Chris Harman


Behind the veil

(November 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The liberals justify their stance by claiming that Islamic fundamentalism is the greatest threat to women’s liberation there is. The attitude is wrong because it simply does not understand the role played by religion in general and Islam in particular’

Islam has replaced Communism as the ‘great evil’ that causes liberal opinion to stampede to the right. Or, at least, so it seems in France today.

The French government has decreed that any girl from an Islamic background who covers her head with a scarf must be barred from school. This is a government whose interior minister, Pasqua, is notorious for playing the race card, sending thousands of police to set up roadblocks around the Parisian quarters where North African immigrants live.

Yet the ‘liberals’, sections of the left and the main teaching unions have supported this latest decree – support which has found an echo in some liberal circles in Britain.

Most amazingly, and outrageously, one of the biggest of the far left organisations in France, Lutte Ouvrière, has joined in the hue and cry. The front page of its paper of 7 October was a huge banner headline, ‘On the side of those who fight Islamic fundamentalism’.

The ‘liberals’ and Lutte Ouvrière, justify their stance by claiming that Islamic fundamentalism is the greatest threat to women’s liberation there is and that the veil is always ‘a symbol of women’s oppression’. The attitude is wrong because it simply does not understand the role played by religion in general and Islam in particular.

Marx described religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of the heartless world, the opium of the people’. All the world’s great religions originated from prophetic movements reacting against the bitterness and anguish of people’s lives by offering schemes for salvation. But all of them survived by turning themselves into institutions that depended on the support of the rich as well as the poor.

Islam arose in 7th century Arabia in the midst of a great social crisis. The prophet Mohammed seemed to show how society could be regulated in a way to overcome crisis. He tried to reconcile the rich and the poor by urging charity instead of oppression on the one and obedience on the other.

Such a message was full of ambiguities. The oppressors who embraced the religion, financing its mosques and its preachers, could interpret it as justifying their rule. Yet those they oppressed could see in the Koran a programme for armed liberation.

The ambiguity extends to the role of women, since Islam arose in a world in which women were oppressed and tried to mitigate that oppression without abolishing it.

Supporters of Islam can still boast that their religious law gave women greater rights in Koranic and medieval times than Christianity.

The Koran itself does not mention the veil or the scarf, but simply urges women to protect their ‘modesty’. But modesty meant the veil in the societies which Islam conquered (in which Christian paintings normally portray the Virgin Mary wearing a full headscarf). And so many Islamic societies came to regard women exposing their hair, shoulders and upper arms (or, for that matter men their chests) in public much as western societies regard exposure of the breasts.

There has been a spread of Islamic revivalism in the modern world because of the horrific conditions in which vast numbers of people live. In the cities of the Middle East millions of former peasants try to eke out a living as semi-proletarians in the slums of enormous cities, while hundreds of thousands of ex-students cannot find jobs.

They are easily attracted by a message which combines a conservative nostalgia for the past (‘things are so bad because we abandoned our traditional way of life’) with the promise of what seems to be revolutionary transformation in the here and now, and with the stamping out of corrupt practices and compulsion on the rich to display charity to the poor. This is what the political Islam offers.

It is not only men who are attracted to this message. So are many women for whom modern city life seems to offer little more than poverty and sexual harassment. They believe the Islamic code can somehow protect them from the commodification of their bodies, even if it also enforces a certain style of dress and enjoins them to respect the authority of their fathers and husbands. It certainly seems better than the society of the sex shop and the world bank, of rich women in western dresses and expensive make-up driving air conditioned cars while poor women watch their children die of hunger or diarrhoea.

And for those in countries like France or Britain it seems to assert their dignity in the face of the racist abuse and police harassment.

Socialists do not believe that Islamic revivalism can in fact offer a way forward for such people. Islam’s record may be better historically in some respects than that of Christianity. But that is not saying much. And a return to the ambiguous message of the Koran certainly does not measure up to the possibilities facing humanity today, of creating a society where there are neither rich nor poor and in which women and men relate to each other as free and equal beings.

In fact, the two sided nature of the Islamic message means it can cover up for exploitation and oppression, providing the perpetrators display sufficient religious piety. And it enables hatred created by the horrors of the present economic system to be deflected against other victims of the system – women who do not want to wear the scarf, gays, people of a different ethnic origin or, even, adherents of different branches of Islam.

But that is no reason for socialists to line up – as the French liberals and Lutte Ouvrière have – with the state and the racists. In fact, that is guaranteed to drive Muslim teenagers who want to assert their dignity into the hands of the Islamist organisations.

We have to fight for their right to express themselves in whatever way they see fit. Only this can confront the racism of the state. And only this can win those who want to wear the veil to see what genuine liberation means.

Last updated on 18 December 2009