When Laïcité Goes Wrong, or When Burqa Checks Start Getting Real

Since the anti-burqa law (or whatever you want to call it, I can’t anymore) was passed in France, women with “full cover” can be cited for non-compliance, and can be stopped for identity checks.  We all remember the story of the polygamous butcher and his many niqab-clad wives gleefully committing welfare fraud.  One of his wives was stopped while driving, and it was argued that she was pulled over, not for a traditional traffic offense, but because she was driving with a niqab on (which is why she was stopped). Last month in Marseille another lady, whose only crime up until that point was wearing niqab, was stopped for an identity check and to be cited for wearing niqab in public (an “offense” in France for which you have to pay a fine). This didn’t go down well with her and her entourage, and the story made headlines for after she bit a female police officer ; a similar incident  happened recently as well in the northern city of Roubaix.

It is useful to note, as an aside, that France has a long history of abusive identity checks where people who “don’t look French” get checked by police just for existing. So people of certain skin tones or ethnicities would get randomly stopped even before it was legal to be stopped for wearing face covering. Despite being whiter than snow, I got more than my fair share of “identity checks” in hijab and the comments that went along with it, like “we don’t wear headscarves here, this is France.”  So the context of these particular events is more complicated in France than it seems on paper. [Read more...]

Re-Humanize Me: Risky or Repetitive?

A couple weeks ago, I was walking with a friend, when she abruptly stopped listening to me and turned to look at a bulletin board we were passing.  I followed her gaze, and… oh.  Uh.  Wow.

Poster image for "Re-Humanize Me." Via Deha Vasana.
Poster image for “Re-Humanize Me.” Via Deha Vasana.

Advertising a contemporary dance theatre performance called “Re-Humanize Me” at Montreal’s Fringe Festival, the poster features a woman in niqab in an Indian dance pose – with one bare leg peeking out from her abaya.  When I looked up the performance online, I found the postcard image (see below) as well, which is similar, but with both legs exposed, bent, and turned out.

The description on the Montreal Fringe Festival website says:

“DISCLAIMER! Socially controversial. Politically precarious. Intriguingly risky discourse. Re-Humanize Me exposes flaws in a multicultural society and begs reflection on perceptions of the body from different cultural angles. Do we take advantage of what we are familiar with? This captivating performance will turn heads in every direction.”

I’ll get to the performance in a second, but let’s stop and talk about the publicity, and the posters/postcards especially.  The title suggests that this performance is something that will “re-humanize” (presumably at least in part referring to re-humanizing women who actually wear niqab), and the website description paints it as “controversial” and “risky.”  Of course, those quotes are referring to the performance and not to the promotional material, but the publicity still forms part of the overall project, and I think the images fall short of the project’s goals.  On one hand, given the long history of Orientalist imagery of the seductive, partially-veiled, exotic Arab and/or Muslim woman, there is nothing particularly new or daring about showing a woman in niqab in this kind of pose. [Read more...]

Responsibility as Representatives: A Need for Honest Reflection

In our roundtable on the Foreign Policysex issue” I spoke about the responsibility one has when representing, speaking or acting on behalf of one’s own community.   Among other reactions to that issue, Mona Eltahawy’s article garnered various responses from Arab women, expressing their disapproval of Eltahawy’s claim to speak on behalf of Arab women. Wherever one stands, I think the issue does raise questions on what it means for Muslims, or those who identify as being in connection with certain countries and cultures, to be speaking on behalf of other women from similar backgrounds. To be honest, I admit that I think it is something that we as writers here on Muslimah Media Watch also have to take into consideration. [Read more...]

The French “Niqab Ban,” One Year On

A year ago this week, a French law came into effect banning face veils for women.  At the time, the law was subject to much derision for “only” affecting the very specific number of 367 niqab and burqa-clad women (as of 2009) in France, although at its time, the law was thought to concern a couple thousand women.

Anything relating to Muslims has long been a political tool in France, be it from the far-right National Front (FN) party, or from President Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, whose government passed the law.  Admittedly, to bring a little of the “fair and balanced,” the first headscarf affairs did take place during the Mitterand (Socialist) administration. Given that preying on anti-Muslim sentiments and adopting parts of the National Front’s platform (much like the Republicans court the Tea Party) seem to be two of the UMP’s hobbies in an election season, I was curious to see how the one-year mark would be “celebrated” in the unique context of France’s upcoming presidential elections, where Sarkozy is not assured re-election, and where the country is just coming off the tragedy of the Merah shootings. [Read more...]

Using Islamic Identity Against Victims of Sexual Violence

As right-wing pundits are gaining momentum in North America, minority groups are unsurprisingly being targeted.  Among the questions being raised is: when does “national security” trump the need to address an instance of sexual assault against women? Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijab or niqab, experience a unique sense of vulnerability in the post-911 world.  Two cases come to mind when pondering the parallels between the state’s fixation on curbing terrorism and the frustration that can be felt amongst Muslim women in North America who experience sexual violence.

Experience of Sexual Assault? First, let’s make sure you are not a terrorist

I’ve read numerous articles about Balayla Ahmad, a 35 year-old black Muslim woman of the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, who reported a series of instances of being sexually harassed by a fellow student to the university administration, and was met with apathetic responses. Similar to numerous cases of reported sexual assault, Ahmad’s claims weren’t taken seriously. After approaching the dean of her university, he simply told her that his “hands were tied” and asked her what she suggested should be done.

Here’s the astonishing part: instead of the university showing appreciation for Ahmad’s strength to stand up and speak out, Ahmad was not only denied any reprisals against her attacker, but was later approached by university security personnel, who informed her that the F.B.I wanted to interrogate her based on allegations that she was involved in terrorism that was provided by her attacker.

The university’s decision to act on threats of a potential terrorist in their midst, while ignoring reports of sexual harassment, clearly sends the message that the violence and terror that is wrought on women’s bodies are trivial, especially in comparison to potential terrorist acts against homeland security.

Forget your abuse; your niqab offends

This past December, a Muslim niqab-wearing woman known as NS took a complaint to the Canadian Supreme Court to fight the request that she remove her veil while on trial, in a case against her cousin and uncle, who sexually abused her when she was a child, between the years of 1982-1987. When the sexual assault case was first brought to court three years ago, NS’s uncle and cousin argued that her attire impeded on their right to a fair trial; the preliminary judge agreed, concluding that the rights to a fair trial trumped the rights to religious freedom. [Read more...]

NiqaBitch Did it Better

As MMW’s Artsy Niqab Spotter, man my hands are full!  If I’m not checking out French performance artists or Swiss campaign posters with minarets and niqabs, there are just so many people using niqabs as their accessory du jour and not enough time to write about them all.  I can’t keep up!

An-Sofie Dewinter in her niqab-bikini combo. Image via Arrêt sur Images.

So I had to make a choice, and our latest candidate in the “Let’s Play Dress-Up Like Muslim Women and Call it an Edgy, Disruptive Political Statement” is An-Sofie Dewinter, daughter of Filip Dewinter, a leading member of the Vlaams Belang, the successor to Vlaams Blok, which you may remember as the Belgian party that was actually outlawed due to inciting racial hatred.  (To put things into perspective, the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party are still around.  The Vlaams Blok was THAT BAD.)  Anyway, our newest niqab artist, An-Sofie, is shown on the pages of Belgian daily Het Laatste News in a bikini, and with a niqab.  Over her breasts is a banner that asks “Freedom or Islam?” and over her hips, another banner saying “Dare to Choose.”

As I wrote when NiqaBitch threw their niqabs on – and this was something that NiqaBitch said themselves – it was to protest the constitutional validity and logical extremes of France’s niqab ban. But Ms. Dewinter changes the game and uses her look to justify the other extreme by making it part of her daddy’s tired racist/anti-Islam trope. What did An-Sofie have to say?  That “daddy didn’t make her do it” and she “isn’t scared of death threats or criticism.”  But why the bikini, lady?  According to her, she felt it was a perfect juxtaposition of her tired Islamophobic trope:  she feels that we have to make a choice between “freedom” (bikini) and “Islam” (niqab).  Because of course, the two are mutually exclusive, and not just as fashion accessories.  And if her ad campaign wasn’t enough for you, Arrêt sur Images tells us that she even lent her image to a website called “Women against Islamization” (oh dear Lord, they even took the time to make an English version of the site) and the book Whore or Slave, Women in Islam!

The story was even picked up by the Daily Fail in a story entitled “Belgian politician risks Muslim backlash after using teenage daughter dressed in burka and bikini for campaign against Islam,” where the comments were what to be expected given the general literacy and intelligence of the target audience, with things like “hush you, now her life is in danger” and “yay for freedom of speech.” Personally, I don’t know how Muslims are going to keep up with all of these backlashes and honor killings we supposedly have to do for these racist, disruptive white women.  If we’re going to drop a fatwa on Ms Dewinter we are going to have to drop them on everyone, because EVERYBODY is wearing niqab these days.  And I don’t know how free her speech is because wearing niqab as a statement is now so commonplace that the disruptiveness is gone.

Even though I think the “let’s wear niqab and call it art” is starting to get played out, I loved NiqaBitch and thought they rocked their niqabs so much harder and better than our right-wing friend Ms. de Winter. In fact, I’m having cognitive dissonance issues at what the daughter of Belgium’s leading far-right politician is attempting to say with her niqab bikini (not a burkini) ensemble. I don’t understand how it furthers her cause.  I don’t get it kids, and I’m the fake niqab expert! What do you think, gentle readers?