s right to wear what she wants, and one that can strip her at gunpoint. Liberalism and secularism, too, can, and do, take “radicalised” or “extremist” forms, and “terrorise” others to fall in line – adjectives otherwise associated with Islam, and Muslims.
The outrage notwithstanding, the popular opinion that the hijabi woman is either “oppressed” or “radicalized” will still prevail. Anger is a short-lived emotion, and the public will soon forget the Nice incident. Prejudices and stereotypes, on the other hand, have a much longer shelf life, perpetuated and exploited as they are by the powers-that-be to exert their influence. Women’s bodies and their clothing is a convenient image that such powers use to “discipline” or “civilize” populations living on the margins in their own countries, or in occupied territories. Like the niqab in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s imposition of the full veil on the Afghan woman was condemnable, and it was the “burden” of the White man to liberate her, even as he simultaneously violated the sovereignty of her impoverished nation by dropping bombs on it during the 2001-2002 invasion. Civilian deaths that ensued, including those of innocent Afghan women, were only “collateral damage” that could be overlooked for the “larger good” of combating terrorism and championing the rights of women. It was a PR campaign that convinced many Americans that the invasion was just, and prompted letters from feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Susan Sarandon in support of the war.
In colonial India too, British missionaries campaigned against the “revealing” sari, urged Indian women to “cover up” and “delivered” them from evils such as sati. Rafia Zakaria writes in Aeon Magazine, “In 1820, in the Indian city of Benares, an English Baptist missionary named Smith helped to save a woman from the Hindu practice of sati, the burning of widows. He described the scene: ‘As soon as the flames touched her, she jumped off the pile. Immediately the Brahmins seized her, in order to put her again into the flames: she exclaimed, Do not murder me! I don’t wish to be burnt! The Company Officers being present, she was brought home safely.’ A London magazine reported the heroic efforts of Britain’s East India Company under the headline ‘A Woman Delivered’.”
France is unleashing its own brand of misogyny-cum-racism, in the garb of protecting secularism, on its North African-origin Muslim population, a low-income group whose votes won’t matter in next year’s presidential elections. In the face of recent terror attacks and the increasing anti-Muslim shrill of right-wing parties, city after city in France has rushed to ban the burkini. What began as a temporary ban on the full-bodied swimsuit in Cannes on July 28 has now extended to at least 14 French cities. And like the US administration convinced the American public about invading Afghanistan using the image of the burqa-clad Afghan woman, French authorities seem to have scored a point with a section of the French public over the burkini ban. A 34-year-old Muslim woman who was fined and ordered to leave a beach in Cannes for wearing a headscarf told a TV channel about hearing a group of beach-goers chanting ‘Go home’, ‘We don’t want that here’, ‘France is a Catholic country’. But it’s also heartening that another group of beach-goers rallied around in her support.
Equally heartening is the filing of a petition by two French human rights groups that challenges the legality of the burkini bans. While the highest French court, Conseil d’Etats, has decided to overturn the ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loube, the script for the upcoming French presidential elections and other mayoral elections has been set. The burkini may become the convenient image in upcoming mayoral elections, and the marker that separates “liberal, secular” West from “regressive, barbaric” Muslims. Ange-Pierre Vivoni, the mayor of Sisco, one of the towns that enforced the ban, is not deterred by the top court’s ruling. “Here the tension is very, very, very strong and I won’t withdraw it,” he told a TV channel. The mayors have received the backing of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who labeled the burkini “a symbol of the enslavement of women.” Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is contesting the 2017 elections, called the garment a “provocation” and has vowed to ban headscarves from French universities, if elected. “We don’t imprison women behind fabric,” he said in a TV interview.
The task of not “imprisoning” women behind fabric is something the French have taken on themselves since the time they colonised North African nations — much like the British missionaries sought to impose their sartorial values (saris must reveal less of the breasts, and blouses must be long-sleeved) on Indian colonial subjects. A lasting evidence of France’s historical, condescending mission is a poster that was distributed in Algeria in 1958. Shared by Musab Younis, a PhD scholar of African Studies at University of Oxford, on Twitter, and retweeted widely since the Nice attack, shows four women — the first three have their faces covered, while the one showing her face stares at the viewer with wide eyes. ‘Aren’t you pretty then? Unveil yourselves!’, reads the poster. “The French colonial authorities organised public spectacles of Algerian women ceremonially burning their headscarves,” writes Younis in the London Review of Books blog.
Quoting Frantz Fanon’s essay ‘Algeria Unveiled’, written in 1959, Younis writes, “the French colonisers – supported by sociologists and anthropologists – had given Algerian women ‘primordial importance’ in their attempts to subjugate the country. It was through women, the occupiers thought, that the structure of Algerian society and its capacity for resistance could be destroyed.” Between 1957 and 1960, he writes, two million people were sent to internment camps where “they were photographed and given identity cards; the women were made to remove their veils.” “The pictures show them staring into the camera. The photographer, Marc Garanger, a conscript who later spoke out against the war, said that ‘the women had no choice in the matter. Their only way of protesting was through their look.’”
Much like the middle-aged Muslim woman on the beach in Nice in 2016 had no choice, except to strip, even as four French policemen looked on.
But like the Algerians resisted French efforts to unveil them in the 1950s —back then, Fanon writes, the veil represented ‘the assertion of a distinct identity’ and ‘concern with keeping intact a few shreds of national existence’ for Algerians — the bans and their enforcements in 2016 have been followed by an increased demand for burkinis.
Aheda Zanetti, the Sydney-based entrepreneur who claims the trademark on the name burkini and burqini, said in an interview to the BBC that online sales were up by 200 per cent since the French bans.
“No man in this entire world can tell us what to wear or what not to wear,” she said. Bring on the burkinis.
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