False Consciousness

So here’s Nawal El Sadaawi, saying the demonstrations of women against the French proposal to ban the hijab are a ‘signal example of how “false consciousness” makes women enemies of their freedom, enemies of themselves, an example of how they are used in the political game being played by the Islamic fundamentalist movement in its bid for power.’ I have noticed repeatedly that a lot of Westerners who oppose the ban have an unpleasant (to put it mildly) tendency to accuse supporters and semi-supporters of racism and colonialist ways of thinking – as if there were total unanimity among people of Muslim background. But of course there isn’t. Far from it. Of course many Muslims and people of Muslim background are strongly opposed to the ban, but there are also many who favour it. For reasons which El Sadaawi makes admirably clear.

False consciousness makes women obedient instruments of their own oppression, and transmitters of this false consciousness to future generations of children, of girls and boys. It is lethal because what it does to women’s minds is not visible. Unlike physical female genital mutilation it is an invisible gender mutilation which destroys the dynamism, the capacity to understand what is happening, to react and resist, to change, to participate in making changes. It destroys the essential creativity of the human mind. It instills fear, obedience, resignation, illusions, an inability to decide or else it leads women to make decisions, to take positions, to defend values and ideas inimical to their own interests, to the health and development of their life. It makes women their own enemy, incapable of discerning friend from foe.

False consciousness is a very, very difficult notion to defend, for obvious reasons. The retort is always available, ‘How the hell do you know whose consciousness is false, that X doesn’t really believe what she says she believes, that if only she listened to you she would change her mind?’ And yet we know there is such a thing – we know it if only from our own experience. We know how easy it is to be misled, to be persuaded, to see things through a glass darkly. We know it happens. And this argument between women who cling to the veil and want other women to cling to it too, and women who want to take it off and want other women to take it off too, has been going on for many decades. One can always just shrug and mumble about ‘Their culture’ and let it go at that – but that doesn’t really get anywhere, does it, since ‘Their culture’ itself is riven with disputes over the matter. It’s as well to keep that in mind when the issue comes up.

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