Sonja Eggerickx, President of IHEU, spoke at a seminar held in London on 8 March 2007 to mark International Women’s Day. The text of her speech is available here, or you can view a video.
The seminar, on Islam, Women’s Rights and the Veil, was co-sponsored by IHEU member organizations the National Secular Society and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association together with the International Campaign in Defence of Women’s Rights in Iran. It was packed to the doors by people wanting to hear from a group of exceptionally courageous women who are standing up for their rights against a controlling and often violent religious establishment.
To veil or not to veil: is that the question?
I am an atheist and that is the reason why I have difficulties to understand why people believe that a god, whatever his (mind: never her!) name is, written with a capital or not, would bother about how people dress. But then, I am a humanist as well and in that perspective I am convinced that people should make decisions for themselves and if they want to wear a veil, a hat, a wig, a hairpin or just showing their hair, well they have the right to do so. What is more: I am a longtime feminist and as a result I am convinced that women in particular are just human beings and should make sure to follow their own will and not submit to men’s rules according to women’s life.
For years I was sure that it was not important what you wore, that the only really fundamental question is: how do you act? How do you go on with your own life?
I confess: I doubt of the rightness of this.
When the French government banned the veils from the schools, there was a lot of protest coming from different fronts. Of course there were also a lot of approvals, also coming from very different sides. And – as a critical person – I tried to listen to every reason and to make up my mind. And again I was left without a definitive answer.
For the first time though, I learned the reactions and the opinions of Moslima’s who were against the veil, and more reactions of ex-Moslima’s and women who lived in a Muslim country. And I got more convinced that the veil should be banned, at least for children and young girls. In theory I still am, but in practice I am still in doubt…
It looks easier for grown-ups. Western woman that I am, I reason that they know what they do when wearing a veil. Of course this is not completely true. I mean: they know what they do, but one cannot underestimate the impact of social pressure, social control. And that can be very strong. When I started teaching at the end of the sixties, it was absolutely not done for female teachers to wear trousers while teaching, and there was an unwritten rule that when it was very cold, they could wear them to go to school, but change there into a skirt. And we did, even me who was rather rebellious against the establishment. I remember the first time that I didn’t change and I simply forgot to bring my skirt- and the comments of the school head and some of my colleagues! That was rather unpleasant and luckily it was the time that a new generation of feminists stood up for their rights and made it possible that we could dress the way we wanted. What I want to say is that those trousers or that skirt were not important on itselves but they became a symbol of our own will. Nobody shall tell us what we have to wear!
I do agree, wearing a skirt was not a religious rule but there was social pressure and priests and other catholics condemned the fact that women behaved in a “manly way” and they were strong in those days in my country. The veil is seen as an expression of faith. In a secular society, there should be room for everybody, without any religious system to set the rules. I am a complete supporter of that idea but does this mean that we should hide our convictions for ourselves? Dear me, I would be very unhappy to shut up about mine! It is only by listening to different opinions that I eventually will change mine. And it is very important to keep in mind that my opinions may not harm other people’s rights. At the same level I expect others to listen to my thoughts and eventually change theirs.
As it is no longer possible to have one opnion, one religion, to rule the rest of society, it is important to look for minimal common values, norms and of course laws. And although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a Western product, I think that it can be used as that minimum statement. And a religious rule can never come over the national law. We do defend the rules of an individual to choose a religion and to follow the rules of it and wear a veil, but we do not give those rights to religions as such. So we do not defend the right to religions to control the lives of their members. But were do all those thoughts lead me?
I can go on for hours, and I will not do so of course, to look for pro’s and contra’s.
What is important for the emancipation of women? What is important for their liberation?
I think that we shouldn’t – by no means – underestimate the role of education. It is important that all children go to a good school where all children are treated equally. Schools where you don’t need to pay a fortune to be accepted, schools where children of all origins are admitted. Not religious schools, schools where children go to learn sciences, a broad range of literature, where they learn to know and respect each others worlds and backgrounds. Schools where they learn that THE TRUTH (in capitals) doesn’t exist, that we have to be curious, that we have to be prepared to change our opinion, our knowledge, in view of new discoveries. A place also where we learn how to discover knowledge, how to react against fundamentalism of all sorts, a laboratory where children learn to live together, whatever the differences might be.
If governments would organise this sort of schools, the need of banning veils from schools by law, would vanish. And what is more: less women would accept second plan roles in society.
It has been the same in history and all over the world: all means were good to keep women in inferior positions. And of course religion is an easy way to do so but let’s not forget that political systems are not necessarily better. Just one example: the glorification of motherhood in Nazi Germany was immens! There were special awards for mothers with many children, especially sons, as they would be the soldiers of the third reich! And of course they were needed to maintain that terrible regime; they needed soldiers to replace the fallen ones!
Not long ago I was in India and at a meeting I heard a man who said that it was important for the Indians to keep their traditions alive. He wouldn’t be happy if all Indian women and girls would become like Western ones. I could understand that of course. But then he gave his image of Western women: they wear short skirts, and dance and sing in a bar. I told him that his image was not very accurate and tried to give a more realistic portrait. But at the same time I defended the right for women and girls to wear short skirts and sing and dance.
Afterwards I realised that this was not the point. Indeed the Indian man sat there in what we could call Western clothes, while he was telling Indian women that they should wear Indian sari’s. Why would it be different for women and a danger to traditions when girls wear jeans? And why is it different for men?
Why are women judged on their appearance much more frequently than men? Why is the way they look so important even if they are doing what is normally considered as “important things”? In my –progressive!- newspaper there was a photo on the frontpage of Ségolène Royal, the woman-candidate for the French presidency, together with Angela Merkel, the German first minister. And the comment was not only that it was an important meeting politically, but also that there was a big style difference between the two and it was made clear that it was about how they look. I never read that under a photo of say Blair and Bush.
As long as men are the leaders, not only in politics but surely in religions, women will be suppressed. In all religions women are considered inferior to men. Sometimes some women are worshipped because they are such good examples. They are given indirectly the burden of all that goes wrong in the world as they are responsible for education. All I know is that indeed we should convince women all over the world to become less submitted and to liberate themselves.
If it is true that women should cover their bodies because men’s flesh is so weak, well then maybe it is time now to lock men into our houses. They can do the household, educate the children and leave the house only blindfolded. Of course I don’t want that, but I wonder what they would think of that solution.
It is true that a woman with a veil can feel free. Who am I to deny it? It is true that clothes can express where you belong to and that you can be proud of it. Ask English boys at Eton College what they think of wearing the same uniform as of an ordinary school!
Of course what about school uniforms in general? Aren’t they cutting down the personality of youngsters? Isn’t it important for them to search for an own style? Where is their autonomy? Where is the autonomy of the individual following the fashion? Where is the autonomy of people who wear the same sort of clothes to belong to subgroups?
What I want to say is that to wear the veil as such is not important, it is the hidden agenda behind it which is dangerous. And women should be aware of that. It is a symbol and society has to help us to make real choices. It should provide all human beings with good education in a way that men and women can live together as equals!
So indeed, the question is not to veil or not to veil. The question is: what are we going to do against inequality.
To read the rest, go to:
To listen to the speeches:
Taslima Nasreen: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-2435695788243220513
Maryam Namazie: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=5149622472089905265
Mina Ahadi: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=1062474811093542856
Sonia Eggerickx: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-2894694896679414114
Ann Harrison: http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=-3644932433134436242
Maryam Namazie’s response to whether it has to do with Islam and racism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3iSlPgrvdU