The left and the ‘veil’

Submitted by Anon on 28 June, 2007 - 9:13

by Pat Yarker

Some on the left argue that Muslim women have taken to wearing the ‘veil’ (used here to mean such attire as the niqab or burqa) as a political act with a positive content. They read in veiling” a statement of support for anti-imperialism, and an expression of solidarity with co-religionists under attack. They point to aspects of Frantz Fanon’s writings about the Algerian war of independence against the French as a vindication of this position. Conscious of my own identity as a white atheist male, I want to argue that there are problems not only with citing Fanon in relation to “veiling”, but with any would-be-socialist stance taken towards the “veil” which is motivated only or primarily by opposition to the occupation of Iraq.


Writing out of the Algerian liberation struggle (1954-62) in which he took an active and dangerous part, Fanon claimed that the “veil” was “invisible” in Algeria prior to the war for independence. It was simply “a fact of life”. In claiming this he dismissed the history of anti-“veiling” in the Arab world, and the realities of Algeria’s patriarchal cultural norms. For Fanon the “veil” was only a symbol of national liberation and indigenous identity, not of patriarchy too. Some have argued this was to rationalise Algerian conservatism.

Fanon also asserted the liberation movement’s victory in Algeria would liberate women. It did not. While his insights into the struggle against colonialism remain significant, Fanon’s attitude to women as expressed in his writings, some of which contain crude sexism, continues to be criticised.

His essay Algeria Unveiled (1959) claimed Algerian women who “veiled” did so in support of Algerian cultural norms and hence the liberation-struggle. This text was a revolutionary call to rally support for national liberation which for Fanon took precedence over everything else, including questions of women’s equality. Fanon never quotes Algerian women directly in his essay. He speaks “for” them. Female agency was likewise spoken-for during the struggle, subsumed to the (male-determined) tactics of the moment. Deeply naturalised patriarchal norms empowered male fighters to prevent or constrain women’s autonomous involvement simply on grounds of gender. To cite Fanon uncritically today perpetuates the marginalisation of women in the struggle for their own liberation, a struggle which in Algeria has been particularly tragic.

French soldiers forcibly “un-veiled” Algerian women during the war. They also raped, tortured and abused Algerian women as a deliberate policy.

In opposing female face-covering it is important for Leftists to avoid being positioned as “rescuers” of Muslim women from Muslim men, the position used by the French to attempt to justify their actions. It is also important to recognise the dialectical working of the “veil”, how it can be understood simultaneously to “protect” and “repress”, “safeguard” and “segregate”, within a complex social context. These complexities make it likely that a woman’s individual and conscious decision to cover her face may be prompted as much by a variety of economic and social factors as by political and/or religious motivation. A statement of solidarity with co-religionists, and/or of opposition to imperialism, may play a part.

So also, research suggests, may a desire or need to position herself to best advantage in securing a husband. On this view, choice of dress operates as an outward sign of inner piety. Such a sign enhances marriagability in cultures where not only is marriage expected, but in which a woman’s obedience to norms associated with currently-dominant readings of Islam are especially valued. Pious women are seen as more likely to maintain good (that is, normative) family relationships and to raise children to do likewise. So adopting the “veil” can boost a woman’s value in the marriage-market, and enable social mobility.

Boosting conservatives

Some on the Left who see Muslims in the West under particular attack as a result of the “war on terror” feel it incumbent as anti-imperialists to give unconditional support. This has translated not only into defence against racist attack (about which the Left is united) but also into quietism about certain Islamist organisations and “authorities” whose political agendas are antagonistic to socialist demands. The claims of “anti-imperialism” are deemed sufficient to neutralise any exposure of reactionary positions embedded in the politics practised by groups which organise firstly on the basis of religious affiliation.

In recent times this has led some on the Left to accept gender-segregation at political meetings, to smear certain Iraqi trade unionists as collaborators, to avoid defending gay rights, and to give a platform or an audience to those whose co-thinkers holding state power imprison, assassinate and oppress our fellow-socialists.

The “veil” remains contested within Islamic societies. To claim that an increase in the numbers of women “veiling” means a rise in anti-imperialist sentiment or of Islamic solidarity is to avoid facing the contested nature of the issue.

Not only are such simple explanations inadequate, they may also serve to boosts conservative religious elements who wish to extend the reach of the veiling-imperative already at work in Islamic societies and communities. Such claims may also undermine those working in their communities and societies against the “veil” and for women’s rights untrammelled by religious doctrine.

It is these people, in my view, whom socialists should be prepared to try intelligently to support. The Qu’ran enjoins “modesty” for both men and women. It is ambiguous about “correct” female attire. It does not assert plainly that women should cover their faces. Matters to do with the interpretation of a text written (and re-written) some thirteen hundred years ago have been the province of men for centuries, and subject to the pressures of patriarchal social structures. What is regarded as “proper” Islamic dress has changed across time and place.

Any discussion of the “veil” cannot help but mobilise multiple overlapping historical and contemporary meanings about what face-covering signifies and how it should be read or understood. Class as well as gender issues will come into play at once.

To claim that “veiling” should be read as a gesture of anti-imperialism can be a manoeuvre to prevent more comprehensive understanding, of the kind required for adequate Marxist analysis. How to recognise, on this view, the “veil” as a relic of Islam’s own imperialist past, counterposed in Algeria for example to indigenous African dress? Or to acknowledge the “veil” as a sometime class-signifier, worn by privileged women who did not have to work? How, most urgently, to regard those Muslim women who would emulate Huda Shaarawi, founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union, whose public self-unveiling in Cairo in 1923 shook the country and remains an inspiration?

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