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13/04/2011 | A Veiled Threat: Lessons from Paris

Oliver Duggan

Last year France became the first country in Europe to make wearing a veil in public illegal, and now it has become the first to enforce it as yesterday two women were arrested outside Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.


It was a drop in the ocean for religious tolerance but outrage rippled out from the city across the continent gathering pace and the waves are now crashing on a more important debate about women’s rights in Islam and societies role in protecting them.

Opposition to the law has been rife, and seen the unlikely union of Islamists and libertarians, both of whom will claim their fight is for religious freedom and civil liberties. ‘The veil’, they will often say with little justification, ‘is a sign of societies freedom and religious observance’.

No. It isn’t. It is imposed on women as the last bastion of misogyny and patriarchal dominance in an otherwise rapidly modernising religion, and the continued proselytising of Islamic leaders to the contrary only serves to feed the reactionary bigots they oppose.

To see why it must be seen in its context.  It must be seen in the context that allowed the restrictive access to proliferate, and now serves to maintain its dominance – the context ofNamus. It may long outdate the formalisation of Islam, but it has been hijacked and bolstered by the religions right wing to enforce the practice of hiding away 50% of the species from its counterpart. It is the simple belief that men alone are the guardians of a family’s honour and virtue, and women  little more than the well-kept ornaments that are expected to surround them. It was a principle, at its time, not untypical of a wider entrenchment of masculine dominated society, and even now still smacks of the 1950’s family structures that crippled female independence.

But that’s not unusual; it may patronise deeply, and belittle female ability, but surely that isn’t so bad? What’s wrong with being protected, and at the low low cost of wearing a veil? With having a big strong man to look after you? Has the 21st century not evolved to a point that has seen a welcomed revival of these archaic gender roles?

Well yes, but I think even Rihanna, with all her warbled dismissals of female emancipation, would have trouble with the ‘chastity’ prerequisite exclusive to Namus. The ‘veil principle’ enshrines at its moral core the belief that women must act with modesty, with obedience and above all with ‘appropriateness’, or face punishment. It has long been used to feed into the misogynistic elements of Islam, and it will go on doing so for as long as women can be pressured into covering their face with cloth.

The practice has been used to do more than socially underplay the role of women though; not content with such symbolic an oppression as the veil, its followers regularly pursue a more ‘hands-on’ approach; be it through the degradation of female citizens in Saudi Arabia, the horrifically skewed rape laws of Syria or the stoning of adulterous women in Somalia, they get their fill. That is why the new French law is so important; because the principle that allows the brutalisation of women and girls in the most deprived areas of the world is exactly the same as that which demands they wear the burqa in the richest. It is the fear of paternal reprisal, divine or physical, and it cannot continue to go without condemnation.

There may be those Muslim women who say they wear the veil as a way of preserving their Islamic identity, for whom the practice may take on heightened cultural significance. Sensitivity should therefore be encouraged and it would be wrong to suggest it a sort of numinous Stockholm syndrome, as many try to do.

However, it would be equally wrong to think this doesn’t exist without coersion and is reason enough to condone the practices prevalence. A restriction may make these few women feel uncomfortable, but society is often forced to compromise individual liberty when we recognise their choices adversely affect both themselves and others.

A more often touted objection though is the claim that the French law stigmatises the Muslim community. However, the act of singling out a group is not always done with bad intentions and knee-jerk consequences. The fight for women’s rights should be fought the same way in Mosques as it is in Churches, Synagogues, schools, factories and boardrooms; without pulling our punches.

People who say otherwise, who champion it as another attempt to demonise Islam, serve only to fuel the basest political punditry. The public is more intelligent than that; they can distinguish between policies designed to recognise the plight of women and the vitriolic racism spouted by Le Penn, the BNP or the Tea Party.

Concerns with the practices of minority groups shouldn’t be dismissed simply because they belong to minorities. A group of 10 religious zealots are just as capable of oppressing female Muslims as a capitalist structure is of dismissing a pregnant employee, and there should be laws to prevent both.

If anything it is within these smaller communities that the states help is most needed. Through countless misguided social policies we have continuously encouraged racial and religious isolationism, and in so doing have isolated the mistreated and vulnerable amongst them. It has created ghettoised pockets of towns and city’s that are able to internalise cries for assistance from the helpless within them, and it has been done with our passive acceptance.

The emancipation of women has progressed, and 50 years of sexual awakening has encouraged huge leaps and bounds in modern gender roles. But around the world our mothers and daughters continue to be forced to live in the shadows, to hide their light under a bushel and their face behind a veil, and all because of the megalomaniacal insecurities of a dwindling number of ‘divinely appointed’ patriarchal societies. Long may we see the fight against it continue.

The Independent (Reino Unido)


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