In the photo illustrating her latest book, Djemila Benhabib has a sparkling eye, the eye of challenge. In fact, it is in the title: “Islamophobia, my eye” (Kennes Editions). A lucid look at this political scam that forbids free criticism of Islam. The essayist has herself paid the price, being dragged before the courts in Quebec on several occasions for her courageous interventions against obscurantism. Djemila, who is named after a beautiful site in Algeria, dear to Albert Camus (“The Wind at Djemila”), grew up in this beautiful and bloody country until she was exiled to France in 1994 after being sentenced to death by the GIA, the armed Islamic groups. She was barely 22 years old. Since then, she has been fighting, leading her life “Against the Koran”, the title of the book that has earned her the most admiration and hatred.
Yesterday in Montreal, today in Belgium, Djemila Benhabib belongs to the vast circle of women from Islamic lands who dare to say no. It seems to me that I have always known them, whether they were born in Tehran, Algiers, Tunis, Karachi, Casablanca, Baghdad, Istanbul or Cairo. I am forgetting, of course, cities and profiles. It also seems to me that I have always been writing about them, writing about their writings. The list of their names would fill a new book and we could call it: “Golden list of women who said no”.
The first one I discovered, a long time ago, was called Nawal el-Saadawi. A great Egyptian feminist who died recently. She was the first to fight against female circumcision, which still affects hundreds of thousands of little girls on the banks of the Nile. And against the veil. The veil, the refusal of which still gets Iranian women imprisoned for daring to brandish it in public at the end of a stick to demonstrate their revolt.
It seems, say noisy followers of voluntary submission in France, that one can be free while wearing it. Pseudo-feminists weave this into the argument of an Islamo-compatible ideology that enjoins us to respect a rag that is supposed to embody sacred modesty. Faced with this misuse, Djemila Benhabib insists: “I refuse to lie about what I have experienced. I know that the advance of Islamic veils is the retreat of democracy and the negation of women. I know that political Islam is not a simple fundamentalist movement, but a totalitarian political movement whose aim is to swallow the world after swallowing democracy”.
Yet, as surprising as it may seem, the heirs of Nawal el-Saadawi, the companions of Djemila Benhabib, the admirers of Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, or of her colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh, Sakharov Prize in 2012, imprisoned by the ayatollahs for her defence of women and children, released and then reincarcerated, do not have the same right to media visibility as the women who are quick to jump on any available microphone.
Of course, some of them are invited, but there has been a general hesitation for two generations about their “representativeness”. This suspicious behaviour affects all secularists from elsewhere. Thus, the followers of the hijab – literally the curtain – have gradually imposed their wardrobe on certain electoral posters as well as on fashion catalogues. Just yesterday, an email from a reputable British brand suggested a spring “modesty look”, dotted with modest, trendy scarves. This prompted my immediate unsubscription.
Alas, all you have to do is go to Saint-Denis – where Djemila Benhabib, her father and their friends had brazenly founded an “Observatory of Secularism” – to disguise yourself as a perfect “404 bâchée”, as the Algerians used to call Islamist women. The grim truth is that we have made no progress whatsoever in the general perception of anti-feminist obscurantism. Rather than highlighting women of Muslim culture who chose a destiny free from collective diktat, we have privileged militants who sprinkle their reactionary, communitarian and bigoted discourse with lying invocations of freedom of expression.
The response came too late and hardened the positions until the last days of the presidential campaign. Djemila Benhabib rightly believes that the ban on the veil in the public space, advocated by Marine le Pen, would only reinforce the impact of Islamism on weak minds. From now on, the only possible policy will be to give a voice to those who dare to be free.
“Islamophobia, my eye”, by Djemila Benhabib, Kennes Editions, Loverval, Belgium, April 2022.