In her book Que Pense Allah de l'Europe?, Iranian thinker and French writer Chahdortt Djavann presents first the views of the proponents of the veil. There are those Muslim women who say, "The veil represents my religion, my culture and my identity. It is a sign of modesty, of self-respect, of submission to God. It is a religious duty written in the Koran... [I wear it] out of my own free will..." She also presents the opinions of European intellectuals who defend the veil on the basis of "the right to be different" and "religious freedom," and who ask, for example, "If body-piercing and displaying one's navel is allowed, how can the veil be banned?"
In response, Djavann points out that no regime has ever forced women to go about with their navels showing, whereas the veil is imposed upon several hundred million women around the world. She writes that the veil cannot be presented as a personal choice, disregarding centuries of Islamic history. She adds that it is inappropriate to probe the motivations of every young girl wearing the veil when what is at stake is a political agenda.
Djavann explains further: "The veil has never been innocent or innocuous. It has always signified the submission of women to men and the denial of legal rights to women in Islamic countries." She stresses that while the Islamists did not invent the veil, they have turned it into a weapon and made it the symbol of their cause.
ADDRESSING THE growing phenomenon of veiled women in Europe, Djavann points out its centrality to Islamist propaganda: "The political, ideological and psychological impact of the veil goes far beyond its appearance... If this weren't the case, why would the Islamists make it their main focus?... It constitutes a constant call to order by Islamic law."
The veil, Djavann argues, reflects a refusal to integrate, and its spread in Europe is a very clear indicator of the spread of Islamism. Therefore, intellectuals who defend it, in an attempt to be understanding and compassionate, are in fact promoting Islamism: "The French intellectuals who oppose the banning of the veil in secular schools must understand that they are supporting Islamic dictatorships," she writes.
Djavann stresses that Islam can exist without the veil, but the Islamist system cannot, because "the veil is the symbol, the flag and the keystone of the Islamic system." As an example, she presents Iran, which "imposed the veil on all women, including Christian and Jewish women, and has deployed its paramilitary forces to enforce the wearing of the veil."
As for those young girls who insist on wearing the veil in France, she says "they encourage oppression against all the women in Muslim countries who strive to escape the totalitarian hold of the hijab, and [even] risk their lives to do so."
ISLAMISTS CLAIM that the veil is being rejected due to racism, and call for respect for freedom of worship. However, Djavann points out, when Islamists threatened France because of the ban on the veil in public schools, what was at stake was not the girls' hair or religion - but political power. While denying the state the right to interfere in what they term religious affairs, the Islamists are striving to impose their laws on schools, including physical education classes, and on higher education and public services.
Djavann argues that Islamists take advantage of the difficulties encountered by many Muslims in integrating into French society - difficulties intensified by the veil: "The veil is not an attractive symbol of identity, but the expression of estrangement and isolation..."
Islamists seek to enroll the children of immigrants into the Islamist system to gain political power, Djavann says. To those who feel excluded, preachers offer the homeland of Islam. Islam prevails over all nationalities and over cultural and linguistic differences. "The preachers claim that there must be a return to the lost Islamic identity. This identity is presented as a remedy to Western ills."
DJAVANN BELIEVES that there must be no compromise with Islamism in state-managed institutions, since any compromise will lead to more oppression. She gives the example of the Islamists' demand for separate hours for men and women at swimming pools: "Muslim women are told they can swim at specific hours, but if they choose to go swimming in mixed hours, they will be called whores... It is in the name of democracy that Islamists demand separate hours for women. And then they manage to impose those separate hours on all Muslim women in their areas."
Regarding the situation in schools, she writes: "Those intellectuals who oppose expelling students from school because they are veiled, on the premise that this exclusion will only worsen their situation whereas school will teach them freedom [are mistaken]. Allowing veil-wearing in schools will only encourage it in France. Allowing girls to wear the veil at school places those teens living in [immigrant] suburbs under the yoke of Islamic dogma, and makes it even more difficult for them to attain emancipation. Some of them have already been called whores because they refused to wear the veil."
Djavann also analyzes the social and psychological damage caused by the veil, saying that it denies women a normal social life because it reduces them to sexual objects. Wearing the veil only "points to what the veil is hiding... It hides what no one might look at if it were not hidden..." As the Islamist system covers women's heads, it only sees them as genitals, Djavann argues. Hence she calls the veil "pornographic on the symbolic level."
DJAVANN ESPECIALLY condemns the veiling of little girls, calling it abuse because it makes them internalize at an early age that they should be ashamed: "Don't we hide what we are ashamed of?... Since childhood, these veiled girls feel guilty..." In addition, the girls are a "constant threat to Islamic morals: A girl could bring about a crime, be slaughtered by her father or brothers to cleanse their sullied honor. Indeed, the honor of men is cleansed with girls' blood!" The veil may mean several things, Djavann explains. It may mean that the woman has become the property of a man; it may also mean - in the case of young girls - that they are being marketed as sexual objects, ready to wed.
Referring to those French intellectuals who consider the veil in schools to be the expression of teenagers' quest for identity, she says: "The veil does not result from an identity problem. It is an attack on the woman's body... The act of burying the body of a woman under a piece of cloth is extremely serious, similar to genital mutilation. Veiling a minor is abuse... There is a need for legislation to ban the veil, at least in schools."
Djavann notes that "even in Muslim countries, making minors wear the veil is considered extremist. In its previous history, France knew how to limit the influence of Catholic rules. Why shouldn't it do the same with Islamic rules?"
Djavann adds: "If you are a woman [in Islamist societies], you dare not go out on your own or have a cup of coffee at a bar. Relations between men and women are reduced to... sexuality... In Iran, in universities, circulars forbid girls and boys from greeting each other... Can you imagine what humiliation this is?"
Recalling the decade she spent wearing a veil in Iran, she says much of the problem comes from the fact that the honor of Muslim men depends on the female body: "I felt humiliation at being a woman... A girl is considered [a source of] shame and danger. Think about it: She may harm a man's honor! I would like someone to tell me why a man feels defiled if a woman violates modesty regulations. Why does the honor of Muslim men depend on the bodies of Muslim women? They should be responsible for their own honor!"
Men also bear the consequences of this dependency, Djavann asserts: "This kind of relationship is more damaging to men than to women... The man bases his existence on his relationship to the female sex... He is a man because he is able to guarantee the decency and the good behavior of the female body within his family; he is a man because he owns the female body - his mother's, his sister's, his wife's, his daughters'..."
Djavann also points out that the debate on the veil issue should not conceal other problems: economic inequality, lodging, education. Political leaders should not evade their responsibilities and abandon immigrants to their predicament, dooming them to ghettoes cut off from French society.
The writer is a research fellow at MEMRI. This article is based on Chahdortt Djavann's books Bas les Voiles and Que Pense Allah de l'Europe? and on several interviews with her.