06 octobre 2007


Women and Islam

The debate over voting and the veil in the recent federal by-elections in Quebec is another example of how Islamophobia is used to justify war, and create divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims, write Chantal Sundaram and Kelly Holloway dans Socialist Worker (Canada) (24 septembre 2007)

Politicians and media cannot rely exclusively on the threat of terror to justify intervention and occupation in the Middle East: they make a pretense of appealing to people’s better natures under the guise of defending “humanitarian causes” in the Muslim world and, in particular, by equating Islam with the oppression of women.

A Western government outcry about Islam and women’s rights only emerged after September 11, with the bombing of Afghanistan, when the West suddenly “discovered” the Taliban’s oppressive policies regarding women after years of complete indifference (and sometimes even support). Pro-war pundits used “women’s rights” as one of the justifications for invading Afghanistan – just as the claims of bringing democracy to Iraq were used to justify invading that country.

And now Stephen Harper, who himself risks being punished at the ballot box for his support of the Afghan mission, has gone on record saying that he “profoundly disagrees” with the decision by Elections Canada to allow Canadian Muslim women to vote with their faces covered by burkas or niqabs, invoking federal legislation passed in late June on the visual identification of voters.

The hidden agenda is obvious. First, the existence of a mail-in ballot gives the lie to fake concerns over visual identification. Tens of thousands of people vote by mail-in ballot every year, without even preseting IDs.

Second, of the roughly 200,000 Muslims in Quebec, no more than 50 wear the full head covering. Third, although it should be these women’s right to vote while covered, the whole debate about it was manufactured.

As Sarah Elgazzar, a spokeswoman for the Canada Council on American-Islamic Relations, notes: “If anybody had actually bothered to ask the women that are actually concerned, and we are talking about a very small minority of women, they would have told them that they always take [their covering] off to identify their faces,” she said.

“And they do it at the bank, they do it at border crossings, they do it at the airport.”

Why now?

The fundamental question we must ask is, why the sudden concern over visibility now? It doesn’t seem to be due to any new developments in election fairness, much less to any new-found concern for women’s rights on the part of Stephen Harper.

When the French government banned the hijab in France’s public schools, it was not actually concerned about the oppression of women but, as some politicians explicitly stated, about the rise of “militancy” in France’s Muslim community.

Hijab was considered to be a symbol of that, along with the Palestinian scarf and anti-war buttons. Moreover, there is a
clear pattern throughout the West of inventing Islamophobic controversies to divert public anger over the “war on terror”.

Denmark sent troops to Iraq, and then published racist cartoons. Germany sent troops to Afghanistan and then one of their states proposed banning women who wear the hijab from school. Holland sent more troops to Afghanistan, and proposed to ban the burqa. Britain remains in Iraq, and around the same time that it sent more troops to Afghanistan in fall 2006 it also stoked media hysteria against the niqab.

Now, Canada deploys the Royal 22nd Regiment – the all- francophone regiment based in Valcartier, Quebec – in July 2007 and, in September, stokes a debate about the veil in Quebec, where opposition to the war in Afghanistan is higher than anywhere else in Canada.

Women’s rights?

The most fundamental stereotype of Muslim women is that they are not liberated or educated. All coverings, from the headscarf known as hijab to the full covering of the niqab or burqua, are considered the primary symbol of this.

In fact, Muslim women wear the veil for a number of reasons. One of these reasons has been as a form of resistance, particularly in response to threats to Islam and Muslims. North American Muslim women who wear the veil have to constantly assert their identity in response to often discriminatory questions and assumptions about their culture.

Wearing the veil has become almost indistinguishable from an act of defiance in this context. Studies in this area show that, rather than accepting the fear and marginalization that resulted from September 11 and the subsequent declaration of the “war on terror”, Muslim women are taking ownership of their religious identities and asserting their own dynamic interpretation of Islam.

But these negative perceptions of the veil have a long history, which dates back to colonialism, where Orientalist approaches to culture assumed that the veil is a symbol of oppression and women’s subjugation.

In fact, the veil has been worn through history as custom; in accordance with state law; for personal reasons, as a mark of wealth and status, fashion or beauty; to demonstrate conventional values; to hide identity as revolutionary protest; for political protest; for religious reasons; to access the public sphere; statement of personal identity; and so on.

The meaning of the veil has changed through history, most markedly with the advent of colonialism in predominately Muslim regions of the Middle East.

After the establishment of European colonial power in Muslim countries, the colonial discourse on Islam was focused on women, arguing that Islam was innately oppressive to women, epitomized by the veil.

This colonialist discourse was derived from the language of equal rights for women. This political use of the idea that Islam oppressed women was based on inaccurate understandings of Muslim societies and an interest in undermining the colonized country.

In this context, the veil became a symbol of dignity and validity of native customs under colonial attack. The context of colonialism as a powerful and pervasive force through history has charged all discourse on the veil with a particular political import and in some cases has acted as the impetus for women to wear the veil.

Islamophobia was present prior to September 11 – the 1980s and 1990s saw a proliferation of media images of veiling as a process closely linked to growing Western perceptions and fear of an Islamic threat. However, September 11 has given new meaning to discourse on Islam, reinvigorating Islamophobia as an acceptable mainstream perspective.

The tradition of wearing the veil as a form of resistance is associated with an assertion of religious identity in response to attacks on culture and religion. This tradition is present amongst young women in North America who wish to defend their religious identity in the face of Islamophobia.

The debate in Quebec

It has been implied in the English media that politicians from all parties made an issue of voting and the veil in order to appeal specifically to Quebec voters, who are portrayed as more anti-Muslim than others in the country.

This was emphasized by the fact that the furor erupted at the very same time that Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s Commission on Reasonable Accommodations began its hearings on what types of public religious accomodation are supported by Quebec residents.

The truth is that media and politicians in English Canada have long sought to demonize the Québécois as being more racist and intolerant than English Canadians, for similar reasons that they now seek to demonize Muslims: as a way of discrediting the desire of the Québécois to determine their own future. But there is nothing unique to Quebec about the debate on voting and the veil or about religious accomodation.

There is only something unique about the timing, both in terms of the deployment of the Royal 22nd Regiment and the rising anger in Quebec over Afghanistan, and the start of a public discussion on the place of minority religions within Quebec society.

Many people in Québec have spoken out against attempts to stoke Islamophobia there. Earlier this year, Jean Dorion, President of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal, an organisation that celebrates Quebec nationalism, published a letter in Le Devoir about the wonderful experience his daughter had in a childcare service run by a Muslim woman who wears hijab, as a personal commentary on the religious accommodation debate:

"Fear of the unknown is natural, but it is also all too natural to exploit it without thinking of future consequences, to sell papers, to increase your audience, or to garner a quick vote, as we sometimes say that certain businesspeople want to make a quick buck.

“We had thought that the freedom to believe, just as the freedom to not believe, and to observe or not, according to one’s conscience, on the condition of respecting the freedom of others, was one of the conquests of our civilisation.

“This principle is put into question both by a majority that is more traditional than they seemed... and by the fundamentalist fringe of the secularists, whose claim sometimes provokes laughter: ‘Religions are the cause of all wars’ wrote a reader of La Presse. Really?...

“Those responsible for war are neither believers nor non-believers, but those who are intolerant, those who hold it against you for believing what they don’t believe or for not believing what they believe.”

Et en français, un texte de Benoît Renaud de Socialisme International (Canada) sur la question épineuse des "accommodements raisonnables" au Québec. Benoît est également membre de Québec Solidaire.

NOTE Le terme "accommodements" s'applique, paraît-il, à des mesures de reconnaissance des spécificités culturelles des minorités, comme le port du voile islamique. J'avoue ne pas comprendre tous les tenants et aboutissements de cette question telle qu'elle se pose dans "la belle province" (je plaisante), ni quelle peut être la signification de l'adjectif "raisonnable" dans un tel contexte ("raisonnable" pour qui ?). Les termes du débat ne sont sans doute pas posés de la même façon qu'en France.

Benoît, par exemple, défend la notion d'"intégration" des immigrés dans la communauté linguistique française - en prenant bien soin de préciser que cela signifie la reconnaissance de leurs droits sociaux, culturels et linguistiques. Alors que chez nous, le terme a tellement été abusé - y compris à gauche par les courants 'républicains' et 'assimilationnistes' comme SOS Racisme ou Ni Putes ni Soumises - qu'il est très difficile à l'utiliser sans donner des gages aux racistes.

Nous ne comprenons rien, non plus, de la question nationale au Québec. Sur le 'fédéralisme', par exemple, il est intéressant à comparer l'attitude des camarades québecois avec celle de la gauche belge (voir ce message sur la Belgique). Sans parler des divergences qui existent dans l'extrême gauche écossaise sur la revendication d'une Ecosse indépendante et socialiste, ou la dérive identitaire d'une petite partie de la gauche radicale anglaise. Pas facile de se retrouver dans tout cela !

Voici un extrait de l'article de Benoît qui donne un aperçu de son argumentation :

"Dans le contexte de la mondialisation néolibérale, des guerre impérialistes dans le monde musulman et de la crise du projet national québécois, le débat de société qui avait commencé autour de certains jugements de cour sur des accommodements a glissé rapidement vers un débat sur l’intégration des populations immigrantes et de religion minoritaire dans la société québécoise, ainsi que sur la définition de l’identité québécoise avec et face à cette nouvelle population.

"Une solution satisfaisante et durable des problèmes qui sont à l’origine des débats autour des accommodements doivent donc inclure 1) le retrait du Québec de toute participation à la prétendue guerre contre le terrorisme, 2) un ensemble de politiques de résistance au néolibéralisme et de défense des droits sociaux et des services publics, et 3) une politique linguistique beaucoup plus vigoureuse de défense du français comme langue de travail et langue d’accueil des immigrantes et immigrants 4) une politique d’immigration fondée sur la reconnaissance des droits et des aspirations des nouveaux arrivants et leur véritable intégration économique, sociale et culturelle à une société québécoise en constante évolution et confiante dans son avenir.

"Ces politiques ne sont concevables que dans un Québec souverain./.../"

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