Johann Hari: Where is the support for Muslim women?

We have allowed this to be falsely presented as a fight between Muslims and the rest
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The Independent Online

Is it time to bunker down for an English-language remake of France's 2005 bonfire of the vanities, when more than 8,000 cars were blown up by enraged young Muslim men trapped in the concrete banlieues that circle Gallic cities? Are Bradford, Brick Lane and Leicester rumbling and ready to blow?

Trevor Phillips, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, was issuing this warning this weekend. He said the argument about the veil "should have been a proper conversation" but "seems to have been turned into the trial of a particular community," and "this could be the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago."

From my home in the middle of the Muslim East End - where the mood is taut and hypertense - this doesn't sound like fear-mongering. The lifting-the-veil furore of the past fortnight should have been an opportunity to shine light on to fractures within the Muslim community, and to show Muslim women who want equality that we are all on their side, willing them to win. Instead, it seems to have become a political Pandora's box, letting any old anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment spew out. It has made Muslim women feel not empowered but besieged and despised.

Let's rewind a fortnight, and see how this could have gone differently. Anybody who lives in a Muslim area knows that every day, thousands of women are in practice rebelling against misogynistic cultural practices that demand women cover their hair and - in extremis - their faces while men proudly display theirs. My friend Shazia Mirza, the great Muslim stand-up comedian, used to be a teacher here in Tower Hamlets, and she says girls "would arrive at school, peel off the hijab, put on make-up, and head down the pub to get pissed. They would snog their white boyfriends behind the staff room."

But Shazia adds, "I would look at them and feel so sad, because they are forced to live a double-life. Come 3.30 they put the hijab or even the veil back on and they're carted off to the mosque to rote-learn the Koran for three hours." In the building where I live, there are veiled women who seem amazed and relieved when you stop to have a chat with them - but then clam up when their husbands are around. The veil is only a visual symbol of this pre-feminist shut-up, cover-up culture within some parts of Islam.

These are the British women this debate should have been reaching. This argument could have been framed as an attempt to help them to make real choices for themselves, without intimidation from their fathers, brothers or husbands. True, there are a few determined women, mostly converts, who are so soaked in superstition they would still choose the veil, because they think it brings them closer to "God". That is their absolute right, just as it is my right to wear PVC hotpants in Sainsbury's. (No, don't puke - I mean it purely hypothetically.) But the number of women who will freely choose to be faceless is very small.

Yet instead of holding out a hand of support and the promise of real choice, Jack Straw launched this debate by talking about how veils made him feel "uncomfortable". This encouraged others to talk about how they find them "offensive" - exactly what fundamentalists say when they call for irrational prohibitions. This is the opposite of empowering talk. To the bullied Muslim women we need to reach, it made the rest of us sound like just another group of moralising men telling them what to do. It leaves them trapped in a pincer movement between men who will call them whores if they take the veil off and men who will call them freaks if they keep it on. Nobody seems to be offering the warm support they need.

Using government pressure to force women to peel off the veil has historically been hideously counter-productive. Under the Shah of Iran, the police were ordered to tear veils from Muslim women. The result? It fed the rise of the deranged Ayatollah Khomeini. Similarly, the only practical effect of this more moderate but misframed debate in Britain has been to bolster the ugliest fringes of Islamic fundamentalism and the likes of George Galloway, who at a rally just this weekend quoted a hard-line Muslim man who boasts that he "prefers the BNP who admit they hate us" to liberals who oppose the veil. This talk - and the swelling audience for it over the past fortnight - is making Phillips' warning of race riots sound prescient.

All along, there has been a real way to empower Muslim women to give up their veils - one that doesn't push Muslims to the brink of rioting. It is through a mass movement of liberated Muslim women taking the message of social, sexual and intellectual freedom to their sisters. If this sounds like pie in the sky, you just have to look across the English Channel.

Meet Fadela Amara. Born to Algerian immigrant parents in France in the 1960s, she spent her childhood cursing fundamentalist misogyny. She could not see why she was forced to do housework while her brothers lazed, or why she was reduced to begging her father for the smallest of freedoms. But she knew she was living in a free, democratic society where she could eventually challenge these stifling norms.

She explains: "My own France - a view shared by a great number of people from immigrant families - is the France of the Enlightenment, the France of the republic, of Marianne, of the Resistance. In short, the France of liberty, equality and fraternity."

As she grew, she realised it was not enough to challenge fundamentalism in her own home. In 2002 an 18-year-old girl from the banlieues called Sohan Benziane was burned to death by fundamentalists for being "loose". Fadela knew she had to act - in the name of Islam. With her friends, she launched a group called "Ni Putains, Ni Soumises" (Neither Whores Nor Doormats). They are now one of the most active Muslim groups in France, recently rallying 30,000 people to march on Paris. Some of their fights are small everyday acts of defiance: "Make-up has become war paint, a sign of resistance," Fadela explains, and the headscarf is "nothing more than a means of oppression emanating from a patriarchal society."

But they also provide Muslim women with a place to run to for education, contraception and safety. Their work was not enough to stop the banlieues from blowing up last year, but they were crucial in stopping it from happening over the ban on the hijab in schools, by showing that the argument about the veil was not against Islam but rather within Islam, between feminist Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims. We badly need a British equivalent, and there are dozens of heroic Muslim women who could launch it.

But for two weeks now, we have allowed this to be falsely presented as a fight between Muslims and The Rest. Trevor Phillips is right - much more of this, and the East End is going to look like a burning Brixton circa 1981.