Friday 23 September 2011
St Antony's College, University of Oxford
Coercion or Empowerment?
Official Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Middle East and Central Asia
The recent decision by the French National Assembly to ban the wearing
of the niqab (Muslim face-veil) in public has sparked an intense
controversy. Similar anti-niqab campaigns are taking place in a range
of European countries
The immense symbolic significance which the niqab, sometimes
mistakenly referred to as the burqa, has acquired, both for its
supporters and its opponents, is a marked feature of this controversy.
Both sides claim to speak for women's empowerment, but are divided by
issues of secularism versus religious belief, and identity versus integration.
Yet neither the anti-veiling campaigns in contemporary Europe, nor the
debates which rage around them, are new. They are strikingly
pre-figured by similar campaigns and debates which occurred across the
Islamic world in the early decades of the twentieth century,
particularly in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Although
these countries were ruled by very different regimes, in Turkey a
republican regime based on the army, modernizing monarchs, Reza Shah
and King Amanullah, in Iran and Afghanistan, and communist parties in
Central Asia, their anti-veiling campaigns bore profound similarities.
Whether communist or elite nationalist, all disliked what they viewed
as the reactionary forces of Islam and tradition, forces which they
equated and conflated, and all wished to create a new and modern
woman, unveiled, educated and integrated into the workforce.
These anti-veiling campaigns were everywhere presented as
emancipatory. However, they were conducted by regimes which were in
every sense authoritarian while the state's sponsorship of aggressive
and authoritarian anti-veiling campaigns led to an intense
politicization of the issue. Unveiling became a battleground on which
enemies of the regimes might mobilize a more general opposition. For
the secular elites, unveiling remained a signifier of modernity. For
their opponents, unveiling became symptomatic of a loss of cultural
integrity and a capitulation to European imperialism. Many also saw
unveiling as a deliberate attempt to weaken religious feeling, the
last means by which European power might be resisted.
The conference will look at these official anti-veiling campaigns in
the interwar Middle East and Central Asia from a comparative
historical perspective. It will examine as wide a range of historical
episodes as possible and draw conclusions about the nature,
objectives, achievements and failures of these campaigns, which have
such a striking contemporary resonance.
Please submit abstracts, of not more than 500 words, of proposed
papers to Stephanie Cronin: Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deadline for submissions 15th February 2011.