Sometimes particular debates become very irritating. In particular because they seem to return every year. This time in Europe the Belgian case makes headlines. There has been a row in Antwerp about the banning of headscarves on one of the schools triggering all kinds of protests among Muslims and others. Yesterday the Council of State (the highest advisory body) in Belgium stated (after an official protest of a Muslim girl) that individual schools cannot ban the headscarf. The result is now that the network of community schools in Belgium (Flanders) decided to ban the headscarf in all schools. Already 1/3 of the 700 schools belonging to this network has such a ban; for the rest a transitional period of one year will applied. The ban does not only apply to headscarfs but to all religious symbols.
Then in several newspapers and all over the internet a debate about the headscarf is going on that started with an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Naomi Wolfe.Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality – Opinion – smh.com.au
Ideological battles are often waged with women’s bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception. When France banned headscarves in schools, it used the hijab as a proxy for Western values in general, including the appropriate status of women. When Americans were being prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women; when the Taliban were overthrown, Western writers often noted that women had taken off their scarves.
A clear and justified point by Wolfe although nothing new here. She then goes on by talking about her own experiences of travelling in Muslim countries:
Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality – Opinion – smh.com.au
The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.
The Western Christian tradition portrays all sexuality, even married sexuality, as sinful. Islam and Judaism never had that same kind of mind-body split. So, in both cultures, sexuality channeled into marriage and family life is seen as a source of great blessing, sanctioned by God.
This may explain why both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women not only describe a sense of being liberated by their modest clothing and covered hair, but also express much higher levels of sensual joy in their married lives than is common in the West. When sexuality is kept private and directed in ways seen as sacred – and when one’s husband isn’t seeing his wife (or other women) half-naked all day long – one can feel great power and intensity when the headscarf or the chador comes off in the the home.
Among healthy young men in the West, who grow up on pornography and sexual imagery on every street corner, reduced libido is a growing epidemic, so it is easy to imagine the power that sexuality can carry in a more modest culture. And it is worth understanding the positive experiences that women – and men – can have in cultures where sexuality is more conservatively directed.
I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognise that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top – in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue – it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.
This has led Meghan Daum in the LA Times to contrast Wolfe’s piece with the case of Lubna Hussein who has been punished for wearing pants in Sudan, labelled as ‘indecent clothing’. The chador and feminism don’t always fit — latimes.com
But if equating the hijab with patriarchal oppression is reductive and reactionary, romanticizing it is even more so, and the case of Lubna Hussein is a reminder of that. As Wolf’s experience suggests, it’s fun to dress up if you’re truly dressing up, if the fabric that covers you feels more like a fun costume than a state- enforced shield against arrest or worse. Miniskirts may represent their own kind of tyranny, but in this country we have a way of fighting back: We can wear something else.
Also this reminder is a valid issue in itself of course. What is at stake in this whole debate on both sides is a struggle for the right of women not to be judged on (and reduced to) their appearance:
Of Burkas And Bikinis: Exercise, Body Image, And The Veil – Veil – Jezebel
Wolf seems to want to show how different Muslim women are from non-Muslims, how much freer and even sexier life is when lived in modest dress. But really, women face many of the same pressures, veiled or not. As much as Westerners like to talk about the oppressive Middle East, much of the same sexism is visible here. And as much as Wolf trumpets the freedom of modesty, restrictive beauty standards may affect Muslim women too. Rather than romanticizing the veil, as Wolf does, or banning it, as France threatens, we should be campaigning to keep women from being judged on how they look — just one of many issues that affect all of us.
Furthermore it is also a debate on feminism and between (white, non-Muslim) feminists. This brings us to the Netherlands where, probably as the result of the Belgian debate, the headscarf is also an issue again. Green-Left leader Femke Halsema stated in an interview:
Islam in Europe: Quote: ‘Islam is a problem’
Q: What do you think of the headscarf?
A: No objection against it, as long as it’s put on freely
Q: What do you think of it?
A: I think it’s really a pity that women hide their pretty hair
Q: That’s it?
A: No. I say that out of playfulness. When I come to my children’s school it’s difficult for me – I really come straight out of the feminist movement – that I then sit among all types of veiled women. I will not attack their rights in there. But I can’t wait for the moment when they’ll freely fling off their headscarf. I prefer each woman in the Netherlands to be headscarf-less. And completely free. I don’t believe that any God has clothing requirements too. It was the men who expounded faith.
You don’t coerce women’s emancipation from the top. It must come from the woman herself. I have said that police agents should be able to wear headscarves. I have quarreled with Ciska Dresselhuys, who did not want to accept any woman with a headscarf for Opzij magazine. That that doesn’t alter the fact that I have difficulties with the headscarf.
I notice it in my neighborhood: Naturally Islam is a problem. Indeed, especially Islam in combination with illiteracy. It is: having few opinions of your own about the good life. Not having much foothold in education and work, fearing our society and thereby being very receptive to what the imam thinks. Who is often very conservative.
There have been many reactions on this interview ranging from journalist Bennema who in an article (Hooray for the headscarf) calls for solidarity by wearing a headscarf and calls Halsema narrow minded. Halsema is being accused of aligning with the islam-bashers (I don’t think that is true and the statement is actually problematic in itself and exemplary of the whole islam debate). The reaction of salafi imam Fawaz Jneid on the interview with Halsema will probably yield controversy in itself as he asks the question of which women are more often the target of rape and sexual intimidation; veiled or non-veiled women. Furthermore he asks her if she does not realize that the headscarf makes women feel safe and produces respect (besides that, according to him, it is an obligation for women as stated by God). The interview also produced reactions from the social democrats such as Ahmed Marcouch on Twitter who stated ‘Dear Femke, the Islam is NO problem!! A (little) headscarf isn’t either!’ and by feminist and socialist party senator Anja Meulenbelt who stated that Muslim girls are working hard to conquer their place in society and now they get attacked by the leader of the Green Left.