Sahar Khalifeh is considered one of the most prominent Palestinian writers. In this essay, she argues that Western imperialism is indirectly responsible for the return of mandatory veiling for women in the Islamic world
As a child I would never have thought that the piece of cloth my mother stopped wearing on her head would one day return to us in another form – more ugly and terrible than ever; that it would return in the form of a woman veiled from head to foot with just two eyes or dark glasses visible, and with white or black gloves on her hands – just like a ghost this woman, nothing but a pillar moving like a black shadow.
The headscarf my mother abandoned was a piece of transparent material, black in colour, loosely covering her face and hair without being knotted, tied, or pulled tightly together. It lay so loosely on her head that seeing and breathing were not impeded. Apart from that her clothing consisted of a modest skirt or dress reaching to her knees and a short jacket emphasising her chest and waistline – thus greatly contrasting with what today is considered Islamic apparel, which makes a woman's body look like a long shapeless sack as if it were a piece of black wood or a column of smoke.
Subsequently my mother also stopped wearing the jacket and wore either a costume or a short-sleeved dress and followed the fashion of the day, whether in her short hairstyle or in the colour and cut of her clothes. She behaved just like other middle-class women in the Arab world, but also like the less fortunate in cities and smaller towns. It was only village peasants who continued to wear traditional clothing, similar to what the Virgin Mary had worn two thousand years previously.
My mother renounced the headscarf immediately after Israel occupied most of Palestine in 1948. This occupation brought about a political and economic catastrophe, accompanied by social upheavals that did away with many values and long-established traditions, including the headscarf and restrictions on women's freedom of movement on the street, in school, and at work.
Women go to work
This catastrophe directly affected women, since the declining economic situation resulted in thousands of families – which had lost their homeland, their houses, their land, and many of their men in war – being forced to take women out of the domestic environment and send them out to work or allow them to study. This qualification allowed women to work in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, thereby feeding their families or paying for their brothers and sisters to study to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, and the like.
All of a sudden we witnessed how innumerable educated Palestinian girls travelled abroad without a headscarf, living there on their own, modestly, and unmarried (as I described Nahla's situation in my novel The Legacy), but highly esteemed by their families and society because they had become breadwinners for families with low incomes. As time passed it was not just accepted but even welcomed that these young women financed their younger sisters' studies at Arab universities (in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon), enabling them to bring home diplomas in medicine, pharmacy, engineering, law, and other subjects.
These young women, now trained and pursuing a recognised job, were educated, courageous and open to the world, and they launched a wave of feminist and social emancipation even though our knowledge of the feminist movement and feminist thinking was limited to what a number of precursors such as Amîna al-Sa'îd, Suhair al-Qalamâwî and Darija Shafîq had written in Egyptian newspapers, with articles that did not go beyond such relatively lightweight themes as family planning, early marriage, polygamy, and suchlike.
Socialism and liberal thought
That social opening in Palestine and the Arab world in general was linked with a political opening to socialist and liberal thinking. Western hostility to Arab interests and traditionalist Arab regimes' failure to breathe new life into our institutions both official and unofficial, accompanied by incapacity and their wishy-washy attitudes with regard to defending our interests against the West, drove masses of Arab thinkers and intellectuals into the arms of the Soviet camp and socialism. In their writings they called for greater social and political emancipation, and also for resistance to Western greed for our raw materials (principally oil), an end to dependence on Western products, and prevention of further Western interference in our affairs.
It was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, who in the Fifties and Sixties waged the greatest campaign against the influence of the West and its ally Israel. Apart from his stirring speeches, inspiring the Arab masses and creating an atmosphere of exuberant enthusiasm and anger at the West and its adherents, he inflicted an enormous blow on the two greatest colonial powers of that time, Great Britain and France, with the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The rage of the two states reached a climax in 1956 when, together with their allies, they conducted a military campaign against Nasser in order to overthrow and destroy him. However, this assault failed and Nasser emerged both stronger and more influential. In addition it then seemed as if his project for unifying Arab states in a quasi-socialist system were absolutely feasible.
Arab intellectuals' turn towards socialist ideas, repeated calls for the overthrow of corrupt regimes and their Western helpers, and Nasser's policy of reuniting the Arab world, reviving what existed before the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Middle East after World War One into small, easily-dominated states (as is still the case) – all that invoked Western fear and anxiety about the establishment of a strong, totally independent, single Arab state, capable of putting an end to Western voraciousness and manipulation, and of threatening its ally Israel. That is why the Western media plotted against Nasser, depicting him as a new Arab Hitler, accusing him of fascism and many other provocative and terrible characteristics.
When Israel attacked Nasser in the 1967 war, the West closed ranks behind the Jewish state. Nasser was defeated, just as we were defeated – 'we' meaning those who had called for economic, social, and political liberation, political renewal, and the emancipation of women.
The West and the fundamentalists
Nasser's defeat in the 1967 war and the progressives' failure to implement real achievements, both at the organisational level and in terms of their capacity to win over the Arab masses, created an atmosphere of receptivity to demands and projects opposed to progressive, emancipatory thinking. That situation was exploited by the reactionary wing represented by Arab states which faithfully followed the American agenda and set about supporting groupings of rigorously Islamic believers – as happened in Afghanistan, where America backed bin Laden and others like him in order to contain Communist influence.
From the start of the Seventies the Arab world was exposed to a disastrous attack by fanatical Islamist organisations which drove women back into the age of the harem and made the veil obligatory. At the beginning of the new century they went even further, promoting heretical innovations: the niqab and the burqa. Even today we aware and educated women are subjected to daily pressure and provocation which increase our fears and worries, making advancement towards a time of greater freedom and development even more complicated and difficult.
Money for Islamic clothing
At the start of the Seventies dictatorial Arab regimes, backed by America, allied themselves with Salafist groupings, making millions available for supporting and strengthening this movement. For instance, all those who wore so-called Islamic clothing received a monthly payment (fifteen dinars for a man, ten for a woman). For a man this clothing consists of a short galabaya and leather sandals together with a long untrimmed beard, and for a woman a headcovering and a long dark-coloured coat. Recipients were also given – free of charge – prayer-beads plus a splendid edition of the Koran and a prayer-mat.
To begin with these Islamic organisations concentrated on young people who had demonstrated the capacity for leadership and were in a position to exert influence on others. They also wanted to reach women at home. Meetings were arranged and cells formed in the houses of women from the lower middle class. Then attention turned to mosques, schools, and universities. All that happened thanks to financial and other assistance from Arab regimes loyal to the US, in the hope that this Islamic input would keep Arab society free of socialist ideas and progressive projects that called for emancipation in all spheres, beginning with liberation from Western influence and extending to the unleashing of the creative energies in society.
The intention was to enable society to prove itself in the arena of modern life and to become an independent, developed, and effective force, defending itself against both the West and its covetousness, and against Israel's expanding racist demands.
However, the support from Salafist Islamists wasn't limited to the provision of free clothing, monthly payments and meeting-places. Fertile ground was also prepared in primary and secondary schools. Islamists, both male and female, were given preference in the appointment of teachers, charged with influencing young pupils and students so that Salafist thinking and ideology became part of the children's psyche and intellect. In addition youngsters received training in military discipline and the martial arts at special camps established in Arab states and in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Thanks to the organisational and financial possibilities open to them, and to great support among the population, from the early Seventies up to the present day these groups have succeeded in eclipsing progressive and emancipatory ideas, and in forcing liberals and socialists onto the periphery of society. They have also managed to repress the women's movement, setting it back several decades.
The political contradictions that became apparent some time ago included the transformation of close links between America and its Islamist allies into a competitive and bloody conflict. The Islamists America had once called 'Mujahedeen' and supplied with money and arms for combating the Soviet camp now became 'terrorists'. However, once their fighting spirit had been strengthened and support gained among both the general public and élites, Islamists, headed by al-Qaida, turned against America and its allies, setting about threatening Western interests and deploying violence against everything Western and Israeli.
Absurdly, though, the US and its allies only became aware of how dangerous this about-turn or trap was after the magic had been deployed against the magician and Salafist organisations began threatening to establish a strict Islamist regime, one that distances itself from the West and its adherents, opposes them, and shuts itself off from them in the same way as it acted against emancipatory and liberal thinking.
A threat from two sides
It thus came about, after many decades of serious opposition to the West and its influence, that we, the socialists, liberals, and pro-feminists, are today closer to this West in our thinking and in our democratic and scholarly attitudes – a West that plotted against the peoples of the Third World and their interests.
It is also strange that the US and its allies, which have become aware of the dirty trap into which they plunged both us and themselves, now prefer us, the socialists and nationalists, to strict Islamists, encouraging us to join socialist and nationalist political parties. They also support our feminist movement in the hope that we in return will help set limits to the Islamist invasion and establish democratic organisations that are more ready for rapprochement with the West and less of a threat to Western interests.
At present we exist amid alarming intellectual, social, and political chaos. Things are out of joint and we are now threatened from two sides without knowing which is more brutal and tyrannical. On the one side is the West, whose plottings, exploitation, and colonisation are familiar to us; and on the other is the Salafist Islamist movement which has blessed us with innovations throwing us back into an age of oppression and of the harem. Here the free, liberal, secular, scientific, but also colonial (in terms of interests, ideas, and planning) West – and there the inflexibility of an Islam that calls for resistance to the West and its concerns, but is blind to the sciences, to modernity, and to feminist and social emancipation.
This intellectual, social and political chaos hasn't only affected us; it has also spread to the West, so that our women with headscarves and veiled faces have become a phenomenon there that arouses fear and abhorrence. In some Western states Islamic clothing is forbidden by law and women wearing such clothing are no longer allowed to enter schools, universities, and public offices.
Beyond that people in the West now believe that all Arabs and all Muslims are equally strict, fanatical, and intellectually closed – just like Salafist Islamists – thereby forgetting or denying that this movement was originally a child of the West and its supporters, threatening our democratic, secular, and scholarly attitudes, and also the fate of us women. Now the West persecutes us with new and highly racist prejudices, arbitrarily and sweepingly lumping together all Arabs, reproaching us with something for which it should really blame itself.
Questions for the West
Who is responsible for the present confusion? Who is responsible for the fact that Islamism continues to grow and spread? Who established al-Qaida and allied itself with bin Laden and his followers? Who encouraged our repressive regimes to give financial and intellectual support to this movement and to open up our educational institutions to its ideas and influence?
These questions must be raised in the Western media, provided that media exist that are not hypocritical, racist or prejudiced. I know, and others know too, that these media are not innocent with regard to political agendas and racist views anchored in Western thinking, speech, and actions. I feel frustrated when I write for European readers because I know most of the population are indifferent and feel no sympathy for us.
When I walk through your streets I can almost hear how people naively and egotistically ask themselves: why should we do anything for the Arabs when they don't look after themselves? Why should we be concerned about Arab women, who are so remote from us and so different in their religion, colour, and nationality? Whatever may happen to them cannot happen to or torment us.
For my part I say to people who think in this narrow-minded and egoistic way that we are closer to you than you believe and imagine. Haven't we time and again said that the world has become a little global village? Now we are coming to you as waves of human beings breaking through your beachheads. Whatever you do to restrict immigration and intensify surveillance, we shall find ways of getting to you, surmounting your barriers and asserting our presence among you.
We are here among you. You cannot deny our presence because we are behind you and in front of you, and have become part of your system. One day we shall become an effective electoral force – as really happened in America – and bring forth an Arab Obama who will rule you.
I in no way intend to anger you. All I want is to defend my cause palpably and graphically. I want to make you feel what I feel, and make you fear what I fear, and make you painfully aware of what you do to me. I see how the Western media force me into a stereotype, judging and falsifying me. When they present a woman in a burqa as exemplifying Arab womanhood (Muslim or Christian), they silently declare that I, the feminist writer, and thousands of women like me, and millions of modern women – Muslims and Christians – in all the Arab states are like this woman with a burqa: a sombre face, the head weighed down, forced to be silent. And that is not true, since the image of a woman in a burqa fills women like me with fear and horror.
We fear that one day a hand will extend out of that image, out of the picture of the woman with the burqa, drawing my daughter, my granddaughters, and myself into a sinister Arab regime kept in the dark by Western plans and policies, so that we remain what we were and what we are: an Arab oilfield on the Western market.
© Goethe Institute / Fikrun wa Fann 2011
Sahar Khalifeh is one of the most important Palestinian women writers and upholders of women's rights.
Translated by Tim Nevill from Larissa Bender's German version of the Arab original.