The Veil, the courts, Imperialism and the rise of Islamophobia: A Marxist analysis.

23/09/2013 by socialistfight

The Veil, the courts, Imperialism
and the rise of Islamophobia: A Marxist analysis.

Gerry Downing, September 21st
A British judge, Peter Murphy, ruled on September 16 that a Muslim woman must remove her veil when she takes the witness stand so that judges, jurors, and lawyers can see her face to evaluate her testimony. The judgement reignited the furious controversy over the niqāb with the Islamophobes having such a field day that both Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Home Secretary Theresa May were forced to intervene to say that the government should not tell women what they should be wearing.

In France the wearing of the veil in public is legally banned, as it is in Belgium. Wikipedia reports that: The French ban on face covering (French: Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public, “Act prohibiting concealment of the face in public space”) is an act of parliament passed by the Senate of France on 14September 2010, resulting in the ban on the wearing of face-covering headgear, including masks, helmets, balaclava, niqābs and other veils covering the face in public places, except under specified circumstances. The ban also applies to the burqa, a full-body covering, if it covers the face. The bill had previously been passed by the National Assembly of France on 13 July 2010.[1]

It has had dire consequences for race relations in France. Kenza Drider, a Muslim woman protester against the law, said she lives in fear of attack. “I’m insulted about three to four times a day. Most say, ‘Go home’; some say, ‘We’ll kill you.’ One said: ‘We’ll do to you what we did to the Jews.’… I feel that I now know what Jewish women went through before the Nazi roundups in France. When they went out in the street they were identified, singled out, they were vilified. Now that’s happening to us.[2]

This is how right wing French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is reported in The Jewish Chronicle of 14 October 2006 “BHL becomes the most animated I have seen him when I ask him about Jack Straw’s intervention on Muslim women and the veil.’ Jack Straw’, he says, leaning close to me, ‘made a great point. He did not say that he was against the veil. He said it is much easier, much more comfortable, respectful, to speak with a woman with a naked face. And without knowing, he quoted Levinas, who is the philosopher of the face. Levinas says that [having seen] the naked face of your interlocutor, you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him, you cannot violate hm. So when the Muslims say that the veil is to protect women, it is the contrary. The veil is an invitation to rape’.”[3]

This was in response to the controversy caused October 2006 when then Labour Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jack Straw wrote in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, he preferred talking to women who did not wear a niqāb as he could see their face, and asked women who were wearing such items to remove them when they spoke to him.

The other big controversy arose in 2006 when Aishah Azmi was sacked from a Church of England school after refusing to remove her niqāb in front of the small children she had been hired to teach. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Phil Woolas and other bigots in the right wing mass media made public statements supporting the school’s decisions before the case went to an Employment Tribunal, just to be sure she could not get reinstated. Birmingham Metropolitan College abandoned its ban on Muslim face veils on 12 September this year after major protests and a planned demonstration.

This author proposed the following on his facebook page on 19 September: Outside of socially necessary constraints like crash helmets and seat belts etc women can wear, cover up or reveal what they choose. Society has no right to dictate style or dress. The veil may be an expression of women’s oppression but so too, we could argue, are short shirts and makeup. The point is that imposed moral or dress standards outside of what women want themselves IS oppression, widely acknowledged as such and totally rejected by liberal and progressive society. Women who reject the veil in Iran are truly heroic women but some women in Iran have actually adopted the veil in response to “promises” of Western liberal Imperialists to come in and “free” them from the veil. Similarly with women who would never dress revealingly to “turn men’s heads” or wear makeup. If you told them they could not they would be the first to do just that. Liberation is a subjective thing and not amenable to standards set by authorities, particularly male authorities who seek to dictate to women.[4]

It provoked a furious controversy. The arguments came from AWL supporter Matthew Thompson who supported the judge, arguing that: There are situations – teaching, health care, giving evidence in court – where facial expression is more important than what the individual woman wants. you can be against a ban on the niqāb (as I am, both on the general principle that women should be able to wear it if they want – debateable I know whether it’s always a free choice – and because I think it would have an exclusionary effect) while recognising it as a reactionary religious practice and not, as the SWP does, hailing its acceptance by colleges, workplaces or whatever as a victory.

He was opposed by Bob Pitt, of Islamophobia Watch who quoted Julie Bindel (writing in the Daily Mai) in opposition to the niqāb: So far, the debate about the niqāb has tended to revolve around the logistics of security and the rule of law. For example, there has been endless discussion about whether Muslim witnesses should have to show their faces in court and whether face coverings can lead to cases of identity fraud.

But many of these arguments are an irrelevance, a distraction from the real issue. After all, despite the earnest talk about the need for judges and juries to see the faces of those in the dock, this is not a major problem. For courts often allow vulnerable witnesses to give evidence from behind screens or by video links. Equally, there would rightly be outrage if a blind person were barred from serving on a jury.[5]

The “real issue” for Bindel is that the niqāb is an expression of female oppression, imposed on Muslim women by “Islamic hardliners” of the male gender whose aim is “cultural totalitarianism”. When Muslim women who wear the niqāb say they do so of their own volition, having made a conscious decision about what they believe to be the requirements of their faith, they don’t know what they’re talking about and are merely acting under the domination of manipulative men, according to Bindel. I think this argument, unlike the spurious one about the need to see witnesses’ faces in court, does at least have the merit of honesty.

Matthew Thompson supplied a link to Cathy Nugent’s piece in Workers Liberty (AWL).[6] I wrote: I agree with a lot of it including the statement that wearing the veil is a symptom of women’s oppression. Here I disagree with Bob Pitt, who takes a libertarian defence of the status quo in Muslim lands.

This ignores the very powerful revolts by women against wearing it in those lands which have a well developed civil society like Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, as was. But what has happened is those countries under imperialist assault is that reactionary clerics have falsely tied in anti imperialism with rejection of ‘western ‘ dress and women’s liberation. And Workers Liberty does the same from the opposite perspective as is seen in the quote from Nugent’s article: “Even if chosen by the wearer, this female religious clothing is an artefact of social and sexual control of women. And that is not something we should tolerate anywhere in the world.”

It’s who “we” are and how “we” go about the not tolerating stuff that constitutes the problem. And furthermore Nugent accepts that the Metropolitan University were correct in backing down but accept a state imposed ban under certain conditions, which has unleashed a torrent of reaction, such that Cameron (should be Clegg) and Theresa May has had to step in on the side of defence of Muslims! The AWL have a position that Imperialism has played and is playing a progressive role in defending women’s rights in invading Muslim lands to free women.

Jim Monahan then provided a link to Steering between Islamophobia and Muslim Fundamentalism: by Rohini Hensman.[7] This article is obviously from a supporter of the Mandelite Fourth International and he quotes extensively from Gilbert Achcar, the social Imperialist who supported the bombing of Libya and Syria in the name of “the revolution” and still falsely claims to be a Trotskyist.

As might be expected the article takes the line of the liberal imperialists also, like the AWL and Bob Pitt, although all three are from different perspectives. Bob simply denies that the wearing of the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression, opposes the judge on the veil but denies that Julie Bindel is correct in her assessment of the source of the custom. Howevershe obviously wants the capitalist repressive state to impose ‘liberation’. The AWL are all for Imperialism’s liberatory role in Muslim lands and Rohini Hensman also thinks that that wearing the veil is oppressive but, despite the title of the event to which he presented his paper, he makes no attempt at all at a Marxist historical materialist understanding of the problem and therefore has no other solution than Matthew or Bob. Hensman supports both the French law banning the veil and the judge’s ruling, because he can only envisage the capitalist state and the ‘civilising role’ of world imperialism as the liberatory force, like the AWL and his mentor, Gilbert Achcar.

He correctly points out that the origins of the custom cannot be raced back to the Koran or Muhammad. But why it became the custom is beyond him and he makes no attempt at an explanation. The rise of Islam and the Arab Empire was due to the development of a vast trading nation after the seventh century, with its hubs in the great cities of Baghdad, Basra, Damascus, and Cordoba. The needs of the mercantile class were for a meritocracy; it was necessary to have the best thinkers and most industrious people as leaders. And half of these were, of course, women. So there was far less discrimination against women then than now and some famous female Islamic philosophers. As Clare McLaughlin and Jana Sivakumar report:

Many Arab governing principles revolved around equal treatment and opportunities for followers of Islam. Unlike the principles of many other cultures, the Quran gave women many legal and economic rights. In Islamic society, women enjoyed the freedoms of property inherence and property control. Female artists, doctors and religious scholars had a big influence on the society and government of the Arab Empire. [8]

We must look not to liberal Imperialism for solutions but to Marxism, particularly that aspect of Marxism as developed by Lenin and the Zhenotdel – the Department of working women and peasant women until the beginnings of its Stalinisation after 1924. Dale Ross (D. L. Reissner), the first editor of the Spartacus League’s (the International Communist League) Women and Revolution, explained that method and history well in her article Early Bolshevik Work among Women of the Soviet East: [9]

The Bolsheviks viewed the extreme oppression of women as an indicator of the primitive level of the whole society, but their approach was based on materialism, not moralism. They understood that the fact that women were veiled and caged, bought and sold, was but the surface of the problem. Kalym was not some sinister plot against womankind, but the institution which was central to the organisation of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of Kalym, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debt, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private armies of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance.

Lenin warned against prematurely confronting respected native institutions, even when these clearly violated communist principles and Soviet law. Instead he proposed to use the Soviet state power to systematically undermine them while simultaneously demonstrating the superiority of Soviet institutions, a policy which had worked well against the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.[10]

So the conclusion is that women must be free to wear the veil and we must oppose al state bans like the French and Belgian as well as the judge’s ruling on forcing the woman to take off the veil to give evidence. But we are in no doubt that the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression and absolutely solidarise with all those women who refuse to wear it, either in the Muslims lands of in metropolitan countries. We recognise its reactionary, family based misogynistic basis but, like the early Bolsheviks and the Zhenotdel we would work to change the conditions of life and not adopt the ignorant Menshevik and later Stalinist methods, which are only a local reflection to arrogant Imperialist ‘civilizing mission’ methods of Imperialism itself as described here:

‘On 8 March 1927, in celebration of International Woman’s Day, mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting ‘down with the paranja!’ tore off their veils which were drenched in paraffin and burned. Poems were recited and plays with names such as ‘Away with the Veil’ and ‘Never again Kalym’ were performed. Zhenotdel agitators led marches of unveiled women through the streets, instigating the forced desegregation of public quarters and sanctified religious sites’

The consequences of these brutal Stalinist methods were the same in 1927, 28 and 29 as they were in Afghanistan sixty years later: Women suing for divorce became the targets of murderous vigilante squads, and lynchings of party cadres annihilated the ranks of the Zhenotdel. The Party was forced to mobilise the militia, then the Komsomolsk and finally the general party membership and the Red Army to protect the women, but it refused to alter its suicidal policies. The debacle of International Woman’s Day was repeated in 1928 and 1929 with the same disastrous consequences, exacting an extremely high toll on party cadre.’

The best results against fundamentalism were achieved by women revolutionaries of the Zhenotdel using the transitional method of Bolshevism, as Dale Ross describes.[10]

[1] Wikipedia:

[2] Chrisafis . Angelique, The Guardian, Monday 19 September 2011,

[3] Islamophobia Watch:

[4] Gerald Joseph Downing:

[5] Why are my fellow feminists shamefully silent over the tyranny of the veil By Julie Bindel

[6] No absolutes in niqab debate, 18 September, 2013 By Cathy Nugent

[7] The Position of the Left in the Debate on the Veil by HENSMAN Rohini, 9 November 2012, Contribution presented at the Historical Materialism conference, London, November 2012.

[8] The Arab Empire, by Clare McLaughlin and Jana Sivakumar.

[9] Early Bolshevik Work among Women of the Soviet East: Issue No. 12 Summer 1976

[10] Afghanistan: Marxist Method vs. Bureaucratic method, By Gerry Downing 1997

[11] Ibid.

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