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Something French leaders could learn from Turkey: all veiled women do not necessarily think the same way

Something French leaders could learn from Turkey: all veiled women do not necessarily think the same way

01.04.2017 . France-Turkey

Making Islam a political option plays into the hands of separatists.

Wearing the veil is a means of affirming one’s religious faith. Some French politicians suggest that it is also a way of expressing a political opinion, at least in the case of women who are not forced to wear it. This is how wearing the veil should be interpreted, according to Manuel Valls: “When women are not victims and they strongly defend their choice, yes it is obviously a political assertion” he declared when he was Prime-Minister, back in August 2016. This is only one step away from claiming that wearing the veil is to advocate Sharia, the Islamic law.

The Turkish example

Ignoring the diversity of opinions and commitments of veiled women in France constitutes a political error. For a better understanding of this, let’s consider Turkey for a moment. The recent liberalisation of veil-wearing, which was prohibited for a long time in schools, universities, in Parliament and in public services, has led to a strong increase in the number of women dressing this way. However, this liberalisation has not been accompanied by any standardisation of their political commitments. On the contrary, a veiled woman could be a Kurdish elected member of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with a left-wing affiliation to “communalism, radical democracy and social ecology”, defending the rights of sexual or ethnic minorities, possibly favouring recognition of the Armenian genocide, and supporting the claims for Kurdish autonomy. Equally, a veiled woman could be nationalist, Turkish and conservative and belong to the Muslim brotherhood of Fetullah Gülen, which is opposed to the Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and also to Iran, whilst being quite well disposed towards Israel and the United States.

Five examples of veiled Turkish women to illustrate five different, even diametrically opposed, political position

Still in Turkey, another veiled woman may be – admittedly more rarely but this case does exist – a practicing Muslim but with secular opinions, voting for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with social-democratic tendencies and, consequently, in complete opposition to her rival, a Conservative-Islamist militant from the party of Justice and Development (AKP, in power since 2002), who is ultra-liberal as regards economics, with very conservative cultural values and who is rather anti-West and anti-Zionist. Finally, fifth on the list, and still very much a minority, would be a young and very devout veiled student who might join an “anti-capitalist movement” and protest “in the name of Marx and of the Koran”, as was the case at the June 2013 protests against the Conservative-Islamist government then in office.

These five examples of veiled Turkish women illustrate five different, even diametrically opposed, political positions. Why would it not be the same within the French Muslim sector that is, in many ways, much more broadly democratic?

In France, as well, there are different political choices

Do you think that Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of soldier Imad, one of the military servicemen killed in Toulouse in March 2012 by Mohamed Merah, believes the same things as Houria Bouteldja (sometimes wearing a bandana or sometimes a draped veil), one of the leaders of the PIR (‘Party of the Republic’s Indigenous people’)? The first of these women received many tributes from the Republic’s highest authorities (including ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls and also François Hollande), her actions were encouraged by the Ministry of Education, and she works very hard to promote peaceful coexistence and “interfaith tolerance”. The second woman, on the other hand, stirs up controversy with the stands she takes on issues, and she makes no secret of being a member of a radical far-left fringe group nor in “asserting her disgust of racial mixing, hence converging with the racialist far-right on that matter”, according to Didier Leschi, ex-Head of the Office of Religions, in his book Misère(s) de l’islam de France (“The Miseries of French Islam”).

Do they islamisize social issues or do they together raise the question of social justice and of Islam?

As regards Ismahane Chouder, one of the people in charge of the association Participation and spirituality (PSM), vice-president of Islam and secularism, and the leader of the Feminists for equality group, she has made a name for herself as well. Indeed, PSM has been actively involved in mobilising Muslims against the law permitting gay marriage, which the other associations that Ismahane Chouder belongs to did not do. Hence, she may campaign alongside feminist militants, such as Christine Delphy, within the association Mamans toutes égales (MTS, “All Mums are Equal”), which was formed in protest against the prohibition of mothers who were wearing the veil participating on school trips, based on a certain interpretation of secularism. However, she would strongly disagree with Christine Delphy on the matter of gay marriage. And where do the militants affiliated with Tariq Ramadan position themselves? Do they islamisize social issues or do they together raise the question of social justice and of Islam?

 Mélenchon, Hamon, Macron or Le Pen?

Should we be surprised by the political preferences of these veiled women as regards the presidential candidates? Some are far-left, others have reservations as regards Mélenchon and prefer Hamon, or even Macron. At the same time, a certain number also wouldn’t be opposed to voting for Le Pen on cultural issues, especially gay marriage. Without forgetting the Salafists, who bluntly refuse to vote because they reject our democratic system.

By focusing solely on the veil, our candidates and party leaders are playing into the game of those who reduce everything down to the veil

By talking about these women only with reference to their veil, our politicians are overlooking the rich variety of their different personalities. By focusing solely on the veil, our candidates and party leaders are playing into the game of those who reduce everything down to the veil and group together all these victimised and publically condemned women under the banner of islamophobia although, deep down, the political choices of these women may be very different from one another?

Reducing Muslim identity to a political identity is a mistake

Some politicians are hostile towards political Islam, but they also react in a perfunctory manner by reducing the significance of wearing the veil, the assertion of a Muslim identity, to a political assertion. Yet what we see elsewhere, when polarisation on the subject of the veil has faded away, as in present-day Turkey, is the exact opposite.

Obviously the fact that Turkish society is 99% Muslim creates differences in diversity. An Islamic faith which is overwhelmingly the major religion, as in Turkey, is more diverse than an Islamic faith which is represented by a minority, as in France.

Obviously the fact that Turkish society is 99% Muslim creates differences in diversity. An Islamic faith which is overwhelmingly the major religion, as in Turkey, is more diverse than an Islamic faith which is represented by a minority, as in France.

The problem is that, in France, mobilisation over the issue of the veil is such that the differences, and even the political conflicts, between veiled women themselves hardly ever become apparent. Nevertheless, it is important that these differences are acknowledged. Firstly, because they really do exist and, secondly, because the crystallisation around Islam is a way of taking a position “for” or “against” Islam. Again, as if Islam was a political option. Those people who tar all veiled women with the same brush adopt a communitarian position that, in other contexts, they condemn. Like their identity-assertive enemies, they make Islam a central political issue, which is absurd and, more importantly, counter-productive.

The ideas under the veil

Hence the proposal that we should always seek to understand the “political woman” beneath the veil. Is she for or against a democratic society? Is she anti-capitalist, ultra-liberal or a socialist? For or against gay marriage? For or against a universal basic income? What about foreign policy – does she support the right for Israel to exist, or not? Pro or anti-Trump? And, equally, does she condemn or support Erdogan?

Let’s forget about the veil in our search for the wealth of ideas that it conceals.

Ariane Bonzon

Translation: Mark Corcoral

Photo : DR

Original french version: Toutes les femmes voilées ne pensent pas la même chose

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