The heartless in power: Targeting head scarfed women downgrades selected citizens

The first story takes place in France in the regional council of Bourgogne Franche-Comté, a region in the east of France. School children are invited to witness how democracy works. They embark on a fieldtrip. In need of chaperone for the field trip, the school teacher solicits the help of the mother of one of her students. She probably explained that it will be an interesting experience to attend a parliamentary session for the children and for the chaperones as well.

Once seated in the public gallery, she hears a representative from the extreme right wing Rassemblement National, National Rally (RN) Julien Odoul address the speaker of the council demanding the chaperone to remove her “Islamic veil.” She does not need to look around to know that she is being targeted since she is the only one who is wearing a headscarf. He erupts that it is the law of the republic and it is in defense of secularism or even in respect for the women who are fighting for their rights in Islamic nations. His rowdy fellow FN representatives shout at the speaker that it is the law. It is not the law, and, further, his party has never defended secularism and has no track record of defending women’s rights. Blinded by his own fundamentalism and drunk on his own power and authority he creates an environment of humiliation. Humiliation of a woman who is fully part of French society, humiliation for her young son who starts crying and humiliation for the entire school and community.   

The speaker of the parliament, Marie Guite Dufay shocked, retorts: “Are you done yet? cool off now.”

The Preamble of the Constitution states, “The French Republic is secular, (…) it protects all beliefs.” This means the Republic does not favor any religion but relegates all beliefs to the private sector. This also means that under the French law, no one must be discriminated based on their religion or their atheism. This guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom to manifest one’s religious affiliation. Religious freedom presupposes the freedom of everyone to express their religion, to practice it and to abandon it, while respecting public order. This requires for the Republic, and the representatives of the Republic, neutrality in the face of all religions and beliefs. This does not apply to citizens who are free to express their beliefs in the public space in the respect of the public. 

Women facing constant inequality in the west like elsewhere have to be saved by the men of that same society that based its colonial enterprise on a patriarchal view of domination and of redistribution of territories. This event made headlines, and rightwing politicians went on to demand restrictive laws for women who are involved in public life, directly targeting Muslim women. Julien Odoul’s comments were able to put in public space hatred of women’s right to be full citizens and hatred of Muslims, two of their favorite targets!

The second story occurred in the south west of France in the city of Bayonne. An 84-year-old man, a former National Rally member, attacked the city’s mosque, injuring two men who happened to be there. He felt that he had the mission of avenging the destruction of Notre Dame. A high-ranking member of the National Rally (RN), Jean Messiha, disseminated his poisonous question “Notre Dame didn’t burn by chance, the Islamic involvement hasn’t been explored enough.” His allegations are completely false and are part of the war path that has been developed against one group identified racially and attacked. Have we already seen this before? How many more déjà vu before the Global North learns its lesson from history? The city of Bayonne known for being an inclusive municipality immediately expressed its support of its Muslim community. 

The third story takes place in the United States. On October 19, 2019, high school cross country runner Noor Alexandria Abukaram, found out that she was not on the list after she had finished her fastest 5K at the Division 1 Northwest District meet. Abukaram was disqualified on account of her hijab. As Abukaram told Sports Illustrated, “My race is supposed to be under my control, but that control was taken away from me because of my hijab, something I hold so close to my heart. I felt so let down by the sport that I had trained so hard to run in. It was humiliating and embarrassing and upsetting.” Rules have been changed by major sports organizations, including the Olympics, to include the diversity of participants. Why then does the Ohio High School Athletic Association enforce an outdated rule about headgear? Abukaram is asking precisely that, “I’m running just like everyone else. Why should you have to sacrifice your religion and a part of who you are to run, to do another thing that you’re very passionate about?”

Are the United States government’s current policies, such as the travel ban for Muslims and surveillance of Muslim families, now reaching their long arm into the arena of sports by attempting to exclude Muslim athletes who wear the hijab? This is not paranoia, but policy that is destructive of democracy.

These rightwing attacks on Muslim women are part of a war machine to impede a targeted community from living as full citizens in their countries. Targeting women in order to rally for some nationalist ideal has become the de facto line among right wing groups. If the chaperone had been a man wearing a beard, would the RN representative have articulated insulting comments? Imagine the result if an RN representative shouted, “Man with beard, shave it at once! It is against the law!”Destabilizing civil society is always a way to keep neoliberalist doctrine controlling the world. According to theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Fascism is when a war machine is hidden in every niche, when in every nook and in every cranny of daily life a war machine is hidden. This is fascism.”

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(Photo Credit: Luis Galvez)

Democracy? We think it would be a good idea

Today’s Guardian reports on headscarf politics, American style: “Georgia judge jails Muslim woman for wearing headscarf to court”. Here’s the nub: “Judge Keith Rollins of Douglasville, Georgia, yesterday ordered Lisa Valentine, 41, to jail after she refused to remove her scarf before entering the courtroom, citing rules governing appropriate dress. Last week, Sabreen Abdulrahmaan was forced to leave Rollins’s court before her son’s probation hearing because she would not remove her scarf.” Time to reread Joan Wallach Scott’s Politics of the Veil, in which is dissected the French laws concerning Muslim women’s coverings. Same questions as in Georgia. Why headscarves and not beards, for example. But more to the point, why jail? Why women? Why Black women? Why now?

Meanwhile, according to “Afghan women fear a retreat to dark days” in today’s Christian Science Monitor, Afghan women are dealing with dealing with the Taliban, dealing with dealing with the government dealing with the Taliban, dealing with dealing with international ngo’s who simply can’t get the concept of sustainable work for women,  and these women ask the world not to forget them. Too late. The point is not that Georgia is Afghanistan. The point is that from Georgia to Afghanistan women fear a retreat to dark days because they experience the darkness, through violence, through persecution, through imprisonment, through threats of all of the above and more.

Across the United States, sex workers find a similar state of dark threat, often at the hands of clients, as often at the hands of the police and the courts. Sometimes the police harass and beat, other times they look the other way. In either case, sex workers find themselves fearing the darkness … at noon and otherwise. So, yesterday, dozens of sex workers marched through the streets of downtown Washington, demanding respect from police, demanding acknowledgement. “Sex Workers Criticize Law Enforcement” concluded with a reflection by Leila, a 24 year old women from San Francisco: “Alone, we’re just prostitutes on the corner and no one respects us,” she said. “Together we are a political movement, and we can change things.” Amen.

In “What is postcolonial thinking?”, a long and interesting interview in Esprit,  translated and reproduced in Eurozine, Achille Mbembe locates postcolonial thinking as opposing a post-ethical securitized world. Although he mentions women, as part of a list of disenfranchised and oppressed sectors, women don’t play a large role in his analytics. What if securitization of the world were to be understood as precisely about gender construction and constitution? What if, when discussing the U.S. attempt to act without morality or excuse, one were to see this move as a traditional tool in the rhetorics of patriarchy? Mbembe argues that “postcolonial thought is…a dream: the dream of a new form of humanism, a critical humanism founded above all on the divisions that, this side of the absolutes, differentiate us. . . . The thinking of the postcolony…is a thought of responsibility and life, seen through the prism of what belies both. It is in the direct lineage of certain facets of black thought (Fanon, Senghor, Césaire and others). It is a thought of responsibility, responsibility in terms of the obligation to answer for oneself, to be the guarantor of one’s actions. The ethics underlying this thought of responsibility is the future of the self in the memory of what one has been in another’s hands, the sufferings one has endured in captivity, when the law and the subject were divided.” Where are law and subject divided, almost universally? At the threshold to the so-called familial household as constructed by patriarchal rule of law, that states that the household is a kingdom unto itself. Fanon, Senghor, Césaire, yes, but also Ba, Head, Saadawi, Vera, and others, women who have written about the enduring captivity.

Mbembe concludes with a meditation on U.S. hyper-hegemony, what E.P. Thompson used to call exterminism: “Historically, successive US governments have claimed to build universalism and promote democracy on the basis of crimes that are presented as so many earthly fulfilments of God’s law and divine providence….Mercy has no part in his laws and precepts. He is a jealous and unforgiving god, swift to destroy and forever requiring human sacrifice.”

Democracy American style has no room for mercy, no room for forgiveness, no room for patience, no room for Muslim women, no room for Black women, no room for sex workers, no room for postcolonial thinking, no room for humans, no room for the human.

The dangerous politics of market radicalism“, in Open Democracy, reminds us that the market eschews politics, and ethics, for profit, and reminds us that the market as protector of democracy “was accompanied in much of the Anglosphere by a mounting reliance on coercive social-control mechanisms, one illustration of which is the existence of the highest levels of prison populations in the democratic world.” The highest levels of prison populations in the democratic world. Democracy. I’m told it’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t know, but I think it would be a good idea.

(Photo Credit: Global Fund for Women)