Burqas, Muslim women, and the double state of exception

By Izzeddin Araj

In 2013, Palestinian-American anthropologist Laila Abu-Lughod published her must-read book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” The book presents a very important theoretical contribution on the Western representation of Muslim women as weak, fragile, and in need of rescue. An image that Abu-Lughod undermines through ethnographic examples in several Muslim countries.

This representation seems to be more straightforward now, more than ever. The debate is raging today in Switzerland over a new initiative launched by a right-wing party to ban the burqa or the niqab. A scene that seems very ironic given Covid-19 measures that require women, like everyone, to wear facemasks. This dark irony is even clearer in the fact that in Switzerland it is estimated that only 20 to 30 women wear the burqa.

If you have the right to vote, you may say yes or no to this initiative. This is the basis of direct democracy that Switzerland has been celebrating for years. However, in my point of view, the decision seems to have already been taken. The most important thing in all this scene is not the result, but that there is already a huge “democratic” debate taking place, in which millions may participate, about the bodies of Muslim women.

A scene packed with images and discussions about women’s liberty, terrorism, populism, tourism, western values, etc., but ultimately it contains a clearer picture of all of this: Millions of Swiss voters will decide the right of 100 women to wear a certain type of clothing. 

This enthusiasm to determine what dozens of women can or cannot wear reflects the intensity of the threatening discourse of Islam in the West these days; but it also reveals a long history of representation of Muslim women, even in the discourse of some Western feminist movements. In this area of stereotypical perceptions of some feminist movements meet with the perceptions of right-wing parties.

This intersection between the two positions is not just a coincidence. Through what the Arab-American historian Ussama Makdisi calls the “over-Islamization of Islam“, everything related to Islam is represented as a political and security issue now. A clear “state of exception” to which Muslims are subject today in Europe, where some values of freedom, justice, and equality can be finely waived in order to face a liquid and potential danger, which some call as terrorism and others say it as the “Islamization of Europe.”

Muslim women represent a state of exception within this state of exception. The state’s interference with their private life (fertility, sexuality, clothing, etc.) has been an essential part of Western misperceptions of Islam.

The cruel irony is that Muslim women have always been represented as passive victims. However, the very first moment they are perceived as agent or capable of doing anything, is when they are spoken of as a potential terrorist or a criminal.

As such, supporters of the initiative to ban the niqab justify this through two speeches that appear to be contradictory on the surface but are similar in essence. First, the image of helpless Muslim women justifies millions of Swiss to decide what clothes they can wear. Second, and as some right-wing politicians argue, Muslim women might use Burqa to carry out terrorist attacks.

Whether a Muslim woman is represented today as a victim or as a terrorist, others always have the right to decide for her, because she is not capable enough to decide by herself, or so dangerous to have the right to decide.

We need to say NO not only to this initiative, but more importantly to this double state of exception.

Izzeddin Araj is a PhD candidate in anthropology and sociology at the Graduate Institute. His work focuses on reproduction politics and statistical violence in Palestine/ Israel

Photo by Izzeddin Araj

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