Europe’s Open-face Democracy
By Rahnuma Ahmed
France bans full-face veils in public. Women wearing the niqab cannot enter government buildings, public transport, streets and markets. Burkas are not “welcome” on French soil, says Sarkozy. It is a sign of women’s “subservience,” it undermines France’s secular tradition. The Spanish parliament is debating a proposal. Burkas are hardly compatible with “human dignity,” says the justice minister. Barcelona bans burkas and niqabs from government buildings. They hinder personal identification. Full-face veil banned in Belgium. Streets, gardens, all buildings accessed by members of the public are no-go areas for women wearing the niqab.
It’s now or never, everything on hold till I finish my manuscript, no columns, no calls, no visitors, I thought as I furiously tapped away at the keyboard, barely scanned newspaper headlines, refused to download e-zines and newsletters, felt embarassed at repeatedly telling Zaman (deputy editor, New Age) as he nabbed me on g-chat, rahnuma’pa, how much longer? hmm, maybe a few more weeks?…but still, somehow, news of the burka ban gathering momentum in European countries seeped through, into my self-enforced confinement.
Less than a week after Belgium passed its law, an Italian woman was fined $650 for wearing a burka under a 1975 law, which prohibits people from covering their faces in public. Amsterdam and Utrecht propose cutting social security benefits to unemployed women who wear the burka. A German lawmaker calls for a complete ban on full-face burkas all over Europe. Veiled women irritate her, she says; she cannot judge them for who they are, what their intentions are. It’s a “massive attack on the rights of women. It is a mobile prison.” Eight out of 16 federal states in Germany have already banned female schoolteachers from wearing the headscarf. If the burka is not banned, threatens the Freedom Party of Netherlands, it’ll not join the minority coalition government. The burqa and the niqab have no place in our society, says the Danish prime minister. Denmark is an “open, democratic society where we look at the person to whom we are talking.”
There is talk of banning the burqa beyond Europe’s borders too, in what were once white-settler colonies, and now, sovereign states. Quebec’s immigration minister says, “If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face,” as its premier pushes a bill banning any sort of full-face veil. If passed, women will be denied receiving or applying for government services, including non-emergency medicine and day care. An Australian blogger, appreciative of senator Cory Bernardi’s recent call for an Aussie ban on full-face veiling writes, if the burqa and niqab are accepted, if they are normalised and legitimised, what do we teach Australian girls? That they shouldn’t be proud to show their face and have a voice in society? “That women’s rights are [not] inalienable and worth fighting for, except where gender oppression is religiously or culturally endorsed?”
The mind works in curious ways. For some reason I am reminded of Laura Bush and Cherie Blair. Of Mrs Bush’s unprecedented radio broadcast to rally support against the Taliban; she was the first wife of a US president to deliver the whole of the weekly address (November 1, 2001), expressing profound sorrow and deepest sympathies for the women of Afghanistan. “Life under the Taliban is so hard and repressive, even small displays of joy are outlawed—children aren’t allowed to fly kites; their mothers face beatings for laughing out loud. Women cannot work outside the home, or even leave their homes by themselves.” Two days later, the wife of the former British prime minister joined in the commiseration. The Taliban regime, Mrs Blair informed us, is repressive, cruel and joyless. The human rights of women and girls within Afghanistan “have been denied, people have been executed in football stadiums in front of cheering crowds, girls have had to be educated in secret.” Britain needs to “help them free that spirit and give them their voice back, so they can create the better Afghanistan we all want to see.”
Twenty-two months after the US-led invasion there were no signs of an Afghanistan that was less hard and less repressive for its women and children. Linda S Heard wrote, millions of Afghan women and children continue to face major health and nutrition problems with maternal and infant mortality among “the worst in the world.” Gunmen commit human rights abuses and warlords have been “propelled into power by the US and its coalition partners after the Taliban fell in 2001.”
But surely a decade on, the spirits of Afghan women are now free? Girls are now receiving education? A better Afghanistan is being created? Malalai Joya, the youngest Afghan to be elected member of parliament (2005-2007) says, the current situation is a disaster. People suffer from extreme insecurity, many have stopped sending their children to school, especially girls for fear that they might be raped or killed. The most pressing problems are cultivation and trafficking of drugs and narcotics (the opium industry is “solely designed by the US,” its annual production during the Taliban regime was 185 metric tons, it has now magnified to 8,500 tons annually), 50% unemployment and severe poverty which forces some parents to sell their children for $10 for a piece of bread, appalling corruption (the present Afghan government is “the most corrupt in our whole history”), and the installation of war criminals and terrorists into power through fraudulent elections (a “dirty game” played by the US and NATO). Needless to add, Joya is hardly sighted in the mainstream western media.
In some cities women’s conditions have slightly improved since the Taliban regime. But the situation was far better in the 1960s, says Joya, when Afghan women had more rights. Rapes, abductions, murders, violence, and forced marriages are increasing at an alarming rate. Women’s suicide rate is climbing in many provinces. “Afghanistan still faces a women’s rights catastrophe. Every aspect of life in Afghanistan today is tragic.” We are sandwiched between two enemies, the Taliban on one side and the US/NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other. The policy of the US government and its allies is to foster warlords and criminals, to marginalise and put pressure on progressive and democratic movements and individuals “out of fear that the latter will mobilise Afghan people against the occupation forces.”
And who were among America’s coalition partners in Operation Enduring Freedom, in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001? Among NATO countries, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Spain. Among non-NATO ones, Australia and Sweden.
Do the rulers of these European nations—visionaries of open-faced democracy—have the courage to face up to the facts, as enumerated by Malalai Joya? Hardly. They’d have to face up to other facts then: that the invasion was an obvious breach of international law, having not been authorised by the UN Security Council. That Afghanistan was not involved in the events of 9/11. That if the US government’s account is to be believed, 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, so why invade Afghanistan? That the Afghan government did not refuse to extradite Osama bin Laden, their offer was subject to conditions, which was unacceptable to the US administration. That the latter had not only supported the “Islamic terror network,” it was instrumental in installing the Taliban government (1995-96). That the politicians who arranged it, supported it, are liable to be tried as war criminals. And that, is quite a lot of facing up to do.
President Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan by sending 34,000 more troops; he has extended it to Pakistan by expanding the CIA-led killer drone campaign, because al-Qaeda—who had, according to Bush, committed “faceless” and “cowardly” acts—now operates in the border areas. But drone pilots do not `show’ their face. They are `hidden’ tens of thousands of miles away from the so-called battlefield, `concealed’ behind computer screens and remote audio-feed. There are no means of `identifying’ them personally.
But we too, would like to see their faces. We would like to see the face that’s doing the killing. Occupying forces are not `welcome’ either. Not on Afghan soil, nor on Iraq’s soil. For they bring with them a `massive attack’ on the rights of women, they make women and children prisoners in their own land. Their veil of rhetoric hides their `intentions.’
But may be `concealment’ is essential so that they can’t prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of the country in which they conduct targeted killings? May be they need to `hide’ their faces to avoid being prosecuted for violations of applicable US law? According to a news report, The Year of the Drone Strike, 2009, netted 5 actual militant leaders, killed 700 innocent civilians. What do these faceless killers teach us, the global public? That no face-saving gestures of European rulers can conceal their complicity in war crimes in Afghanistan (and Iraq)?
Ernest Hemingway had said, We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity (For Whom the Bell Tolls). Dignity? Do those who are `subservient’ to America’s military and economic interests, have any?
concluding instalment next week..
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