Friday 27 June 2014

Why Western Culture Dislikes the Niqab

The University of Derby's Centre for Society, Religion and Belief hosted a conference on Muslim Women's Activism earlier today. It saw sessions on Muslim women challenging religious conservatism, extremism, education, and the part played by them in Middle Eastern protest and revolutionary movements. 'Everyday encounters: how Muslim women who chose to wear the niqab engage with their communities', given by Anna Piela of Leeds Trinity University interested me because of what it mentioned in passing: why is the niqab (often wrongly lumped in with the burqa) persistently regarded as an object of unease?

Anyone who's been around the left for a while will recognise the leading explanations for this anxiety. The first is the abiding legacy of orientalism and imperialism on Western cultures: the idea that the peoples of the East, specifically the Middle East to the Far East are culturally, politically, and technologically inferior to the West, and yet pose some kind of existential threat to it. Lump that in with the experience of imperialism as the colonising countries, you're left with a lingering set of racist attitudes and prejudices. True, in Britain overt racism has declined and anti-racism is officially promoted, but those roots have the habit of growing back and taking on new shapes. For example, "liberal" opposition to the niqab and Islam generally assumes women who wear the veil are victims forced to do so, or are unwitting dupes who collude in their oppression. This is because Islam is uniquely reactionary, etc. A variant of the liberal concern for Muslim women helped justify Bush jr's War on Terror, and fed the simplistic and intellectually bunk clash of civilisations thesis.

Orientalist, racist, and bastardised enlightenment ideas allied to geopolitical objectives is but one factor. Another oft-cited explanation is the pervasive quality of the 'male gaze', the taken-for-granted assumption that women's bodies can be sexually evaluated according to various sets of arbitrary but hegemonic criteria (smooth skin, pretty face, even proportions, ample boobs, shapely behind, fuckability), and that we all have a natural right to be able to so scrutinise them. Whole industries are based around the sexist but everyday cultural assumption that women are always on display. The niqab, which hides not just one's facial features but body shape challenges this "right" head on, even if ultimately its theological justifications are usually premised on equally patriarchal ideas. i.e. Only the husband has the right to gaze upon his wife's features. The assumption here is women are property, and need to be hidden away from men in general because they're beasts incapable of controlling themselves. When you have a culture likes ours in which the sexual objectification of women is mundane, you can understand why conservative ideas like these might find traction.

However, while I accept the validity of both these sets of ideas, that racism and sexism has a lot to do with opposition to the niqab, they fall into what you might call 'radical naivete'. This is something that overplays a given set  of values, ideas and practices while, simultaneously, rendering a social problem a relatively simple matter to resolve. In this case if we keep steady progress uncovering and draining the reservoirs sustaining racism and sexism generally, the implication is people's attitudes toward niqab wearers will change and become more accepting almost automatically. I want to argue that the problems niqab wearers face, the general antipathy toward it is more complex. It taps into a series of social relations with long histories that combine with but are not reducible to the problematics of gender and ethnicity or, for that matter, questions of power differentials.

Jacques Derrida wrote books about the 'metaphysics of presence', the unstated assumption in Western cultures that the act of truth-telling is something that should be delivered in person, that the truth be enunciated verbally, that only presence can convey authenticity. The job interview, court case testimony, the confession, the lecture, these are instances and workings out of the privileging of presence. Unsurprisingly, bound up with this is an ethics and aesthetics of the face. You don't need to look into someone's eyes to see their soul, its secrets are given away by the sculpting and contorting of foreheads and lips. It is a banal observation, but the emphasis Western cultures place on face-to-face interaction means non-verbal cues - smiles, twitches, dancing eyes, frowns, the configuring of the face into expressions appropriate to the circumstances - are incredibly important to it. Anything that gets in the way of presenting the self via the face is jarring and sits very uneasily with it.

The second point flows from the first. The masking of faces have definite cultural connotations. There's no point stepping around the issue, in Western cultures from at least mediaeval times the obscuring of the face has been associated with villainy, criminality, and death. Think about our history - the masks plague doctors wore during the Black Death, the closed helms of knights sacking peasant villages for not delivering rent, the cloth covering the hangman's face, the depictions of highway men, artist impressions of Jack the Ripper, oxygen masks doled out during the two world wars, balaclava-wearing IRA and loyalist paramilitaries . The hidden face is unsettling and associated with those dark moments we'd rather not recall. Think about their modern iterations in popular culture. Villains from Scooby Doo to Darth Vader, from Michael Myers to Papa Lazarou, their masks and disguises convey upon them an aura of evil. In everyday life, the concealing of the face is associated with crime - typically robbery. See how the press and politics got themselves into a lather about hoodies, the strong association of them with anti-social behaviour and youthful thuggery. In this cultural context, quite apart from other factors, these deeply-held linkages mean the niqab wearer is from the outset is treated as a suspicious figure, as someone with something to hide and potentially up to no good.

In short, cultural anxiety toward the niqab is more than just sexism and racism. It taps into basic structures of feeling that are core to Western cultures. Does that excuse the antipathy and harassment niqab-wearing women face? No. It does, however, mean that tackling the issue is more complex than anti-racist and feminist explanations suggest.


Ralph Musgrave said...

I do like the claim in the above article that Westerners’ are “anxious” about Oriental culture (or other cultures) because Westerners regard others as “culturally, politically, and technologically inferior to the West”. So how come “Westerners” aren’t “anxious” about Buddhism? How come they’re happy to acknowledge the cultural and technological achievements of China a thousand or more years ago: invention of paper, gun powder, paper money?

The REAL REASON Westerners (like me) would like to send all Muslims back to where they came from is nicely illustrated by the fact that 90% of those in prison in the UK for terrorist offences are Muslim, rather than Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Athiest, etc etc.

Phil said...

It's never wise to read the first couple of paragraphs and then stop.

So Ralph, we get to add the epithet "racist" or "bigot" (your choice) to "tired" and "defeated". What a sad, sad character you are.

David Timoney said...

Re "obscuring of the face has been associated with villainy, criminality, and death ... The hidden face is unsettling and associated with those dark moments we'd rather not recall".

It has also been associated with resistance (Guy Fawkes masks), the protection of the weak (various super-heroes), and the life-enhancing properties of the NHS (surgeons' masks).

It's interesting to note the similarity in the treatment of niqab wearers with punks - i.e. being assaulted by complete strangers because of what you wear. This is surely driven by more than a suspicion that you're "up to no good".

Obscuring your identity has many motivations. Does deleting cookies and preventing Google from tracking you online constitute a form of digital niqab-wearing?

Jim Denham said...

Most of what you've written in the main piece above is relativist tosh. The compulsory covering of womens' faces and/or hair is sexual oppression, plain and simple.

And your evident embarrassment about Enlightenment values, and unwillingness to defend them, ("bastardised" or otherwise) betrays an embarrassment about Marxism itself.: Marxism being, of course, a product of the Enlightenment.

Speedy said...

Crafty trying to reframe the debate by making the (false) assumption feminists should understand and support the wearing of the niqab (!) and the real problem is trying to get these prejudiced westerners to "accept" it. You weren't a member of Militant for nothing, hey?

You misunderstand and wrongly conflate "orientalism" too - it is precisely the orientalism of your brand of Leftism that views folk from the ME as the recidivistic "other" both mysterious (niqab) and resistant to change, therefore unworthy to be judged by our standards - the relativism that has rotted British society from within.

Shame, sad, and a tiny bit sinister!

Phil said...

I guess subtle arguments are beyond some people.

Speedy said...

Oh, I get the subtlety...

"For example, "liberal" opposition to the niqab and Islam generally assumes women who wear the veil are victims forced to do so, or are unwitting dupes who collude in their oppression."

- fair enough.

"This is because Islam is uniquely reactionary, etc."

- no, that's a false and misleading assumption, although with just enough of a toe-hold in the truth to bridge to a truly outrageous proposition:

"A variant of the liberal concern for Muslim women helped justify Bush jr's War on Terror, and fed the simplistic and intellectually bunk clash of civilisations thesis."

Thus justified concerns about women's freedom are discredited with an association with Bush's war on terror; are "simplistic" and "bunk".

Bravo. I may not know the clever academic term for this kind of thing Phil, but I do know it's not very subtle.