Interview with historian Oissila Saaidia, author of: “The “Islamic” Veils in Muslim and European Societies”
If we know only too well the passionate and noisy controversies that they have triggered in France for nearly 20 years, we know less, on the other hand, that the “affairs” of the Islamic veil were already fueling debates at the end of the 19th century. , not in the West, but in the East.
In his fascinating book ” “Islamic” veils in Muslim and European societies” (CERF editions), Oissila Saaidia, university professor in contemporary history at Lyon 2, highlights an unsuspected historical reality, while explaining why, for more than a century, the veil, hated by some, praised by others, has become a societal issue. First within the Muslim world itself, before being in Europe.
Graduated from the University in history and with a degree in Arabic, Oissila Saaidia relies, among other things, on the points of view of several veiled women, in the East and in the West, to paint a great enriching historical fresco, a thousand miles from the paroxysmal controversies. She agreed to answer Umma’s questions.
There have already been several works dealing with the question of the veil. How did you choose to approach this particularly sensitive issue?
Indeed, there have already been several books, some of great scientific quality, others more controversial, on this issue. I have chosen, for my part, to rethink its chronology, starting from the end of the 19th century and not from 1989, as is very often the case with reference to the Creil affair, and by broadening the geography because, generally, this subject is considered on the scale of France.
However, the debate was born in Muslim societies at the end of the 19th century, before it became a social issue, at the end of the 1980s, in Europe.
What do the Koran and the hadiths specifically say or enjoin on wearing the veil?
The historian that I am is not interested in “the” meaning of religious texts, but in the way in which they have been understood over time, according to places and different theologians.
Indeed, no text “speaks” in a unique way: it is always the object of interpretations and the Koranic passages, just like the hadiths, do not escape this rule. From the end of the 19th century, two currents emerged, to put it simply: that which considers that women must be veiled, and that which considers that veiling is not an obligation.
Remember that at the time only city women wore veils and that the latter were of great diversity.
You state in your book that the question of the veil has been debated in the Muslim world for more than a century, long before it became a social issue, even an obsession in France and in certain Western countries. Why and what resulted?
It is appropriate to place this debate in a broader framework, which is that of the various projects of societies which are discussed in a context of European imperialism and the reform of Islam.
The question raised is that of the place of women in the various societal projects, the purpose of which is to free themselves from colonial domination. For the “traditionalists”, women are the guardians of traditions and their place is therefore within the family universe, at home; for the “modernists”, there was no question of depriving themselves of one half of society and women had to participate in this new project, thus getting out of a double constraint: that of the house and that of the veil. There are of course intermediate positions and the terms of the debate then evolve.
This was translated on the political level either by bans on the wearing of the veil, as in Turkey or Tunisia, or by obligations to wear it as in Iran or Saudi Arabia, throughout the 20th century.
The title of one of the chapters of your book raises the question: “The Islamic veil: a French passion?” How do you explain that this subject, for more than a decade, has unleashed passions and often overshadows major socio-economic issues, especially during elections?
One of the possible explanations would lie in the fact that throughout its history, our country has had difficulty in managing pluralism and religious diversity.
The Republic was built in opposition to the Catholic Church, and secularization in France was coupled with a process of secularization. Religion has gradually been erased from public space. The veil is a “French passion”, because it reactivates something rooted in our history, we who have built our republican model, among others, against the Catholic Church.
In addition, he encounters another “French passion”, school, with the debates on the wearing of the veil in the school environment. Some foreign countries find it difficult to understand the importance of this issue for us. For example in the United States, where religious pluralism is one of the foundations of the country: the wearing of the veil is a non-subject there.
You write that wearing the veil in France, Algeria or Iran has different meanings. What are they ?
To these different spaces that you mention, we could also add different historical periods and above all different veils.
Thus in Algeria, until the 1970s, women who veiled themselves did not wear the hijab but, in Algiers, the haiq and, in Constantine, the mlayya ; the overwhelming majority of them are married women and city dwellers. Today, they can live in town or in the countryside and are not all married.
In the same way, I have not, for my part, seen any non-pubescent girl in the Maghreb wearing the hijab, yet this is the case in Cambodia, within the Cham populations, or even in Tanzania where little girls wear the hijab from the age of 4.
As far as Iran is concerned, another parameter must be taken into consideration: it is a question of a legal obligation disputed by certain women from the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a dispute which continues until today. today.
For nearly two decades, in France, women who wear the veil have put forward religious reasons and/or invoke human rights; but we must not overlook those who are under direct pressure or forms of social coercion.
However, my remarks alone cannot consider the multiple meanings of the veil: there are as many reasons to wear the veil as there are women who wear it, and their position can change over the course of a lifetime.
How to overcome in France, but also in the Muslim world, these two predominant reading grids of the veil: those who perceive it as being an invasion of the public space and those who seek to appropriate it by leaving the private sphere?
I consider that it is up to the social sciences to analyze these different discourses, and not to formulate “solutions”. As a historian, I am able to foresee… the past, but not the future. However, I think that in the coming decades, this divide will be overcome because other societal issues will eclipse the subject and the generational factor is set to play a central role in this process.
Indeed, young people in their twenties have a much more plural vision of society, whether on the veil or on other issues, such as gender, and their concerns are not those of those over 50 years…
Comments collected by the Oumma editorial staff