“Burkini”: The Psychological Projection of Modernity’s Domination and Control

muslim woman

I have been avoiding the “burkini” debacle for a while as I have posted on the topic of veiling and the French colonialist fetish for denuding women before. But as France continues to embarrass itself by bullying women into stripping in a public spectacle, red herrings about Islam, women and “morality” have dominated the discourse. The aim of these discourses is not protecting women from such harassment, but undermining the very tenets of Islam.

The French comedy-cum-horror show reached a head with the now familiar image of a woman being forced by four courageous male police officers to remove her “burkini”. Reports state that her daughter cried and bystanders cheered. In perhaps what is the most perverse of ironies, the 34-year-old woman was fined for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism”.  Good morality, the implication is, baring all – a point I will explore further below in my discussion on morality.

Last week, Nice’s deputy mayor described the “burkini” as a “provocation from Islamists”. The hypocrisy of the French mayor requires little attention; Muslims are frequently lectured about the freedom to offend.  Perhaps the deputy mayor should attend them instead.

Whilst upright and reasonable people have been appalled by the bans across some fifteen French coastal resorts, have cheered the Supreme Court ruling against the bans, and have become appalled once more as patently racist and rebellious mayors refuse to lift the ban, many commentators have struggled to operate within their liberal veneer, venturing into colonialism. In the attempt to maintain an air of rectitude, the right to wear the “burkini” is defended but the moral basis of covering up (as supposed to specifically the “burkini”) is attacked. In this manner, the justifications for invoking the ban are effectively supported and a climate of hostility and hatred towards Islam is given oxygen.

Garvan Walshe, who formerly worked in the neocon think-tank Policy Exchange (and, rather disturbingly, was the former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party) argued,

“A symbolic assertion of identity wouldn’t cause the discomfort and alarm that the growth and increasing severity of Islamic dress codes for women provokes. A few eccentrics wearing weird stuff because they think their religion requires it isn’t enough to perturb a society. But the concept of hijab – Islamically derived rules of modesty for women – does… it’s about controlling women and their sexuality.”

The argument is that the Hijab is more than symbolic; it is a representation of something more sinister and dominating.

US neocon David Frum, who is chairman of Policy Exchange, regurgitated much of the same in a series of Tweets. For Frum, the ban was “wrongheaded” because,

“it targets for enforcement women who may already be victims of intimidation of male relatives… [the] Burkini is something more than an individual religious statement like a cross about a neck.  The people promoting the burkini do not think: “It’s just a personal preference! We’ll happily share public space with bikini-clad women”. They are asserting a norm they would enforce on ALL women, if they had the power to do so.” 

Frum adds a further dimension of control; the hijab represents not only control of the woman wearing the piece of cloth, but also the alleged Muslim desire to cover up all women.

Predictably echoing the neocons is Maajid Nawaz, who presents himself as the solution-Muslim (i.e. liberal/neocon-compliant Muslim) to the problematic Islam.

Maajid Nawaz’s Two-Faced Feminism

Nawaz Tweeted that the “legal right” to wear a “Burkini” ought to be defended, but its “moral implication” challenged.  He then linked an article which argued the same; that the Burkini represented control of women.

This position, however, contradicts comments he made in a Facebook post defending his visit to a lapdancing club. He stated,

“My feminism, as intended by me, extends to empowering women to make legal choices, not to judge the legal choices they make. My fight is for rights.”

We shouldn’t judge women making legal choices, unless of course it is a Muslim woman who makes the “legal choice” to dress in Islamic attire. Then she should be treated to not only Nawaz’s judgement upon her, but his efforts to challenge her choice based upon his own judgement.

Maajid Nawaz’s Arguments

A day later, Nawaz placed his thoughts in an article for the Daily Beast.

For Nawaz’s morality, the “burkini” represents “a sad symbol of Islam today going backward on gender issues.” He then bolsters his argument by virtue of reference to the period “up until the 1970s Egypt” where the “female body” was not “shamed out of public view” due to the “social dominance of the relatively liberal, middle-class elite”. What Nawaz omits is the colonialist imposition of the modern nation state, which appropriated and totally dominated Islam’s ethical outlook. As Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer (d. 1917) said, “the new generation of Egyptians has to be persuaded or forced into imbibing the true spirit of Western civilisation”.[1] Being persuaded and forced in the name of “civilisation” into accepting Western thought is not a problem worthy of concern for Nawaz. Indeed it is “progress”.[2]

Similarly, disingenuous references to post-colonial states or “Islamic countries” which are fragmented socially from their traditional, organic Islamic whole is intellectual laziness at its best. Apparently, with “theocratic Islamism”, women’s bodies became the “red line in a cultural war against the West started by theocratic Islamism.” This utter historic revisionism excises the fact that this cultural war over women began with colonialism born from Western enlightenment rationalism (discussed below). It saw women as a resource through which control of Muslim societies could be attained and Islam suppressed.

Indeed, the modern nation state has broken down the paradigmatic Islamic societal structures which nurtured and produced the moral-spiritual individual.  Instead we have fractured societies struggling to contend with the dissonance between their historic communitarian values and the imposed institutional, culture-specific secular liberalism.

Contorting Islam to fit the argument: Hijab and Gendering Islam

Nawaz argues that it is only ever men telling Muslim women what to wear. He deduces this from his subsequent statements:

“I remain unaware of any medieval female Muslim exegete used as authority by Muslim women for the “duty” of wearing a hijab. It is only ever male exegetes of the Quran who are cited preaching for the duty of female “modesty.””

And herein lies a demonstration of Nawaz’s years “immersed in theology and Arabic”.

Firstly, his gendered imposition of Islamic hermeneutics is alien to Islam. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was a man – are we to reject knowledge from him purely because he was a man?  Is knowledge somehow rendered invalid because the source is not a woman? The sacred knowledge was transmitted from the Prophet through women too, from whom knowledge was passed onto men and women.  In other words, the Islamic epistemology is not constrained by the limited, artificial, gender-centric discourse which itself is a product of modernity’s propensity to control and dominate “nature”. Feminism, which is the ideology that premises his argument, is a bandage to modernity’s problems, not Islam’s.

Secondly, the wife of the Prophet, ‘A’isha (may Allah be pleased with her) is an undisputed authority in jurisprudence, hadith and exegesis and a consummate teacher. She not only declares the obligation of Hijab but praises the early women of Islam for showing their ready acceptance of this ruling, when told to them by their male relatives. Pertinently, these statements of ‘A’ishah have been recorded in the mainstream exegeses of verse 24:31 of the Qur’an, like Tabari’s, Qurtubi’s, Razi’s, Baghawi’s and Ibn Kathir’s.

Ibn Abi Shaybah reports with an authentic chain to ‘A’isha:

“When a young girl becomes mature, it is necessary for her to cover just as her mother.”[3]

According to a report by Abd al-Razzaq al-San’ani, it is narrated from her that she defined the “Khimar”[4] as follows:

“Khimar is that which conceals the hair and skin [of the head and face].”[5]

In another narration found in Sahih al-Bukhari:

‘A’ishah would say: When the verse: “Let the [women] draw their head-covering over their collars”[6] was revealed, the women took their waist-coats, cut them at the margins, and covered their faces with them.”[7]

According to a more a detailed wording found in the early exegesis of Ibn Abi Hatim, ‘A’ishah is reported to have said:

“The women of Quraysh indeed have virtue, but by Allah I regard none better than the women of the Ansar; [none] more readily accepting of the Book of Allah and compliant to the revelation. Surat al-Nur was revealed: ‘Let the [women] draw their head-covering over their collars.’ Their men returned and recited to them what was revealed to them in this [verse]. A man would recite [it] to his wife, daughter and sister and all his close relatives. There was not a single woman from amongst them, but she got up to her marked cloaks, and drew it around her head and face, in compliance and in acceptance of what Allah sent down in His Book. They reached the morning, praying the Dawn Prayer behind the Messenger of Allah, with their head & faces covered, as though there were crows on their heads.”[8]

According to this narration, the women readily accepted the words of the menfolk who conveyed to them the teachings of the Qur’an, demonstrating the elevated Islamic model of society, where there is no conflict between men and women, no competition or vying for a higher position, but mutual co-operation and consideration.

Contorting Islam to fit the argument: “Theology of Modesty”

Nawaz continues to stigmatise Muslims by linking clearly criminal acts to Islam. Thus, sexual crimes in Cologne are due to “modesty theology” which leads to the “fetishization” of women’s bodies and slut-shaming. An unnamed “Muslim feminist” is adduced to prop his claim.  The feminist is Asra Nomani; a person who advocates Muslim-profiling, tearing out pages from the Qur’an and is part of the far-right/neoconservative-linked “Muslim Reform Movement”.

Purely from a rational viewpoint, linking the attacks to Islam is baseless conjecture, which synonymises a religion that represents an anti-thesis to the acts, with the crime being committed. One can invert this argument: given most of the men were migrants already living in Germany it could equally be argued that that they took the idea of freedom a little too far and ventured into libertinism. Further entertaining this inversion, despite women in the west bared to the expectations created by commercialised objectification of women, rape rates in the West continue to soar. In England and Wales eleven rapes occur every hour. When a woman walked through New York City for ten hours in “casual clothes”, she was catcalled more than ten times every hour. Why?

In Islam Hayaa, constituted of shame, modesty/bashfulness, is not a negative, and neither is it gendered. It is considered an innate trait which ennobles good human qualities and checks base instincts and excesses.[9] In fact, its conception transcends materialism and associated philosophies by directly connecting this quality to spirituality.  Allah loves the quality of Hayaa in people.[10] It is perhaps for this reason that the nobility of Hayaa is such that when a man censured his brother for being too shy, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Leave him alone, for modesty is a part of Iman (faith)”.[11] The implication of stripping oneself of Hayaa is also transcendentally dire.  As a senior Companion, Salman al-Farsi (may Allah be pleased with him) said,

“When Allah intends the destruction of his slave, He strips him of shame.”[12]

Nawaz would do well to take note.

Pertinently, all of the referenced narrations are addressing men, indicating to the neutrality of the concept. It acts as one of the many moral forces that underpin the Muslim psyche and encourages the observing of acts concordant to Islam. Logically, a people who are spiritually nurtured to encourage shyness, which is intrinsically linked to faith itself, cannot result in what Nawaz claims. Unless one does what secularism has a tendency to do: dominate and control ideas and concepts whilst stripping morality for its own circular end.

The Bikini Blind Spot of Pious Secularists

There are levels of hypocrisy in Nawaz’s piece, from practical examples to the philosophy he so proudly parades.  I will briefly comment on these levels as they cover the arguments currently circulating in media discourses.

Nawaz has a few key arguments, which broadly represent the dominant pious secularist discourse on the Muslim women and covering.

  • He makes the control argument by suggesting men basically dictate the Burkini,
  • It has connotations of “body-shaming and moralizing”
  • It leads to sexualisation “fetishization” of women’s body.

However, in this discussion, he curiously omits the “moral implications” of the bikini. If his argument is that the “Burkini” is backward because it is associated with body-shaming and is dictated by men why is the same conclusion not drawn about the bikini, accompanied with calls to “challenge” it?

The bikini has sexually objectified origins and connotations which have transformed, but maintained the control of women’s bodies largely by men.

It was a man who first introduced a bikini to the world in 1946. When French designer Louis Réard was unable to find a woman to wear his creation, he had to hire an eighteen year old nude dancer to model it. The bikini was a “hit among men”. Interestingly even the name – Bikini – is associated with the masculinity of devastating weaponry used by men; the first above-ground nuclear test took place in Bikini Atoll.

The effect of the bikini has resulted in the dehumanisation of women.  According research at Princeton University, brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of women in bikini, the region of the brain associated with “tool use” lights up. Men were also more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as “I push, I grasp, I handle”. Women in bikinis, compared to women covered, are perceived by men to be like tools and objects.

With more skin on display comes an entire infrastructure to maintain this pressurised sexualisation of the female body. From diet clinics to women’s and “lad’s” magazines, the pressure to be in “beach body” shape is pervasive. When Protein World plastered images of a woman in a bikini with the question “are you beach body ready?it was widely regarded as a form of body-shaming.  Further, the Protein World head of global marketing is man.  There are no articles by Nawaz dedicated to challenging these “moral implications”.

Similarly, places like the gym have become an “intimidating, narcissistic and overtly sexual hellhole” which is resulting in the demoralisation of women. A school in Derbyshire was slammed for “sexualising the fitness class” and making “vulnerable teenagers body conscious” when leaflets were given to pupils inviting them to a “bikini body fitness class”. More women than men go on diets, and eating disorders have greater prevalence among women, costing the taxpayer an estimated £1.2 billion per year in health care costs.

Muslims should take note: Nawaz and his ilk wish Muslim women to “progress” towards this “moral” quagmire.

With the above analysis, and what is to now follow, it can be argued that moral arguments presented against the covering represent an uncomfortable psychological projection.

Control and domination, a trait of Western thought-structure

Nawaz’s concerns about morality are philosophically vacuous. Certainly, if he is genuinely concerned about control and domination, then he would do well to question his own set of precarious beliefs.

Western thought and in particular Enlightenment rationalism is rooted in the Kantian autonomous man where reason and therefore morality is self-producing (an unworkable claim[13]). Referencing German philosopher Max Scheler, Hallaq explains that this human sovereignty dominates “above all nature”.  He further avers that the Western thought-structure “sprung from an underlying, a priori will– and –value-structure centred upon the desire to dominate the material world.”[14] This has created an essential characteristic of the modern West: “its obsession with gaining knowledge of control”.[15]

The origin of this obsession with domination and control in the West is traced to the “fact/value” split by early Enlightenment philosophers.  In short, the facts are the material world or nature, and value is what is right.  Where the material is treated as simply “brute fact” and therefore devoid of value, “we can treat it as an object”,[16] rather like a woman in a bikini per the Princeton University research, the “natives” and “backward” people of the East who are made to constitute a part of “nature”. And their resource-rich land for that matter. It is human reason alone which decides the objectification of the material.

In other words, domination, control and exploitation are epistemologically embedded in Nawaz’s thinking of choice.

Concluding Remarks

Whilst accusing a piece of cloth of representing control and domination, the secularists have exposed their secular liberal insecurities.  The sheer incredulity in accepting Muslim women as humans possessing intelligence whom recognise the transcendental, spiritual nature of the veil and adopt modest attire, is itself a control mechanism which forces the terms of the discourse into one which satiates the neocon/liberal ego. The Western suspicion of want of agency dominates the Muslim woman and not only the woman, but the spiritual-moral fibre of Islam from which she derives her decision to cover.  The commentators act like pious secularists inebriated with rectitude, whilst, ironically in the case of one, enjoining the objectified titillation of women in places where industrialised entertainment of female flesh is purchased.

It may be shocking to some in the West, but Muslims have their own paradigmatic understanding of morality and society. The attempt to persuade Muslims and in particular Muslim women to jettison their substantive beliefs which have stood the test of time for over a millennium in favour of Western ideas of secularism and progressivism that have been unable to persuasively produce morality, is unconvincing.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that those who are pushing the deformation of Islam the hardest – the neoconservatives – admit that Enlightenment rationalism’s inability to produce a “compelling, self-justifying moral code” means that the “whole enterprise of secular humanism… begins to lose its legitimacy.”  Perhaps Nawaz would do well to start persuading his neocon friends and bill-payers first, before attempting to dislodge the spiritual centre of over a billion Muslims.


References:

[1] Cromer, E.B., Modern Egypt, Macmillan: London, 1908, vol.2, p.110

[2] For a short critique of progressivism as an integral part of the modern project see: https://coolnessofhind.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/islam-is-not-the-problem-neoconservatism-is/

[3] Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah, 6278.

إذا احتلمت الجارية وجب عليها ما على أمها تعني من التستر

[4] Qur’an 24:31

[5] Musannaf Abd al-Razzaq, 3:133

إنما الخمار ما وارى الشعر والبشر

[6] Qur’an 24:31

[7] Bukhari

عن صفية بنت شيبة: أن عائشة رضي الله عنها كانت تقول لما نزلت هذه الآية: {وليضربن بخمرهن على جيوبهن} [النور: 31] «أخذن أزرهن فشققنها من قبل الحواشي فاختمرن بها»

 

[8] Tafsir Ibn Abi Hatim, no. 14406

عَنْ صَفِيَّةَ بِنْتِ شَيْبَةَ قَالَتْ: بَيْنَمَا نَحْنُ عِنْدَ عَائِشَةَ قَالَتْ: وَذَكَرَتْ نِسَاءَ قُرَيْشٍ وَفَضْلَهُنَّ، فَقَالَتْ عَائِشَةُ: إِنَّ لِنِسَاءِ قُرَيْشٍ لَفَضْلا، وَإِنِّي وَاللَّهِ مَا رَأَيْتُ أَفْضَلَ مِنْ نِسَاءِ الأَنْصَارِ أَشَدَّ تَصْدِيقًا بِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ، وَلا إِيمَانًا بِالتَّنْزِيلِ لَقَدْ أُنْزِلَتْ سُورَةُ النُّورِ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَى جُيُوبِهِنَّ انْقَلَبَ رِجَالُهُنَّ إِلَيْهِنَّ يَتْلُونَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مَا أُنْزِلَ إليهن فيها، ويتلوا الرَّجُلُ عَلَى امْرَأَتِهِ وَابْنَتِهِ وَأُخْتِهِ، وَعَلَى كُلِّ ذِي قَرَابَتِهِ، مَا مِنْهُنَّ امْرَأَةٌ إِلا قَامَتْ إِلَى مِرْطِهَا الْمُرَحَّلِ فَاعْتَجَرَتْ بِهِ تَصْدِيقًا وَإِيمَانًا بِمَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ مِنْ كِتَابِهِ، فَأَصْبَحْنَ يُصَلِّينَ وَرَاءَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الصبح معتجرات كأن على رؤسهن الغربان

[9] As per the two saying of the Prophet peace be upon: “A part of that which people understood from the speech of the first prophethood is: if you have no shame (hayaa), do what you want”, (Bukhari). And, “Modesty only produces good”, (Muslim).

[10] As per the Hadith of al-Ashajj al-Asri, that the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said to him, “You have to qualities which Allah loves… Calmness and modesty”. (Ahmad)

[11] Bukhari, Muslim

[12] Abu Nu’aym, Al-Hilyah, 1:204

[13] Reason is assumed to be an agent, but it is a faculty exercised by an agent. See Larmore C., The Autonomy of Morality, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2008

[14] Hallaq, W.B., The Impossible State, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, p.76

[15] Ibid. p.75

[16] Ibid p.78

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s