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The Eurocentric Veil

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					OPINION

The Eurocentric Veil
A singular understanding of the veil in Europe as a symbol of exclusion is deeply
problematic. It should also be seen as a desire for inclusion with a difference.

Arshad Alam

The veil is haunting Europe again. After republican France and some German states
banished it from state schools, it is the turn of multicultural Britain to breathe uneasy
over a piece of headgear. Jack Straw and Tony Blair’s argument that the veil divides
the British society, feeds the growing public perception that Islam does not gel with a
European way of life, something that the far right parties have been saying for over a
decade now. It is entirely possible that Labour Party might just be trying to gain some
foothold among the increasingly assertive parties like the British National Party.
Beyond electoral politicking though there are deeper issues of perception, which are
at the bottom of the whole debate over the veil. So while white Britain understands
the veil as a symbol of oppression, there are conservative voices within the British
Muslim society, which argue that the veil is a religious commandment ordained by
God. Contradictory as it may sound, but there is a fundamental unity in both these
arguments since both claim a monopoly over representing Muslim women’s body.

There is a sense in which it can be argued that the Islamic veil is a symbol of female
oppression. If, as the conservative Muslim opinion argues, that the Quran ordains both
men and women to dress modestly, why then they never make an issue of Muslim
men wearing jeans—or going top-less in films—which women might find attractive?
There is certainly a case in which the veil can be seen as a way of controlling Muslim
women’s sexuality. But that does not exhaust the myriad uses to which the veil is
being put these days. The veil today serves various other functions as well and some
of them are beneficial for Muslim women themselves. One of these functions is a
relatively minor one and that has to do with the fact that the veil has become a fad.
With only a select group of wearers, the veil has become a mark of distinction, a
matter of taste and being cool. However, this status function of the veil is limited to a
select audience for whom the veil can be replaced by any other fashion article.

Far more important perhaps, is that the veil actually symbolises freedom for scores of
Muslim women around the world. In the context of Europe, Muslim families which
migrated primarily from South Asian countries brought with them their inherited
worldviews. It has been the crying failure of the British state not to integrate them into
their ideological superstructure. Alienated from racism and unemployment, these
families fell back on the support structure that other immigrant families provided.
Islam knitted these families together; more than a religious ideology, it was the sense
of community and belonging which it created that made Islam a part of the daily
practice of a Muslim immigrant. The early 80s also saw the decline of anti-racist
movement in Britain and the inauguration of the policy of multiculturalism. Noble
though in its intention, the policy confused culture with religion and ended up
associating Muslims more with Islam rather than the host British society. Moreover,
as a policy, multiculturalism encouraged the import of Ulama from South Asia who
came with their own understanding of Islam. There was no effort to engage with these
religious specialists in an effort to forge a common worldview, which would be
equally acceptable to the modernist demands of British society as well as Muslims.
The veil therefore is as much a feature of Muslim intransigence as it is of British
policy of integration.

The children of the immigrants, however, inherited a worldview very different from
their parents and grandparents. They went to British schools and wanted to do the
same things as the British children did.

While it was easy for boys to do so, the old worldview of the parents restricted
Muslim girls’ movement and freedom after they attained puberty. In many Muslim
homes, the veil became— and is —a symbol of compromise. It gives parents the
assurance that their daughter is dressed according to the Muslim norms so that no one
can question the family while at the same time it gives Muslim girls freedom of
movement whereby they can go for higher studies or can look for a job. Ironically
then, the veil which many see as the symbol of oppression gets used as a symbol of
freedom. Especially in the European context, the veil is not always symptomatic of
tradition or backwardness; rather it is also a tool, which furthers Muslim women’s
integration into modern sector. There can be no greater example of this than the
presence of veiled women in the public sphere as witnessed during the various anti-
war demonstrations.

But not all veiling is fad and a result of compromise. For some women, it is also a
matter of voluntary choice. Certainly what has astounded the Left liberal opinion is
that among the votaries of the veil, influential voices also come from Muslim women.
And most of these women defending the veil happen to be products of modern
education and are successful women in their own right. What Europe perhaps needs to
understand is that Islam’s relationship with body and sexuality has not been the same
as in Christianity. There is nothing comparable in Islam (or for that matter in any
other religion) to the Christian concept of original sin. Philosophically, life itself
became sinful under a Christian dispensation and attitude towards sexuality and
human body became repressed which manifested itself in doctrines such as Calvinism
which preached that sex should be for the sole purpose of procreation rather than
pleasure. It became necessary for the European enlightenment therefore to talk about
the body and liberate it from religious fetters. The collective revulsion of the veil in
Europe seems to be guided from this historical experience. What they forget is that
Islam had a completely different take on the body. As a religion it never repressed
carnal pleasures; rather it just tried to regulate them. Sex and sexuality was never a
taboo subject and early Islamic texts devote pages after pages to its discussion. Hence
in Islam, liberal ideas may not develop a critique of the body similar to the West for
the simple reason that the Muslim body was never denied its pleasures. Thus the
reason why some Muslim women would not see the veil as a symbol of sexual
repression while the Christian West will is precisely because their historical and
religious experiences have been very different. By reading the veil only as a symbol
of oppression, Europe wants to universalize its own historical biases, anxieties and
particularisms.

It is this Eurocentric worldview that the veil calls to question. In the European
context, the veil becomes a subversive article, challenging the way in which Europe
defines and categorizes the rest of the world and consequently itself. The veil is
definitely not only about tradition. It is also about modernity since it speaks a
language of rights: that its bearers are citizens who want to chart their own course of
modernity. A singular understanding of the veil as a symbol of exclusion is therefore
deeply problematic. Rather it should also be seen as a desire for inclusion with a
difference. Britain and other European countries need to educate themselves to
appreciate and learn to live with differences rather than always wanting Muslims to
assimilate themselves.


Arshad Alam is with the Center for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Milia University

Published in Outlook India

				
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