Tag Archives: niqab

On “Barbaric Cultural Practices”

According to the most systematic early study of the subject in cultural anthropology, “barbaric cultural practices” include:

  • the invention or practice of the art of pottery
  • the domestication of animals
  • the cultivation of maize and plants by irrigation
  • the use of adobe-brick and stone in house building
  • the process of smelting iron ore

So said Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1877 book Ancient Society, the most comprehensive account of the world’s societies using an evolutionist theoretical framework. Morgan’s account had the older, middle, and later periods of barbarism sandwiched between the older, middle, and later periods of savagery, which were lower down on the evolutionary ladder, and the “status of civilization” at the top, defining all of these largely in technological terms. The various barbarians, therefore, included the ancient Britons, some of the indigenous peoples of North and South America, certain tribes of the Eastern hemisphere, as well as “the Grecian tribes of the Homeric Age, the Italian tribes shortly before the founding of Rome, and the Germanic tribes of the time of Caesar” (Morgan 1877: 11).

As an anthropologist and educator, I am very happy that the Conservative Party here in Canada has chosen to devote valuable time during an election campaign to promoting the history of anthropology by its renewed emphasis on the campaign trail of “barbaric cultural practices”, its abhorrence of them, and its commitment to their eradication, even promising to set up an RCMP tip line for Canadians to report any such practices undertaken by their neighbours. I saw my neighbour smelting iron ore in his adobe-brick house just the other day, so I will be sure to call. It’s a small price to pay to live in a free and secure society.

The Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act (Bill S-7), however, was not introduced with these kinds of practices in mind—if so, the Prime Minister would have had the Canadian Federation of Agriculture outside his office in a heartbeat. Instead, it had in its sights a range of “cultural practices” that were already illegal under the Criminal Code, like polygamy and honour killings (otherwise known as “murder”). Regardless of the efficacy or need for that particular legislation, however, the notion of “barbaric cultural practices” has recently reared its ugly head again, this time in reference to something as sinister as the smelting of iron ore: the niqab, and a Muslim woman who wants to wear it during her citizenship ceremony. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander used a range of rhetorical strategies in this context: standing up for something called “Canadian values”; “protecting” Muslim women; and conflating the separate issues of wearing the niqab, “barbaric cultural practices” more generally, and the revocation of citizenship of convicted terrorists. This conflation of issues is dangerous because of the implicit and explicit dot-connecting that is being done or encouraged: that is, that women wearing the niqab are representative of a group of Canadian citizens or prospective citizens who are linked to terrorism. The scientific terms for this kind of thing are “dog-whistle politics” and “wedge politics”, whereby a divisive cultural issue is used to divide a population for political gain, quietly stirring the pot to get a reaction.

As this is a blog devoted to anthropology and anthropological issues, I will leave it to others to discuss the politics of all of this. But there is much here of anthropological interest. It is not every day that the term “barbaric cultural practices” is so prominent in public discourse, a term that fairly begs for some analysis.

I am not a scholar of Islam or of gender issues; but some basic background information on the niqab seems called for. Most introductory anthropology textbooks include some information on the practice of purdah, the veiling and seclusion of women practiced by both Muslims and Hindus. According to John Bodley, purdah “means ‘curtain’ or ‘veil’ and refers to the physical separation of the living spaces used by men and women, as well as the actual veiling of a woman’s face and body” (2005: 311). Purdah varies substantially from one society to another in terms of how strictly seclusion is enforced, and through which exact means. In terms of manner of dress, there is a similarly wide range, from the burqa (a garment that covers the entire head, face, and body), through the niqab (where the lower face is covered but the eyes are visible), the chador (a cloak covering the head and body but leaving the face exposed), to the hijab (a term referring to any modest covering worn by a Muslim women, but usually referring to a head scarf).

When I teach my 1st-year students about cultural relativism, I emphasize that it is not the same as moral relativism or moral nihilism, and that it does not mean that anthropologists do not make judgements about cultural practices and adopt a “live-and-let-live” approach to cultural difference. I tell my students that cultural relativism as an anthropological principle is about an analytical process of at least temporarily suspending judgement for the purpose of obtaining an informed and contextualized understanding of cultural practices. In some cases, that contextualized understanding may indeed result in the anthropologist deciding that a personal moral or ethical judgement on the matter is not required or appropriate; in other cases, the anthropologist may feel compelled to pass judgement, but he or she is able to do so, in part, because of the informed and contextualized understanding that cultural relativism enabled. It is also a discussion that inevitably emphasizes the complexity and multivalency of cultural practices and beliefs, and that it is rare indeed to make unqualified judgements. In the case of the niqab debate, the purdah in its various forms clearly contributes to institutionalized inequalities based on gender, but it is also a part of a whole complex of beliefs about the division of labour, economic interdependence, dangers to which women may be subjected, and notions of honour, modesty, respect, and shame (Bodley 2005: 312). A detailed study of purdah in all its forms may still yield up the interpretation that it is a form of “oppression against women”, but at least this would be an interpretation based on a contextualized understanding of the data, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction.

I also teach my students that one of anthropology’s unique contributions to the liberal arts is a methodology based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation, which can provide insights into the human condition that other methods cannot. So, with the debate swirling about the niqab and other “barbaric cultural practices”, I was quickly drawn to one ethnography on my bookshelf that considers these matters in elegant detail: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. What lessons about veiling among Bedouin women in Egypt might help to inform this debate from a uniquely anthropological perspective?

Abu-Lughod describes Bedouin social hierarchies and inequalities in terms of a “moral discourse of honour and modesty” whereby “maleness is associated with autonomy and femaleness with dependency” (Abu-Lughod 1986: 118). She notes that agnatic descent, virilocal postmarital residence, and the control of resources by males form part of a larger social system that underscores this ideology, but indicates that the association of femininity with reproduction, menstruation, and sexuality as a powerful cultural force driving women’s social behaviour, including manner of dress. The practice of veiling is not a cultural isolate, but is one element among many in Bedouin society whereby the realms of male and female are differentiated in terms of social value. Abu-Lughod describes both Bedouin men and women expressing a preference for sons over daughters (ibid.: 119-23); she notes a “natural” basis for female inferiority in Bedouin values and beliefs concerning fertility, and the inherent tension between fertility (which is socially valued) and sexuality and menstruation (which are not) (ibid.: 124-30). These beliefs also relate to Muslim religious practice, in that men and postmenopausal women can pray regularly and demonstrate their piety, whereas menstruating women are not allowed to enter a mosque or touch the Koran (ibid.: 130).

A visible manifestation of Bedouin gender ideologies and hierarchies is the traditional garb worn by adult women of a black veil and a red belt. Marriage and the onset of sexual activity are, for Bedouin women, supposed to commence concurrently, and this is marked by newly-married women immediately beginning to wear the black headcloth (which is also used as a veil) and a red wooden belt. Both are laden with symbolism. The red belt is associated with fertility, and some kind of belt is required for girls from the onset of puberty; going without a belt, reports Abu-Lughod, is considered shameful and indecent because it implies that the woman is “ready for anything” (ibid.: 136). The headcloth, as everywhere in the Muslim world, is associated with modesty, and Abu-Lughod points out that Bedouin men also cover their heads. While white is a colour associated with religion and purity, black has negative connotations (ibid.: 137).

Abu-Lughod explores veiling practices partly through an interpretation of the Bedouin concept of hasham, which she says “lies at the heart of ideas of the individual in society” (ibid.: 105). Meaning “propriety”, but also related to words meaning “modesty”, “shame”, and “shyness”, Abu-Lughod writes that “hasham involves both feelings of shame in the company of the more powerful and the acts of deference that arise from these feelings” (ibid.: 107). Hasham is linked to another term, ‘agl, which she defines as “the social sense and self-control of honourable persons” (ibid.: 108), in that Bedouin society values a person’s abilities to control their actions, but also to perceive their place in the social order and act accordingly—including especially acting with hasham (tahashsham). Abu-Lughod describes hasham as “the sine qua non of virtuous womanhood” and states that describing a woman as one who tahashashams is a great compliment (ibid.: 152). The display of sexual modesty in the presence of males who are considered superiors is a way of showing respect for the social system more generally (ibid.: 157), an interpretation that Abu-Lughod justifies by examining the fact that veiling is “voluntary and situational” (ibid.: 159). Women only begin veiling upon marriage (as marriage is itself associated with the onset of sexual activity), but older women who are not sexually active veil less often. Women veil for certain categories of their male kin (fathers, elder uncles, lineage elders, elder cousins) but not others (younger brothers, husbands, or dependents of their husbands) (ibid.: 161-2). Abu-Lughod also states that the system is flexible, with women making their own judgements about whether or not to veil and to negotiate social status through these actions (ibid.: 163). In concluding her discussion, Abu-Lughod writes:

“Veiling…is best understood as a vocabulary item in a symbolic language for communicating about morality… sexuality is the most potent threat to the patrilineal, patricentered system and to the authority of those who uphold it, namely, senior agnates, and women are those most closely identified with sexuality through their reproductive activities. Therefore, to show respect for that social order and the people who represent it, women must deny their sexuality. They do so by denying sexual interests—avoiding and acting uninterested in men, dressing modestly so as not to draw attention to their sexual charms, and veiling. By distancing themselves from sexuality and its antisocial associations, they escape moral stigma and gain the only kind of honor open to them: modesty, the honour of voluntary deference, which is the moral virtue of dependents in Bedouin society.

Morality is by definition voluntary. As with forced obedience, the modesty of women coerced into seclusion or into veiling would be worthless, both to the women and to those whose status is validated by the deference they receive from their dependents. Hasham cannot be forced; others can only suggest that a particular situation is a context in which one should feel shame and act modestly. A person with ‘agl, or social sense, a person who wants to be good, will tahashsham when it is appropriate” (ibid.: 165).

Abu-Lughod’s “thick description” of Bedouin veiling practices need not be used to “convince” anyone to alter their own opinion of the suite of cultural practices falling under the umbrella of purdah, and Abu-Lughod does not try to deny that veiling is part of a system of social inequality based on gender. What such detailed ethnographic accounts should do, however, is encourage us to pause for the contextual understanding of unfamiliar cultural practices, and to realize that they are always embedded in wide-ranging, complex, and nuanced values and beliefs. It is incredibly simplistic, unsophisticated, and ethnocentric to merely attach the label “barbaric cultural practice” to the wearing of the niqab without seeking to understand it more fully.

A plea for a more contextualized understanding of cultural practices (“barbaric” or otherwise), however, is not the only contribution anthropology can make to this debate. Anthropological perspectives have also been brought to bear on the social practices and cultural values surrounding the public debates about the niqab and other varieties of purdah in Western European societies—otherwise known by the term “anthropology as cultural critique”.

French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray describes “headscarf hysteria” as a type of political hysteria, in which a community substitutes a fictional problem, “which can be mediated purely through words and symbols”, in place of a more substantive problem which it finds insurmountable (Terray 2004: 118); he notes quite correctly that anthropologists have explained non-Western magical practices in the same way, as calling upon invisible powers to defend themselves against that which they cannot control. Debates in France about the Muslim headscarf in the early 2000s, culminating in legislation banning them in February 2004, bear a striking similarity to the Conservative Party’s stance on the niqab. Terry points out the the real, substantial social problems—the “breakdown of integration” between the Muslim community and the wider French society, and the slowdown or stagnation of equalization between the sexes (ibid.: 120)—proved themselves to be beyond the capabilities or imagination of the political class. So, in an act of political hysteria, this political class focused instead on “a fictive problem that can be solved purely in terms of discourse and symbols” (ibid.: 121): that is, the Muslim headscarf. Despite a tiny proportion of France’s population actually wearing the headscarf, it was elevated to an issue of major national significance requiring a 20-person commission to investigate, with virtually no sustained attention giving to solving the real problems of discrimination and exclusion. Terray identifies a two-part tactic that applies equally well to the Conservative Party’s discourse about the niqab: “Firstly, a principle is invoked to which one attributes an absolute, universal value. Secondly, and in short order, its application is essentially limited to schoolgirls’ headgear, to the exclusion of virtually all other objects and occasions” (ibid.: 124).

In our case here in Canada at the present moment, the Conservatives have also invoked principles of universal value, namely “Canadian values” (as if such things are easily defined and widely shared), the “protection of women”, and “national security”; but then these values are focused entirely on a woman wanting to wear a niqab at her citizenship ceremony. According to Terray’s analysis, this process then allows the government to pretend to be dealing with the problems, when in fact avoiding them or denying them. In this case, questions can be legitimately asked about the government’s track record over the past decade on women’s issues and the funding of women’s support services, on their response to an epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and on undermining the values that many Canadians share through their obsessive focus on “national security”. All that apparently matters is that the current “niqab hysteria” be made to last until voters cast their ballots on October 19th.

Anthropological attention has also been brought to bear on similar issues about the face-veil in the Netherlands. Although only 0.002% of the Dutch population wears the face-veil, it has been the focus of considerable attention, debate, and parliamentary action to ban it (Moors 2009: 393). Moors writes of the “culturalization of citizenship” that highlights the tensions inherent in the contrast between “nation” (an imagined community who share feelings of national belonging)  and “state” (an entity based on territorial sovereignty and a social contract with its citizens)—particularly, the tension inherent in some citizens of the state being marginalized from the nation (ibid.: 394). As a result of international events and the rise of right-wing political parties, public discourse and state policies in the Netherlands have become more assimilationist, “placing increasingly high demands on Muslims to prove their belonging to the nation and their loyalty to the state” (ibid.: 395). Notably, Dutch politicians used very familiar language, discussing the burqa in terms of women’s oppression and their perception of standards of behaviour appropriate to Dutch society, and also used a highly affective register of feelings and emotions. Moors notes that politicians’ arguments “are variants of the colonial trope of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman’ who needs to be saved by an enlightened Western government from the pressures her male kin, husband, or the Muslim community at large exert on her” (ibid.: 402). The Dutch politicians also invoked tropes of national security  and the idea that those who choose to remain anonymous in public must be considered potential suspects in criminal acts. Moors concludes that the debate over face-veiling was a case of media hype created by politicians themselves, using highly affective discourse as a tool of national bonding, but barely disguising their own feelings of discomfort, resentment, and anger (ibid.: 406-7).

A final word should go back to Lila Abu-Lughod and her article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others”. Examining the American intervention in Afghanistan and its justification on the grounds of saving Afghan women, Abu-Lughod is unwilling to allow cultural relativism to be used as a “free pass”. She indicates that much discourse in the aftermath of 9/11, by focusing on the “culture” of the Middle East as an explanation for what was going on there, was thereby absolved from the detailed scrutiny of “the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history” (Abu-Lughod 2002: 784). The contextual understanding of cultural difference, which I advocated above, is not enough in itself, and we must be especially attentive to broader patterns of global interconnections. She notes that a range of range of cultural practices (of the kind the Conservative Party would call “barbaric”) are invoked for political gain using the familiar trope of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (ibid.), also noting that such “selective concern” about the plight of Muslim women, focusing on veiling practices, frequently stands in contrast to other, much more substantive reforms that could improve women’s rights in society. Abu-Lughod also refers to Hanna Papanek’s description of the burqa as “portable seclusion”, a potentially liberating cultural practice enabling women to leave segregated living spaces while still abiding by their notions of morality, and asks why we should expect Muslim women to simply throw off their burqas (or niqabs) and suddenly choose immodesty, especially when we have in our own society very clear standards of dress for particular social contexts (ibid.: 785). In the end, Abu-Lughod argues against “the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom”, and that “we must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing” (ibid.: 786).

Abu-Lughod leaves the reader with some thought-provoking questions:

“Can we only free Afghan [Muslim] women to be like us or might we have to recognize that even after ‘liberation’ from the Taliban, they might want different things than we would want them? What do we do about that?… we need to be vigilant about the rhetoric of saving people because of what it implies about our attitudes… What I am advocating is the hard work involved in recognizing and respecting differences—precisely as products of different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, and as manifestations of differently structured desires. We may want justice for women, but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envisions best? We must consider that they might be called to personhood, so to speak, in a different language” (ibid.: 787-8).

What Abu-Lughod suggests here is equally applicable to all invocations of cultural difference for political gain. We need to be open to the contextual understanding of cultural difference as an essential first step toward an informed positioning in public discourse, but we cannot let our cultural relativism or the politician’s cynicism and opportunism distract us from the more substantive issues at stake. Canada has played (and continues to play) an active part in Western military interventions in the Middle East. Canada has an increasingly bad track record on a range of women’s issues here at home. Both of these fundamental facts point to complex structural issues at the global and national levels, issues that require serious and level-headed debate and, in at least some cases, substantive reform. The invocation of “barbaric cultural practices” is not only anthropologically naive, but a distraction from issues that really matter.

References Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2002. Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. American Anthropologist 104(3): 783-90.

Bodley, John H. 2005. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. 4th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Moors, Annelies. 2009. The Dutch and the Face-Veil: The Politics of Discomfort. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 17(4): 393-408.

Terray, Emmanuel. 2004. Headscarf Hysteria. New Left Review 26 (March-April 2004): 118-27.