Time to unveil: let’s not cover the meaning of the veil.

With the attempt to ban the burkini on certain beaches, France has once again thrust the issue of the veil into a storm of media and public attention. And once again, she has stirred up anger. France has been denounced by European neighbours as preaching islamophobia. She has been condemned as oppressive. What is disconcerting is that few question why such a thing as “the veil”, a piece of cloth covering women’s hair, and body, and in more extreme situations her face, should exist in the first place. We must, before any discussion of the legitimacy of such a ban, think about the intrinsic significance of the veil.

From the moment women come into this world, we grow up in a misogynistic world where we are not made to feel welcome. We are made to understand we are committing a sin by being a woman. We are asked to make ourselves as small as possible in a secluded world. We cannot take more than the space that has been magnanimously assigned: the home. If, however, as a woman, you are stubborn enough to venture into the dangerous and forbidden public space, you are punished for it. You become subject to verbal and physical violence, harassment. So, we try our best to avoid the punishment, a punishment that is taken for granted. We make sure that we don’t stay out too late at night. We forsake open clothes for more covering ones. We attempt to go unnoticed so that we are left unbothered. In other words, we change our behaviour in accordance with the attitude of men.

The veil is in line with this misogyny. It is the manifestation of a desire not to see women in the public space. The veil aims to erase women. If you dare to leave your home, at least have the decency to cover your dreadful and so arousing female body. Hide the fact that you are a woman.

The veil also acts as a leash. The woman cannot exist independently of a master. She has to be owned by a male figure to be honourable, whether this figure is a god or a parent. And the woman can only exist to their eyes of her legitimate proprietor. Vision concretises existence. If one cannot see women, then one is one step closer to the desire of eliminating them. The veil is the punishment for the fault of being born female.

The veil is the denial of women independent of its cultural attachment, whether in today’s Iran or in Ancient Rome.

One question is often overlooked: why do men not cover in veils? Why is it that women are expected to cover themselves from the gaze of men, while men cannot simply avert their gaze? The “honour” of men is never questioned, even though they manage to make a woman dishonourable simply by looking at her. Men do not change their behaviour because their behaviour is the given one. They are the subject and others, women, have to act accordingly. If men are aroused, it is women’s fault. Men’s existence is taken for granted. Women’s existence is a mistake. The veil is a mere eraser.

“The veil is reserved for women, and it is the symbol of the submission of women to men. To make women wear the veil is to assert the ideology that stipulates an essential distinction between men and women and accords them different rights.” Chahdortt Djavan

“Let him wear it!” The crowd cheers Nasser talking about the impossibility of veiling all Egyptian women.

Iran, 1936. The Shah Reza Pahlavi bans the veil.

Egypt, the 1950s. The President Gamal Abdel Nasser mocks in a speech the Muslim’s Brotherhood’s leader’s request to veil all Egyptian women.

Tunisia, 1957. The President Bourguiba forbids the wearing of the veil in schools.

Today, for the secularist feminists of the aforementioned countries, not much is left of those early conquests. But what is all the more painful is to see a Europe absolutely confused about this issue. The debate in Europe has put the secularists in a difficult position. We are torn between a racist Right and a lax Left.

The Right has manipulated secularism and feminism to pursue its xenophobic agenda. It is very uncomfortable for anti-racist secularists to fall in the same box as that Right. The islamophobes oppose the veil because they believe it is the intrinsic sign of Islam. To show them it isn’t, let’s take the example of secularist Turkey. Since the beginning of the last century, there have been dramatic changes in the use of the veil: Turkish women swung between open and veiled days. However, the Turkish population has always been declared overwhelmingly Muslim. So if what is believed to be the main reason for the wearing of

Same country, different times… Top: the last Caliphate Abdülmecid with his family. Bottom: the current Turkish president with his family.

the veil has not changed, whereas the manifestation of it has, there must be another variable. One may look for epochal, political, commercial, ideological or fashion changes.

Actually, this right never ponders on the meaning of nuns’ veils. It actually never denounces the Church’s strongly misogynistic and at times paedophilic practices. Although it claims to be supporting women’s rights, conservatives somehow become very quiet when it comes to raising issues such as violence against women and political representation. To come back to France, the same Right that claims to safeguard women’s rights by banning the veil has firmly refused educational programs to teach gender equality at school – the very programs that could actually shed light on the sexism behind the veil.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Left has fallen prey to a conservative sexist trap for the sake of electoral conquest and out of fear of appearing narrow-minded. In the name of cultural relativism, the intellectual leftist class swallows everything that religious misogynists shove down their throat. There is too much confusion between culture and ideology. No, Europeans are not in any position to judge how one eats, what one likes, how one interacts with others. But yes, we should all refuse discriminations and inequalities. Sexism is not a culture. There is no beautiful sexist tradition to safeguard in behalf of human cultural heritage. This intellectual Left prides itself on its tolerance, openness and anti-colonialism, sacrificing universalism. However, preserving certain rights for oneself while believing that others can contend with less is the real colonialism. During this debate over the burkini, claims like “at least this outfit gives women the chance to get out of home” have been heard. It seems acceptable to some that women can be confined at home. Why forsake the rights you enjoy to people who are foreign to you? Why do these “Muslim women” do not deserve the same rights?

In the name of religious and cultural diversity the adversaries of post-colonial thinking are playing the game of the racist Right. A world of simplistic, stereotyped appearances is being built. One that blurs individuality. Muslim women wear veils. Arab men have beards. In Egypt, women are born with a veil on their head. A bit like the annoying international dolls in Disneyland: exaggerated costumes so that everyone knows their place. It is reassuring to have one part of the world looking one way and the other looking another. Conservatives all around the world aspire to that so they can pretend there are fundamental differences among people. Us versus them. A division rendering their existence vital. As long as the pious mother of seven in Tunisia keeps her veil, no one will notice she is the mirror of the pious unveiled mother of seven in Spain. Each is comforted with the idea that the other lives worse off.

A woman in traditional costume from Isili, Sardegna.

Even worse is the realisation that those mystical women from the Muslim world live and look like the ones from the Christian world. My grandmother is blond, has clear grey eyes. She is single, goes on holiday with her friends, manages everything on her own, dresses colourfully with no veil. She calls herself Muslim. There must be a mistake. It doesn’t fit the scheme. It doesn’t fit the scheme because she is not making her religion her main identity. Because she is Turkish, secularist, an artist and more before being Muslim. A religion – a belief- is being turned into a race. This helps religious preachers in their desire of creating an increasingly fanatic world. Religion feeds religion. If you accept that a woman veils in line with her religious beliefs, you also have to accept the fact that a mayor does not celebrate a same-sex wedding in the name of their religious beliefs. Freedom of conscience. Once you accept the requests of one, you have to accept of the requests of all.

There is yet another trap European intellectuals have fallen into: the feminist trap. Wearing a veil has become a matter of choice, of freedom: the ultimate feminist outfit! If it is so much of a free choice, why do men not wear the veil? Is imprisoning oneself

freedom? Are we gullible enough to believe that not being able to feel the sun on your skin is a choice? What kind of freedom stipulates that not even a strand of hair can be seen? Maybe the people promoting the veil as a feminist outfit do not realise the constraints it implies. It is not just a piece of cloth that covers your hair. You are not supposed to show any flesh. Every single day. Pouring rain or burning sun. 

Another argument put forward under the guise of feminism is the desire to be less sexualised. By covering up, women would be valued for who they are and not their appearance. It is not by covering up women, while leaving men’s behaviour unchanged that we fight hyper-sexualisation. The veil with its deformed and covering outfit acknowledges that a woman’s body is essentially sexual. It affirms that women will not be listened to because of how they look. Instead of changing the perceptions people have about women, it accepts them. I will not change my appearance to be taken seriously. What is wrong with my arm? Why should I pretend I do not have breasts, hips, a belly, hair to be listened to? “In the end, the burqa is the woman treated as an object par excellence. So sexual that she cannot be shown.” Alizé Meurisse

One more hazardous stance during the burkini debate has appeared: that being topless and wearing the burkini are similar, it’s all about choice. This disrespects the long and slow conquest women have made in affirming our existence in this world. Our bodies are still deemed sinful, dirty, shameful. “Free the nipple” and the burkini are not the same fight. The former is trying to desexualise our bodies, render them acceptable, while the latter convinces us we should be covered with shame. The opening up of women has been and still is a difficult path strewn with pitfalls, such as slut-shaming and street harassment.

Modesty. Decency. Yet more gendered virtues laid forward in the defence of the veil. Oddly, men are not expected to display modesty and decency with regard to exposing skin to the gaze of the opposite sex.

Still another puzzling element in today’s European “feminist” defence of the veil is the willingness to preserve what is believed to be a Muslim tradition. Why is there so much respect for Islam? After all, it’s just another monotheistic misogynistic religion. To show how ridiculous the “feminist” defence of the veil seems for secularist feminists, especially from Muslim background, let’s just reverse their roles. Imagine that feminists in Muslim countries started opposing contraception to preserve Catholic women’s traditions, comforted by the voices of women telling how liberated they feel by being faithful to the Church. Nonsense.

Egyptian beaches 1950/60s

To comfort the insecure European intellectuals, “refusing the veil does not mean accepting racism” (Wassyla Tamzali). The veil is the epitome of this growing acceptance of sexist practices under the cover of foreign mystique. Among those practices, there is: the refusal of touching women, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, virginity tests, etc. The type of list one wishes was exhaustive. It is not by defending sexism that you bring in more cultural diversity. The veil subordinates women to men, settling a glaring divide between the two and thus hindering the process of equalisation. It is not freedom, it implies many constraints. Self-effacement is not a right.

The veil in Europe is some kind of trend at the moment. I would like to tell my progressive friends that they are making a mistake by wholeheartedly defending it. They sometimes make it sound as if it was a simple outfit. It is not: it has a deep meaning. I do not understand the attempt to normalise it. I do not understand how Europe has ended up having veiled girls in its elementary schools. I feel that the people opposing the at times clumsy bans do not realise the impact this symbol has.

We, the secularist feminists of Muslim background, have seen how daunting things can get.

Maybe one has to see a couple having lunch outside on a sizzling hot day to understand the unfairness of the veil and the hypocrisy of the concept of modesty. This couple in question involving a man in shorts with a short-sleeved polo, and his wife in a long black cloth, with only her eyes visible, condemned to the straw, like a child, the only way for her to drink with a veil on her mouth, and struggling not to show her so astonishingly sensual and sinful mouth.

Or maybe, one has to see a little girl, about seven, tumbling on her long covering black veil, attempting to play football with her brother.

All of this can go very quickly.

One summer you visit a traditional town of Turkey. Men and women, side by side, hairs dancing with the wind.

One summer you come back. A veil has trapped those women’s hair. Long skirts have replaced comfortable shorts. Men are still enjoying the breeze.

One summer you come back. There are no more women in the streets.

It took less than fifteen years for Atatürk secularist Turkey to be veiled up.

But this is not just Turkey. This is Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and more. We have experienced these things. The veil is only the tip of a continental iceberg of sexist violence.

Today, Europe is betraying her universal ideas of human rights. She is betraying the fighters who made her who she is today. She is being docile to avoid tensions. And she has become insecure enough to veil herself up.

“I breathed in. I breathed out. I am here. I am not giving up. I came here naked. I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed.” Nil Karaibrahimgil

Yağmur Arıca