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Two weeks ago, Pauline Hanson, leader of the right-wing One Nation party, walked into the Australian Senate wearing a black burqa to protest Islamic face veils in Australia. The move was instantly condemned by political leaders, media pundits, and celebrities. Now, a female Arab scholar is hitting back on critics, saying the face veil is a symbol of a totalitarian ideology and deserves to be discussed as such.
“While I understand that this stunt is not meant to defend women’s rights, it’s very important that we don’t lose the bigger picture just because we don’t like the political ideas of her party,” Elham Manea said in a radio interview with Andrew West on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Manea is an associate professor of political science at the University of Zürich whose research focuses on women’s rights and Islamism. Manea said that face veils are a potent symbol of Islamism, a theo-political movement she called totalitarian, anti-democratic and anti-human.
The 51-year-old Swiss-Yemeni scholar further argues that the face veil is not Islamic but rather a traditional practice from the Najd region of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism originated in the 18th century. Wahhabism, also called Salafism, is a fundamentalist and austere sect of Sunni Islam based on the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. It is the state religion in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and is practiced by a minority of Muslims around the world.
Since the Gulf oil boom of the 1960s, Saudi Arabia has spent significant state resources in spreading Wahhabism through religious institutions, mosques, clerics and the distribution of religious books and tracts. According to a 2004 report by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, it is estimated that from 1973 to 2002, Saudi Arabia spent around $87 billion on these efforts. Manea views the profiliteration of the face veil as a natural consequence of the spread of this Islamic sect. She vehemently rejects the notion that critically analyzing the niqab or burqa is anti-Muslim.
Immediately after Pauline Hanson’s stunt on August 17, Attorney General George Brandis condemned Hanson and cautioned her against offending Australian Muslims. Labor Senate leader, Penny Wong, further described wearing the garment as a “sincere act of faith.” While Manea strongly disagrees with Hanson’s political views, she found Brandis and other politicians naive and patronizing. She urged them to examine the issue within the larger cultural and religious structures that perpetuate face veils. According to Manea, promoters of Islamic face coverings essentially teach Muslim women that in order to be pious, they “have to cease to exist as a human being on the outside.”
Controversially, Manea also views the more common hijab, or headscarf, as operating in the same ideological continuum as the face veil. She has previously critiqued the Women’s March for its use of an illustration of a chador-clad woman to promote gender justice and equality. In an interview with The American Spectator, Manea acknowledged the diversity of reasons Muslim women veil, but said that this does not negate nor eliminate the veil’s role as an instrument in Islamism. “The control of women, their social behavior and imposing a dress code are all part of the fundamentalists’ worldview,” she said. “In fact, it is clearly articulated within the literature of all major Islamist ideologues.” She cited the writings of Muslim Brotherhood thinkers Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, Jamaat-i-Islami founder, Abul Ala Mawdudi and Iranian revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as examples.
Manea, who is also a member of the Swiss federal agency for women’s affairs, has spent much of her professional life researching the impact of Islamism on women’s rights. In Women and Shari‘a Law, her latest book released in 2016, Manea conducted field research in the U.K. to observe how Muslim women and children were affected by Shari‘a councils, which operate legally under the Arbitration Act 1996. She concluded that parallel religious legal systems, even when optional, perpetuate social divisions and leave women in particular open to discriminatory rulings that are otherwise illegal in civil law.
Listen to Elham Manea’s interview with Andrew West on ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report.
Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University, studying Islamism and its intersection with women’s issues. Follow him on Twitter here.