During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?
Months after it helped convince citizens to vote to leave the European Union (EU), migration remains at the heart of post-referendum politics in the UK. One promise of the Brexiteers was that a points system would be brought in to gauge the usefulness of various applicants for immigration. Another promise was that the freedom of movement of EU citizens into the UK would stop. However the newly minted but not so shiny Prime Minister Theresa May’s has made the decision to rule out introducing a points-based immigration system to the UK following the referendum result which has stirred media attention in Britain as the debate about the UK’s future immigration policy rages on.
May’s immigration blunder
May made the initial comments before her journey to Beijing to attend the 6 September G20 summit earlier this month, largely an exercise in trying to keep the UK relevant on the international stage and assure international partners that Britain would not become a disconnected island. The points-system referred to is modelled after the Australian immigration system which sees immigrants being given points for their various skills, qualifications and backgrounds, as well as behaviour, as the basis for their potential residency in the state. May’s statement that there was not yet any proof such a system worked, emphasized that there was no “silver bullet” solution to reducing immigration to the UK. Upon her return, the British cabinet confirmed that the points system would not be part of their immigration policy. May promised, however, “some control” over immigration.
The Conseil d’Etat might have overthrown the burkini ban but the debate rumbles on.
Despite the ruling of the Conseil d’Etat (France’s supreme court for administrative justice) on 26th August that the ban on wearing burkinis in public in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet should be suspended, mayors in cities such as Nice, Cannes and Sisco have vouched to maintain a hard-line against “beachwear that ostentatiously displays religious affiliation” (une tenue de plage manifestant de manière ostentatoire une appartenance religieuse).
In the wake of the ruling, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve called a meeting about the status of Islam in France. Cazeneuve, who is against the ban, urged that “France is now more than ever in need of a peaceful relationship with Muslims” (la France a plus que jamais besoin d’une relation apaisée avec les musulmans).
The fallout from the burkini ban has been causing waves not only in France but across the Continent. But have external condemnations and accusations of prejudice been too harsh?
A manifestation of French laïcité?
First and foremost, the burkini ban has to be seen in the French context. Whilst similar measures in other Western democracies would bear the hallmark of right-wing extremists, in Oye-Plages near Cannes, it was a Socialist mayor who sought to ban the burkini. France’s very strict rules on laïcité coupled with a very disturbing wave of Islamic-motivated terrorist attacks over the past year might cause us to soften our view on the matter.
France’s 1905 law separating the church and the state has formed the basis of French actions towards religion ever since. The controversial ban on wearing the burqa or the niqab in public places, justified on the grounds that showing one’s face in public is a fundamental part of living together in society, was passed in 2010. So is the current burkini ban just an extension of the ban on the burqa?
There’s at least one reason why it’s certainly not. A confusion of terminology has led to an outfit which scarcely resembles the long, dark, face-shielding, head-to-toe veils which are the object of the 2010 ban being seen in the same way. The misleadingly-named burkini might better be dubbed Al-Amirakini or the Hijabini but Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who owns the trademarks of the words Burkini and Burqini, clearly had poetics rather than politics on the mind at the point of conception.
Lots of the photos we’re being confronted with in the media show colourful, wetsuit-style outfits with water-proof headscarves which leave the face fully exposed. This surely undermines the argument forwarded by many that the burkini ban is simply an extension of the burqa ban.
Emancipation for women
Is wanting to dress modestly at the beach really such a bad thing? It seems that it is if you’re Muslim. Why should it be that dressing modestly at the beach should be acceptable if you wish to wear a kaftan, a salwar kameez, or even a body-covering catholic habit, but not if you wish to actually go in the water or wear beachware associated with Islam.
Oppression of women in any form certainly has no place in 21st century Western democracies but at some point, enforced emancipation steps on the toes of freedom. The well-versed counter argument is that creating modest swimwear appropriate for Muslim women gives them more freedom, by allowing them to undertake that activity that the majority takes for granted, namely swimming in public.
Is it not a little patronising of the French, and others who hold the view, to tell women what they can and can’t wear? Whilst such bans in favour of the emancipation of women may just about hold for the burqa and niqab, the more extreme ends of Muslim dress code, applying the same logic to the Burkini seems to be flawed.
The fact of the matter is, burkinis are not being banned because of a desire to suddenly emancipate Muslim women. No, they’re being banned on the basis that they might lead to terrorism. As the mayor of Nice finely put it, the ban covered “Clothing that overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.” If this isn’t prejudice, then I’ll eat my headscarf.
Having a Muslim woman in our midst, we as the second semester Krakow girls were dying to find out what it felt like for our classmate to be a Muslim woman in Poland.
Floor Boele van Hensbroek│firstname.lastname@example.org
Having a Muslim woman in our midst while living in one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe, we as the second semester Krakow girls were dying to find out what it felt like for our classmate to be a Muslim woman in Poland. So, we conducted an experiment. For one day we pretended to be Muslims and covered up from head to toe. How did we experience this? Did it change our perceptions on Muslim veils such as hijabs and headscarves? Read here my personal reflexions on this little experiment.
Background: Veils in the West
In Europe, the Muslim veil is not free from controversy. In multiple countries there have been heated debates on whether or not to ban the headscarf. In France, the decision has been made to ban burqas in public spaces. Why? Partly because many Westerners believe that obligating a woman to cover her body is a restriction of her freedom and emancipation. J.C. Young argues in his book ‘Post-Colonialism: A Very Short Introduction’ that “for many Westerners, the veil is a symbol of patriarchal Islamic societies in which women are assumed to be oppressed, subordinated, and made invisible.” This perception can be partly explained by looking at the process of emancipation in the West.
“In the West, showing your body indicates public presence, visibility and freedom of self-expression…”
In Western societies, dress liberation has meant ‘participation in society’. It meant being able to ride a bicycle and board a train. Showing your body indicates public presence, visibility and freedom of self-expression. However, westerners might be taking it one step too far when criticizing veils and defining them as backward and degrading. Blogger Liz Connor argues that “They (Western woman) have developed, it would seem, a rather delimited view of what public visibility might mean to different woman (…). The possibility of covering up is not necessarily a backward step.” Apart from this, it has been argued that denying people their religious expression can equally be defined as oppressive. Moreover: western beauty standards for woman are not free from oppression either!
“I have always believed that covering your body actually reinforces the focus on sexuality…”
Being a western woman myself, I must admit that also I have been critical towards headscarves. I always found it hard to understand why Muslim women cover their bodies to such extent that sometimes even their faces are hidden. Knowing that they can only show themselves to their husbands gave me the impression these woman are somewhat ‘owned’ by their husbands. Also, I could not see how the obligation to wear all those clothes could be comfortable in any way. Thus, women suffer because of it, I thought. Moreover, I have always believed that covering your body extensively in order to avoid sexual attention actually reinforces the focus on sexuality. Think of African bush women walking around bare-breasted all day. All the attached meaning to the body immediately evaporates, and the body becomes just a body; like an instrument. Obviously, all these opinions and thoughts of mine were full of prejudice and misunderstanding. However, this I only found out much later, after I had dressed up as a Muslim woman myself for a day.
Muslim for one day: the start up
It was during a lovely dinner time in June that the idea was born: we, the girls of the second semester Krakow class would all wear headscarves for one day. In this way, we hoped to be able to understand how it had been for our classmate, Fauzia Ariani, to live in Poland as a Muslim woman. Fauzia, who has come all the way from Indonesia to Europe to study MA Euroculture, would be our guide during the day. In practice, this meant she would provide us with headscarves and tie them fashionably around our heads. Obviously, the experiment soon became an experiment in fashion as well. I learned there is a booming fashion industry for Muslim women and looking at the pictures of famous designs very quickly got us in the mood.
“Wow, this is actually not so bad…”
We agreed to meet at Fauzia’s place in the morning and first have breakfast together. (You can’t become Muslim on an empty stomach! Everyone knows that). After breakfast, the fun part began. Fauzia showed us her suitcase full of headscarves. Then – oh wait, yes you read that correctly, a suitcase full of headscarves – we all chose a nice colourful combination. I found out that a headscarf is not just a headscarf; it actually consists of several elements: an under-scarf or turtleneck, a shawl and an optional headband. Fauzia arranged them skilfully, choosing different styles. When I looked in the mirror afterwards, I saw a completely different me. ‘Wow, this is actually not so bad!’ I thought. However, I still looked far from presentable. Having left my apartment with the illusion I looked modest, Fauzia soon helped me out of this dream. ‘You are too naked!’ she said. ‘I can see your under arms and legs. Oh, and your dress is see-through!’ ‘Right.’ For your information, it was 35 degrees that day. Still, I put on an extra legging and long sleeves and finally, got permission from Fauzia that we were good to go. Although I still cheated a little as I was wearing flip-flops meaning, my feet were naked. But, flip-flops with socks? I reckoned Allah wouldn’t mind…
What the Quran prescribes in terms of woman’s dress
“Let me briefly explain…”
Before continuing, let me briefly explain what the Quran actually prescribes in terms of woman’s clothing. (To find out, I unfortunately did not read the Quran but visited some forums instead). It turns out, there are two requirements in terms of woman’s clothes. First, a woman’s body has to be covered in such ways that only her face, hands, and feet are revealed. Secondly, the clothing must be loose enough so that the shape of the body is not visible. Also, women should not dress so as to look like men, they should not dress in a way similar to those who don’t believe in God and the clothing should be modest, neither ragged nor overly fancy. Obviously, different interpretations exist of what is said in the Quran therefore every Muslim applies the rules in different ways.
Let’s hit the road
As soon as we left the house I noticed one thing: being a Muslim woman can indeed be torturous. It was so hot! How do those women deal with this heat? My respect grew with every second. Sweat was dripping down from my face and back. I looked with envy at the krakowian girls in their light summer dresses and skirts. How nice it would be to feel the wind through my hair and cool off my skull. At the same time I became very conscious of naked skin. And naked skin was everywhere. I saw girls wearing hot pants and short tops. ‘Wow, they know no limits!’ I thought. The headscarf was starting to work on me. Secretly, we inspected the way people looked at us. It was hard to tell what they were thinking as we did not receive many ‘telling’ looks. However, with the exception of the children. When spotting us, they would grab their moms’ legs and point at us with bewildered looks. Maybe the adults could hold back their first reactions unlike children? If we got any reaction at all, though, it was quite positive. People smiled and looked at us with wonder. I actually felt a little special and exotic.
“I became very conscious of naked skin…”
We bought ice cream and sat down at the Rynek. In a way, it felt nice to be so covered up. I felt less exposed to the outside world, being literally and figuratively less ‘naked’. Emma told me afterwards that she appreciated wearing the headscarf. ‘Except for some worries about how people would respond, in some way or the other I enjoyed being hidden inside all those clothes, I’m not sure why.’ Claudia said she was surprised that it felt so normal wearing a headscarf but also added ‘As soon as we left the flat, I had almost forgotten about it.’ And forget we did. In the afternoon when we went for lunch, we talked freely about topics like homosexuality and partying. Okay, now people started to stare! At the end of the day I was happy to remove the headscarf, simply because it felt more comfortable. Would we have done the experiment in wintertime, I might have kept it on a few days more…
Probably, you have an opinion yourself about Muslim veils. You might see them as a symbol of repression and subjugation, obviously as a symbol of religion. What else do you associate the Muslim veil such as the headscarf with? ‘Tradition,’ ‘conservativeness,’ ‘gender,’ ‘masculine culture,’ and ‘immigration’? What I suspect that will not cross your mind are ‘mysteriousness,’ ‘fashion,’ ‘culture,’ ‘Indonesia,’ ‘morality,’ and ‘protection.’ After having met Fauzia, and wearing a headscarf myself for one day, my perception has changed. Whereas beforehand I was critical and sceptical about Muslim veils, I now see that I misunderstood. Now, I can appreciate the headscarf as a cultural expression and I like how it makes woman’s hair (something so trivial in Western culture) into something highly mysterious.
“Now, I can appreciate the headscarf as a cultural expression…”
Exactly for this reason, I appreciate being part of MA Euroculture so much, as it enables me to meet people from various backgrounds. Studying Euroculture is not just about gaining scientific knowledge and skills; it is about learning to understand others and tackling prejudices. It is about becoming a better person. I will finish this article with a few words from Fauzia:
This experiment was not just about some European girls’ headscarf-curiosity (or my hijab fashion experiment over the girls’ hair). It was about understanding, respect, and tolerance. People in the world were created differently in order to get to know each other, weren’t they?!
About my one-day experiment being a Muslim woman and wearing a headscarf in Europe: I have passed through tough experiences of wearing a hijab in Europe. However, I see it as an opportunity rather than a setback on my path. I know I have to be no one else but myself. And I still have faith that good people will come to know each other by person and not by prejudice.
Floor Boele van Hensbroek, People’s Editor
I am Floor, Dutch, and 25 years young/old. I studied interdisciplinary social sciences at Utrecht University before starting with Euroculture. I love travelling, dancing, art, theatre, documentaries, tasty food, classy wine and.. actually a lot of other things. I was born in the bush of Zambia with a bush of black curly hair, although now I’m blond as blond can be. I’m a cynical optimist, that looks for truth even though I believe that all truth is constructed.