The veil – does it protect or subjugate women?

I recently received this article in my e-mail inbox, written by a colleague of mine who is Iranian living in Belgium. Some tension is being felt across Belgium at the moment to do with the headscarf (similar to recent debates in France. This is her response. I offered to post this on her behalf as she is very keen to find out what other people think.

Yesterday evening I went to the cinema to see a documentary on Iran and I participated in the debate that occurred afterwards. Since I did not have sufficient time to express my deepest thoughts, I decided to write an article in the hope of promoting a discussion which would enrich our multicultural society and a dialogue which could allow unity in diversity actually to take shape.

I began by expressing a critical comment regarding how the film begins, explaining the reasons for the Iranian revolution. To my great amazement I heard the same litany of ineptitude that I have been hearing continuously for the last 30 years: the Iranian people revolted because they could not handle modernisation! For years now I feel insulted because Iranians–including myself–are treated this way, as retarded and backwards. The truth is that it is precisely because this modernisation did not reach the whole population and all regions that the Iranian people revolted, because the oil manna was not distributed equitably throughout the whole country, and certainly equally because no democracy and freedom of speech existed in Iran.

Next I wanted to linger on the current issue facing us in Belgium: Wearing the veil at school. In this article I would like to direct two warnings to my Belgian friends as well as my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Thirty years ago things all began in Iran with the veil and in a very short time ended with stoning. In 1979, during the revolution, people from both the political left and right wanted to use religion to cause the masses to rise up but the fundamentalists took a more subtle approach: they removed both groups from power before eliminating them.

Do we want the same situation to happen to us here? I have a serene and happy life in Belgium and have absolutely no desire to see this country turn into an Iranian style dictatorship, a regime which I esteem neither a republic nor Islamic, not only because the juxtaposition of these two terms is semantically impossible and that they are antinomical since a republic by definition is secular and a place where one does not mix religion and politics. Above all, how can a regime be considered Islamic when its prison guards rape girls and boys with impunity solely because these persons took part in pacific street demonstrations?

This is one reason among others that we as Iranian expatriates are
trying to push fundamentalism out of Iran and why we note with
consternation that in Europe its existence is permitted without the
slightest impediment! I call urgently upon Belgian authorities and
Muslim community leaders to help us not only to uproot, through
diplomatic and pacific channels, this fundamentalist plague from Iran
which creates immeasurable suffering for the Iranian people and shame
for Islam, but also to take resolute measures, working hand in hand, to
prevent it from sliding under our doors and subverting our lives in the
West.

It is time for political parties as well as Belgian and European
authorities to stop their sterile sentimentality and procrastination,
to demonstrate their courage and their determination, and to stop cold
every hint of extremism unanimously and with one voice.

If it is true that the Front National no longer sits in the
parliament of Brussels Region, nevertheless the Vlaams Belang still
retains seats there and is steadily gaining ground in Flanders. Unless
the Belgian authorities take their responsibilities seriously RIGHT
NOW, a whole group of Belgian electors who earlier hesitated when
marking their ballots will go over to the extreme right during the next
elections. Is that what we want?

The religious education that I received taught me that all religions
have the goal of reminding human beings of essential values: love,
compassion, solidarity, sharing, charity, goodness… Thus I learned to
respect all spiritual educators because they shared as a common
objective to help human beings in their search for happiness. I
earnestly desire that we all return at once to these universal and
humanistic values and that we try to anchor them more in our society
for the good of all.

Dear Muslim brothers and sisters, how can you believe that it is for
our good and because they love us women that the fundamentalists want
to establish themselves in the West, when it is in fact by pure
ambition and only to increase their power that they are taking
advantage of us? It is not we eastern women whom they want to protect
and help to experience an enriched spiritual and interior life and to
be more loved, as they claim, but to export to the West the kind of
ideology anchored in the current power base in Iran. They use us; they
subjugate you and me only to serve their own interests. We are nothing
more than pawns in their sordid game that exacerbates defensive
reactions over identity. Why don’t we open our eyes and see the damage
that these deviations have caused at the heart of Iranian society? Do
you really believe that so many young people would have taken to the
streets, risking their lives, if they weren’t about to asphyxiate? All
they ask is to be able to live freely, without obstacles and without
being policed every minute and hour of the day and night. If we
continue to close our eyes and to allow ourselves to be manipulated by
these fundamentalists who would have us believe that it is for our own
good they are subjecting us -exactly as every fascist discourse claims-
we run the risk of provoking massive rejection of us at the heart of
the Belgian population, fuelling the extreme right, and assisting them,
in spite of ourselves, to assume power in Belgium. In such
circumstances, you and I, my dear Belgian and/or Muslim sisters, will
find ourselves relegated to the kitchen and household chores! And the
future of everyone -men and women, originally Belgian or of the third
generation, Muslims, Christians or atheists, left or right politically,
greens or liberals- will become more uncertain and dark.

We women must not allow ourselves to be sacrificed on the altar of
the ambitions of others. NO. We must think of ourselves and defend what
allows us to experience complete fulfilment, that is: liberty and
democracy. We must reject as one religious fundamentalism and
right-wing extremism, obscurantism and obscurity. Have we so quickly
forgotten the Inquisition in the Middle Ages or the excesses of
National Socialism in the twentieth century? Is that what we want for
our families and children? Is that how we want to protect our daughters
and granddaughters? I urge us all seriously to reflect on and return to
the values we all share, notably mutual understanding, especially of
the Belgian society in which we live on good terms and the secular
values which govern it. Let us return to what is essential and try to
anchor ourselves more firmly in more love, understanding and goodness.
The happiness of everyone depends on it: you, me, our friends and
families as well as all the persons around us.

Azita Rahimpoor
Brussels, 20 September 2009 bonjour.freedom@gmail.com

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4 Comments

  1. dianita
    Posted October 3, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Bravo! I’m sick of American feminists defending the burqa out of some kind of political correctness…when in fact most European countries’ tolerance is taken advantage of by radical Muslim immigrants. If a radical Muslim immigrant wants to practice his/her extremist religion with no regard or respect to the country they NOW live in, they should go back to their country of origin where religion is the government and vice-versa. I understand many say the burqa is a woman’s choice, and restricting it would be restricting her freedom, but lets be pragmatic and take into consideration the fact that not only are burqas unfair in that they could potentially pose a security threat, but France and Belgium are sovereign countries who are secular…thus if they wnat to ban the burqa they have a right to do so. Moreover Muslim radicals are NOT the majority and thus if the majority of people feel the burqa should be banned then it is their call.
    I’m a liberal feminist and this is what I truly believe.

  2. whoawhat?
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Islam is hardly the only religion that calls for women (or men) to be veiled. Catholic nuns cover their heads, women could not come to church without a hat or other covering on their head.
    But, the veil and the burqa are two different things. There is nothing wrong with a veil – it can be akin to a sari, a kippa or even a turban that sheik or Indian men wear.
    The problem with the burqa, in my opinion, is that it subjugates the ‘victim’. The reason women are to wear it in extreme religious states (like Iran, Saudi Arabia), is because men cannot control their impulses when they see women in ‘skimpy’, form-fitting or other type of clothing deemed inappropriate. Therefore, the problem – men can’t control themselves- is solved by imposing a formless, loose-fitting piece of cloth on women. When it is required by the STATE (not religion), how can we say that it is the woman’s choice to wear it?

  3. Pantheon
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Wait, did my comment get deleted? I said its a complex issue and I’m not sure what the right answer is, but it can cause problems in the classroom if the teacher can’t see the student’s face. How is the teacher supposed to tell if the student is paying attention, or is lost or confused? That is a problem with a burka that doesn’t come up with just a head scarf.

  4. Pantheon
    Posted October 7, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I was thinking of the other post about the veil that I recently commented on…

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