Freedom to choose emancipation and dress

To force a woman to remove her veil is just as subjugating as forcing her to cover up. Peter Manson replies to left and right criticisms

The publication in last week’s Weekly Worker of three letters, whose authors - Andrew Coates, Robert Wilkinson and Jacob Richter - share the anti-religious intolerance of much of the French left, was useful. It helped to reveal a mindset of what is, at the end of the day, a profoundly anti-democratic viewpoint that can only serve to reinforce divisions amongst the working class.

In response to my article, ‘French burqa ban has nothing to do with women’s rights’ (July 22), Andrew Coates states: “The defence of the burqa is part of a general trend to assert special, privileged protection for religious claims. It is root and branch against any form of equality. The assertion of religious rights, of which the ‘right’ to wear the burqa is just one, should be opposed,not embraced” (Letters, July 29).

In the same edition, ‘official’ communist Robert Wilkinson writes: “La laïcité [secularism] is a struggle against the separatism and privilege of any religion and a recognition that the ‘freedom’ of a few fanatical believers renders immense assistance to the far right in their demonisation of all Muslims.” Comrade Wilkinson does not say which ‘freedoms’ he would like to see ‘derecognised’, but, since the issue under discussion was the French legal ban on the right to wear the burqa and niqab, we can only assume that this is what he is referring to.

They are joined by Jacob Richter, who is the most blunt: “... the public display of religious symbols needs to be curtailed, whether they come in the form of saintly statues or burqas.”

We also published a fourth letter on the subject - from someone clearly influenced by a rather different agenda. Bill Cookson, while claiming to be a ‘libertarian’ who upholds “the right of people to wear what they wish”, like comrade Coates, sees the extension of this right to the niqab and burqa as “special, privileged protection”. Cookson views it as a form of indirect discrimination against “white workers”, following “a decade of Islamic codes imposed on majority non-Muslim communities, non-observance of religious and cultural holidays which don’t happen to include Muslims, the removal of food off the menu at schools which isn’t halal, and forcing the majority population to conform to rules and codes acceptable to Muslims”.

The fact that Cookson’s complaints are unsubstantiated and almost entirely groundless does not mean that they do not enjoy a certain resonance amongst our class - a resonance that the far right has not been slow to use to its own advantage. The myths he repeats have developed and been nurtured in the climate created by the state’s divisive multiculturalism, whereby workers are encouraged to define themselves primarily according to ethnicity or religion. Resources are, after all, rather scarce, so it is ‘only fair’ that each ethnic or religious group gets its ‘rightful share’. Groups of workers are supposed to act as Bill Cookson does - as rival supplicants, demanding an end to the imaginary ‘privileges’ of others.


As I say, comrade Coates’s opposition to the right to wear the burqa has a rather different provenance. Nevertheless, the arguments of the two correspondents overlap in various ways and, unfortunately, both feed into the dominant Islamophobia. Compare, for example, the following statement from comrade Coates with that of Cookson (next paragraph): “I would say that any position in which a person has power over others should not be occupied by somebody loudly proclaiming that anyone who does not dress as they do is impure. In other words, public functions.”

And Cookson: “Still, being libertarians, we can only demand the right of people to wear what they wish, even if that means causing offence - and deliberately causing offence, as these garments often do and are intended to do. They are a statement of non-integration, a statement of separation. Nobody who wears them is ignorant of the hostility they create, but we defend their right to be offensive.”

Again there is common ground. Both writers believe that the wearing of a particular garment is a hostile act directed against you and me. Somehow they are both able to get into the heads of the woman behind the veil and discern either that she views us with contemptuous superiority or is deliberately trying to offend us (at least Cookson is prepared to reluctantly tolerate these presumed thought crimes). As we shall see, however, a woman may be wearing a particular garb for a variety of reasons.

Both also take issue with my assertion that, while “I would not for a moment wish to understate the dehumanising effect of imposing the burqa”, communists should “demand that women have the right to wear the hijab, the burqa or the niqab”.

Andrew Coates sees a contradiction - apparently overlooking my use of the word “imposing” - and asks: “Is there a right to be ‘dehumanised’?” He adds: “The assertion is confused: either it means that there should be a legally protected ability to wear certain types of religious clothing - however ‘dehumanised’ - and an instrument to enforce this claim against anyone opposing it, or this is one of those ‘rights’ that exist in very rarefied ether?”

For his part Cookson says: “They have nothing whatever to do with Islam as such, and any Islamic scholar will tell you as much. This is a dress code imposed from the start on women and, in so far as some women today may ‘choose’ to wear it, it is a choice which is of the same nature of battered wives who stay with their husbands, or slaves who side with their masters.”

For both writers, then, the woman herself never has any real choice in the matter - and, what is more, it seems, she ought to have no choice. No woman has the ‘right’ to be ‘dehumanised’ - not even if she consciously chooses to cover herself and thinks that by doing so she is asserting her humanity - any more than she has the right to stay with an abusive husband in the hope he may mend his ways. Or so they seem to believe.

The similarities between the arguments continue. Comrade Coates says: “... the ‘right’ not to wear the voile intégral [burqa] ... is meaningless. I have just as much a right not to support the BNP and not wear a swastika T-shirt. But do I have the right to demand that this clothing be accepted and protected? Who then has the obligation to make sure this right is a reality? The law? Or what?”

As for Cookson, he asks: “Do the English Defence League have the same ‘right’ to wear St George’s masks on demos, or folk to dress up in fancy dress Gestapo uniforms, or far-right idiots to march under the hood of the KKK? It would follow from defence of the niqab they must and we must defend their right to do so.”

I really do not see why our two correspondents insist on tying themselves in knots. It really is quite simple and not at all “abstract”, as comrade Coates alleges. The state ought to have no right to determine what citizens may or may not wear (leaving aside questions of health and safety or suitability for certain jobs, as briefly discussed in my last article). That right must reside with the citizen, whether we are talking about a woman clad in a burqa or an EDL thug in a St George mask. Time and again it has been demonstrated that advocating state powers to proscribe certain phrases, behaviour or displays tends to rebound against the working class. At the end of the day such powers will be used against our organisations and militants.

That is not to say that we ourselves ought not to be prepared to take action to prevent either direct attacks on sections of our class, on religious and ethnic minorities; or provocations or incitement, of the type both writers associate with the far right, that might lead to such attacks. But that is a question of tactics and the subject of another article.

Returning, however, to the similarity of the conclusions of two correspondents with apparently very different political agendas, they actually do disagree on the nature of the burqa, niqab and hijab. While comrade Coates views them purely and simply as “religious clothing”, Cookson states that they “have nothing whatever to do with Islam”. The truth is somewhere in between. Clearly, the fact that no specific clothing is prescribed in the Quran ought not to lead us to contend that such garments “have nothing to do with religion”. The niqab and the burqa are a particularly extreme interpretation of the Islamic requirement for women to dress ‘modestly’, but in religion almost anything is open to interpretation, including extreme interpretation. Many of those men who force ‘their’ women to cover up completely and females who veil themselves willingly do so out of religious conviction, as they see it. It is pointless trying to ‘prove’ that they are not following the Quran’s stipulations correctly. What does it matter either way?

On the other hand, there is a large element of social custom involved - including that of patriarchy. However, whether a woman wears the burqa for religious or social reasons (or a mixture of both) is not the main question. The main question is that she should be empowered to choose for herself whether or not to continue wearing it.

We want Muslim women to rebel against patriarchy and the mosque - just as we seek to loosen the grip of the Church of England or Roman Catholicism over their respective flocks, and to undermine the power of religion in general - in order to win them to the fight for human emancipation and communism, and in so doing strengthen the common power of the working class. But oppressed women and religious minorities cannot be forced to join that fight. They will only do so as a result of their own conscious decision.

Shame and rage

That is why bans and proscriptions that prohibit religious expression and practice (or customs that derive from or are related to them) are counterproductive. To illustrate why, let me quote from an illuminating feature article that appeared in an unlikely source - namely The Sunday Telegraph (‘Why must I cast off the veil?’, July 18).

The article was written by Nesrine Malik, whose parents came originally from Sudan, but decided to move from London to Saudi Arabia when she was 18. Now resident in London once more, she recalls the “thoroughly unpleasant experience” of being forced to wear the niqab and abaya (full-length cloak) for the first time (I apologise for the length of the quotations):

“The thought of covering my body in a shapeless black gown and hiding my face so that only my eyes would show was inconceivable. It was humiliating, violating, dehumanising. Upon donning the headpiece, my body language immediately changed, becoming apologetic, withdrawn and subdued. Wearing it seemed to empower all the men around me and put me firmly in my place as inferior.

“On landing in Saudi Arabia, women - all of whom were wearing the veil - were channelled into a separate line for processing. My eyes stung with tears of rage and shame. Most of all, I felt infantilised, stripped of the right to dress how I pleased due simply to the fact that I was a woman and hence purely a sexual object to be concealed lest it should inflame desire ...”

We all ought to share her rage at the inhumanity of the Saudi regime and the religious doctrine that inflicts such humiliation on half the population. But the story does not end there. Although the immediate effect on Nesrine was perhaps predictable (“I became anti-social, hardly able to wait until I got home before tearing off the ghastly garb”), the longer she lived in Saudi Arabia, the more she was forced to adapt and the more her attitude changed - dramatically:

“Over the next few years, however, my opposition gradually eroded. Initially an ugly burden, the abaya and niqab became a comfort and, eventually, a delight. It was a relief not to have to think about what to wear.

“The burqa can be the most versatile of capsule wardrobes. The uniform black costume has a charming egalitarianism about it, and is both a social and physical leveller. Once social status or physical beauty cannot be established, all sorts of hierarchies are flattened ....

“Eye make-up and footwear took on extra significance. As the feet were the only part of the body one could legitimately flaunt, a good pedicure was ... necessary. All of a woman’s sexuality resided in how she carried herself, and how groomed her extremities were. In that context, the outfit became empowering, enabling a reclamation of one’s sexuality by not fulfilling modern, commercialised definitions of what makes a woman attractive.”

Commenting ironically on the contrast between the garment’s claimed purpose and the actual result of wearing it, she remarks: “I have never been so indiscriminately pursued by men. And I was therefore thankful for the anonymity the attire gave me - a privilege the men did not share.”

No doubt many might initially conclude that Nesrine must eventually have succumbed to direct and indirect patriarchal and religious pressures before finally agreeing to act like a devout Wahhabi Muslim. But that is clearly not the case - in fact she makes no mention of her own religious beliefs or lack of them in the article. And, now she has returned to the UK, her behaviour - including, of course, her attire - has changed once more:

“I would never wear [the abaya] to the office. But, as a fashionable 29-year-old, I sometimes pop it on to go to the corner shop rather than show the world my track suit bottoms .... I am not alone in finding the abaya a comfortable garment ... Now when I fly back from seeing my parents in Saudi Arabia I keep on the uniform for as long as is convenient. Immigration staff in the UK are so much more hostile to those who wear it.”

While Nesrine seems to be referring mainly to the abaya cloak rather than the niqab face covering in describing her current preferences, it really makes no difference. She has demanded, and still demands, the right to dress as she wants, not in compliance with what either the state, the mosque or sections of the left attempt to impose upon her. She notes: “Implicit in any law that proscribes women’s dress lies the most sinister, ideologically myopic assumption that a woman cannot be trusted not to succumb to pressure to dress in a certain way.”

I never thought I would agree with so much of a Sunday Telegraph article, and I certainly go along with Nesrine’s conclusion: “There is a deeply disturbing discourse developing in Europe, one that equates the niqab with Islamic radicalism, and which facilitates a witch-hunt of Muslims under the cover of concern for women ... A mix of Islamophobia, busy-bodying feminism and resurgent nationalist sentiment has contributed to the demonisation of a minority of Muslim women.”


Let me return to comrade Coates. He asks: “Will Peter Manson back a campaign for secularism?” Well, comrade, the current article and the one to which you replied were intended to be part of such a campaign. It is a campaign that must begin with the basics. What is secularism - as opposed to the impostor advocated by most of the French left and the likes of comrades Coates, Wilkinson and Richter? Far from being crudely anti-religious, it means the equality of all in the eyes of the state, whatever their religion or lack of it, whatever their preferred attire. It follows that it also means vigorous opposition to discriminatory state bans. The question posed by comrade Coates should be asked of him: will he back a campaign for genuine secularism?

Comrade Coates is wrong when he claims that I and the CPGB do not “outline any immediate political conclusions”. We demand the right to practise and proclaim one’s religion and to dress according to one’s choice, whether or not that choice is religiously informed. We call for a democratic, secular republic as a means of overcoming religious obscurantism. The state and public bodies must not discriminate against citizens on the grounds of their ethnicity, religion or appearance.

As to idiots like Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who says he would refuse to meet women wearing the burqa in his surgery, that is his own choice. Obviously no progressive MP would act in such a way - a way which is guaranteed to drive an oppressed woman - perhaps looking for help to escape from the domestic and religious patriarchy that comrade Coates abhors above all - deeper into the arms of religious reaction.

Behind the burqa or niqab lies a human being. Let us do all we can to aid her to choose emancipation. To choose for herself to wear the burqa - or, hopefully, to discard it. In the words of Nesrine Malik, “To force a female to remove her veil is just as subjugating as forcing her to cover.”