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Panel offers insight into Islamic head covering


Amid rising tensions over worldwide multiculturalism and religious fundamentalism, Islamic head covering remains a complex and often misunderstood issue. Four professors offered their cultural, political and historical knowledge on the controversial topic at a panel called Burkini Blues in Richardson Auditorium the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 12. French professor Michelle Bumatay gave the French perspective, followed by International Relations professor Beth Dougherty on Turkey; Critical Identity Studies professor Shadee Malaklou discussed Iran, ending with Philosophy and Religious Studies professor Debra Majeed presenting on the U.S.

Malaklou started by acknowledging the need to clarify what is meant by the term “veil.” Arguing that it is a “catch-all term to describe a set of practices that are in reality much more diverse,” she projected an infographic of different types of Islamic head coverings, such as the shalya, hijab, al-amira, khimar, burka, chador and niqab. Each covers different areas of the body, and only the chador and niqab have face veils.

The issue of Islamic head covering is politicized, raced, gendered and even classed, she argued, a theme that each professor illustrated with each country.

Bumatay argued that “articles of clothing become discursive sites for politicians. They become a way for politicians to weigh in on social matters, and it plays out on the female body in particular.”

She explained France has a history of asserting national identity in prejudiced ways. In only the most recent case, the Cannes mayor banned anyone from wearing burkinis, or full-body head-covering swim garments on July 28. Several weeks later, President Francois Hollande called for religious tolerance.

A series of events called “the headscarf affairs” contextualize these contemporary aggressions. In 1989, then-junior high principal Eugene Cheniere sent three girls home for wearing hijabs in class, claiming it challenged French secularism. After being elected to local government, he pushed for legislation against “ostentatious religious expression,” though it did not pass in 1994. A decade later, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy unsuccessfully tried to ban headcovers in identification photos, but did pass legislation banning conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public school. In 2010, and enforced a year later, a nearly unanimous vote resulted in the banning of these signs in public spaces. Even tourists are subject to the legislation. Bumatay argued this demonstrates the tension between multiculturalism and French universalism, saying the country is afraid of a diverse culture. To illustrate this, she pointed out the first article in its constitution is about indivisibility of French republic, not about freedom of expression.

Dougherty spoke of the Turkish republic, which emerged in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and adopted a similar approach to France that emphasized “not freedom of religion but freedom from religion,” she said. At the time, the highly secularized government, concerned with its image as a modern and European state, banned the fez and ridiculed the veil, casting them as “backward and pre-modern,” she said. However, many rural and older women still wore looser-fitting scarves that left their necks uncovered.

Around the time of the 1980 military coup, the military, considered a “bastion of secularism,” targeted any indications of an Islamist religious identity. Headscarves were banned in universities and government offices, and women tended to wear light-colored overcoats and longer scarves. This changed in the 1990s, when women began to re-veil, preferring brighter colors and shorter garments, creating a classed high fashion culture based around the headscarf among younger and more urban women.

Showcasing the tension between a secularized government and religious culture, controversy erupted in 2007 when the wife of then-president Abdullah Gul, Hayrinnusa Gul, wore a headscarf, challenging the expectations of the first lady role as passive and mostly invisible. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey could prevent covering in university settings, after student Leyla Sahin was excluded from studies for wearing a headscarf, back in 1998. The reason was to “protect the rights and freedoms of others.” The ban in educational and governmental settings has since been lifted; only members of security forces are not allowed to be covered in public. As a result, Dougherty noted more women are wearing headscarves, including the full body coverings.

As for Iran, Malaklou saw the “veil as ideology, not always index of one’s religious affiliation.” During the 1979 Iranian revolution, the veil was a “political weapon,” used as a way to express dissatisfaction with Euro-American ideologies. While women were forced to unveil before the revolution, they became the face of “what it means to be modern,” she said. She referenced Iranian-born French artist Margane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis about living during and after the Revolution, in which the author writes of the tension between the fundamentalist woman and the modern woman.

In the 1930s, then-shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had outlawed the headscarf, which Malaklou argued was a form of self-colonization, preempting the “white man’s burden” to “free” non-Western countries.

Malaklou referenced quotes by Martiniquais-French writer Frantz Fanon to illustrate this tension. In his book Algeria Unveiled, he noted, “This woman who sees without being seen frustrated the [European] colonizers, and so he becomes obsessed with unveiling her.” She commented, “Colonialism overdetermined the kind of conversations being had about the headscarf.”

When Professor Majeed, who converted to Islam from Christianity, reached the podium, she started by acknowledging that she was wearing her dress in honor of the first day of the first of Eid al-Adha, also known as the Sacrifice Feast. She then told the incident of Gill Parker Payne, who ripped a hijab off a woman’s head on a flight in December 2015 after demanding she remove it herself. Pleading guilty, he was charged with a misdemeanor hate crime, receiving two months of home detention. Muslims are also six to nine times more likely to suffer hate crimes than other groups, whose perpetrators are “wrapping it in the framework of patriotism” Majeed said. There are about 2 to 3 million Muslims in the U.S.; most are immigrants or children of immigrants, and about 40% are African-American, according to the Pew Research Center.

She argued that women have many considerations when deciding to wear or not wear a headscarf as they are “negotiating and adapting to secular society,” she said, saying no one should assume why anyone covers. “Muslim women are not a monolith,” she said; reasons could include religious devotion, personal preference, or “maybe you’re just having a bad hair day,” among other factors. Covering can symbolize communal pride and unity – and be a way to escape parental authority. She mentioned Misundastood, a Muslim hip hop artist who covers, as an example of how Muslim women navigate commercial space.

In the last 20 minutes, the panel opened up for questions and comments. In response to a student’s question about head coverings challenging individual choice, Malaklou posed another question: “Do we have individual choice in this country?”

Malaklou and Majeed agreed college is a common space for Muslim women to experiment with head coverings. While the veil becomes a political as well as religious and cultural symbol, and media attention may sensationalize human rights controversy, Malaklou did not anticipate any simple solutions to a worldwide anxiety. “Institutions are fundamentally racist. And it becomes a way to criminalize the person wearing the veil,” she said. “There is no out unless you burn it down.”

Sources: New York Times, Al Jazeera, BBC

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