The Debate Surrounding The Veil

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I recently came across two articles regarding the debate surrounding the veil, one by the Berliner Morgenpost (Germany) and one in the Guardian (UK), and I was intrigued that both the German and the British press were discussing this on the same day. The Morgenpost article reports on a Berlin judge’s decision to ban a female lawyer from wearing a headscarf (or ‘hijab’) in court, while the Guardian article considers the ‘niqab’.

First things first, let me clear up the difference between the ‘hijab’, the ‘niqab’ and the ‘burqa’ (also spelt ‘burka’). The ‘hijab’ is commonly referred to as a headscarf and covers a woman’s hair and shoulders/chest, leaving her face exposed. The ‘niqab’ refers to a veil that covers the entire face and leave only the eyes visible (as pictured above). This is not to be confused with a ‘burqa’ (which it often is), as a ‘burqa’ is especially loose and features a thin cloth section over the eyes.

There are so many different arguments surrounding this issue it is difficult to know where to begin. From the articles, we can see that, even from the surface, this issue is hugely contentious and very current. The German article, is, to my mind, more contentious as it merely regards the ‘hijab’, which is much less controversial than the ‘niqab’ or the ‘burka’ – Full veiling of the face, raises many more questions. The judge argues that a court of law is a neutral ground where the law is in place without the influence of personal beliefs. This is an interesting sentiment considering that Germany is far from a secular state. The Government is (currently) represented by a Christian party (the CSU, or the Christian Conservative party), the church is still entwined with the tax system (there is still a Kirchensteuer of between 8-9% of income)  and shops still close on a Sunday to observe the Sabbath. Furthermore Article 4 of the Federal Constitution (‘Grundgesetz’) claims:

“1. Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable. 2. The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed.”

This raises questions regarding the ruling made by the judge and furthermore raises issues regarding bias towards Christianity. It also raises questions regarding the fine line between integration and assimilation – what happens if you live in a predominately Christian country, or in a predominately Muslim country? How far should people expect you to integrate? And furthermore, in the interest of freedom of choice and individuality, how far should you be willing assimilate?

From this more questions arise, as we start to consider who decides if a woman wears a veil in the first place? It is a personal choice, social and religious pressures, or patriarchy?

From all of these questions we see that there isn’t one simple answer, and this means there shouldn’t be one simple solution. One thing is for certain – a general ban is not the answer, as we have seen from France in recent years. You can’t speak for every woman who wears a veil, whether she chooses to, or not and for these reasons it seems unlikely that these stories will change in the near future.

Recently, I wrote about Wadjda – the first film to be fully recorded in Saudi Arabia. This film raises interesting questions about the veil and the role of women in this Islamic State, and most significantly the influence men have on the women in this state. It is a very interesting film and I would highly recommend it, particularly because it comes from within Saudi Arabia and therefore avoids the distortion of a Western view on the issues that arise.

As the Guardian article points out, discussions in the UK so far seem to have left Muslim women out and have instead decided to speak for them and about them, without allowing them to express an opinion or a counterargument. If something is to be discussed, both sides should be represented. It is ironic that parliamentary discussions talk of the repression of women, and the lack of a female voice as reasons for a ban, while promoting a repression of women through the discussion of the topic by disconnected parties.

(I do not own the rights to this image)

Die Qual der Wahl

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So the German general elections are just a week away and Berlin (and the rest of the country, I’m sure) has been covered by thousands of Plakate in various shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of cliche. Germany is big on election posters, much more so than the UK and they adorn every free lamp post (even in side streets) and every patch of grass by the side of the road – then, of course there are the billboards. I thought I would include a selection of a few that are around, and highlight their pros and cons.

Now, while I may not stand in agreement with Angela Merkel’s social policies, she is currently pulling a head of the other parties significantly and does have her mainly successful leadership for the past 8 years, plus her handling of the EU and Euro crisis on her CV. Furthermore, she is seemingly the only candidate with a chance currently. While the SPD has a lot of pulling power, Peer Steinbrück seems to let the side down, particularly after his now infamous appearance on the cover of Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine.

The above image shows one of CDU‘s campaign posters – this is my particular favourite because it is completely transparent in its ‘actual’ and ‘attempted’ message. The party, who’s image is wholly based on Christian conservative beliefs, is trying to show that social policy is important to them too – most likely in an attempt to appeal to those undecided between SPD and CDU. The tagline claims “Every family is different, yet equally important to us”. All well and good so far. Then you see the image. A white, middle class family bonding over making breakfast. The only thing that doesn’t make this a complete stereotype is that the father is cooking, letting his wife take the day off. How modern. This image is perfect for a CDU campaign, its the headline that is misplaced and essentially reads, “every white, middle class family is slightly different, yet equally important to us”. Here we can see the dilemma surrounding election campaigns – do you alienate your base or try to appeal to new voters. The CDU know as well as everyone else that they hold a strong lead and therefore they are focusing on appealing to their base. This poster alienates anyone who doesn’t stem from a ‘nuclear family’ and excludes immigrants (1st, 2nd and every other generation), and anyone who isn’t heterosexual, for a start.

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The SPD (Germany’s social democrats) also went for an obvious photo shoot and slogan combination – which tends to focus more on policy plans, as opposed to the CDU, who have focused more on successes in the past two terms and vague slogans alluding to family policy and economic growth. On the whole, I quite like the SPD campaign, and generally prefer policy suggestions as opposed to empty words and pats on the back. While the mother and the daughter are clearing playing to cliches here, at least it is more realistic and inclusive than the CDU‘s image.

The FDP (Germany’s free democrats who are business heavy) are sinking rapidly and are currently hovering around the 5% mark, and could fall below, meaning they wouldn’t even be allowed into the Bundestag. For this reason, and because their posters are nothing special, I am going to move on to die Grünen/Bündnis 90. The Greens have mainly gone for a lot of word play and images of ‘friendly looking locals’

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Here the Greens are highlighting their parental and family policy with the headline “my mum will be the boss” and their slogan “and you?” features on every poster in the hope to make the people on the street feel involved.

Some of the best posters on offer this year come from Die Linke, German’s left party. These posters are to the point, with only text and the logo to offer. They also highlight the parties policies and central beliefs. The poster below reads “Enough chatting! 10 Euro minimum wage now”. However some of the party’s posters are far too ideological, which in turn make the party look less credible.

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Finally we have the controversial NPD (Germany’s nationalist party) below. These images are recycled from the local elections back in 2009 and as racist as ever. The image speaks for itself, and the slogan reads “Have a good journey home”. Thankfully this party doesn’t hit the 5% mark and is unlikely to in this election. Their posters are erected to get a reaction and to create tension. They also open up a whole new issue regarding freedom of speech, democracy and ultimately the question as to whether they should be banned or not.

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The German general election is on Sunday 22nd September.

Wadjda (2012)

03Last week Wadjda finally came to cinemas here in Germany. Ever since I first saw the trailer for Haifaa al-Mansour’s film, I knew this film was going to be worth going to see – not only in a historical sense, this being the first feature film to be filmed by a woman in Saudi Arabia, but also because the concept was so appealing. Recently I have been watching a couple of documentaries about Saudi Arabia and the film provided ever more insight into what is a relative unknown. Sure, we have vague images of what Saudi Arabian life is like, and the odd film snippet, but this was the first film to be shot entirely on the streets of Riyadh and therefore offers so much more.

I watched a couple of interviews with al-Mansour before going to the cinema and was really impressed by what she had to say – I was also particularly interested in what she had to say about her previous work and this is something I would love to see.

Wadjda is a heartwarming, humorous and, at times, deeply moving portrayal of so many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia today – despite the premise that the film is about a girl and her longing for a bike, the film is about so much more. Throughout we learn about her relationship with her mother, her father, other girls, boys, religion, and social values and pressures. Wadjda lives with her mother – we see how her mother struggles with the burden of socials pressures in a different way to her daughter. Here we begin to see a generational gap, further represented by Wadjda’s friendship with Abdullah (an unrelated boy, and thus a friendship that would be frowned upon). Wadjda’s mother is mostly very supportive of her daughter, occasionally pulling her back when she thinks she is on thin ice. Wadjda is a wonderfully confident and self aware character, but al-Mansour doesn’t allow her to become unrealistic or unconvincing. When two girls at school are caught up in what the headmistress believes to be a lesbian ‘scandal’, Wadjda doesn’t seize the opportunity to save the girls from ostracisation and punishment.

Throughout the film we learn of many the many restraints that Saudi women face, but we also learn of some chances that have started to bring around change – Wadjda’s mother has a friend who works at the hospital without a full veil, for example. Wadjda’s mother is, however, still very socially immobile. Wadjda’s grandmother is looking for a bride for her father as her mother almost died while giving birth to Wadjda and can no longer provide the son the family wants. When the father finally decides to marry someone else, she loses her much needed male guardian, which shows how reliant Saudi society makes women on the men who surround them. This is obviously also seen in the need for a driver – Wadjda’s mother has to take time off work because she can’t get herself there, so that even when women try to seek independence, something outside of their control still holds them back.

At school we see how the headmistress trains the girls to accept a second place in society, ushering them inside when they are in the eye line of a man, discouraging individuality and using veiling to bring troublesome pupils back into line.

This film covers so many different levels of Saudi society in such a beautiful, and interesting way. This film is easily one the best I have seen in a long time and is truly a masterpiece. – It is well balanced, believable and honest.

Laurence Anyways (2012)

When procrastinating one day at university, I stumbled across the trailer to Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s 2012 drama and Cannes debutant. I added it to my list of films to watch and continued to read about something dark and German related (most likely). Out of the blue I discovered that Laurence Anyways was screening at Kino International just around the corner from Alexanderplatz – perfect, or at least so I thought. Dolan taught me many things that evening, most importantly the importance of checking a films running time and then checking whether public transport will still be running – at 169 minutes this film is a long one, and an unnecessarily long one at that. I must be honest and say that my first impression was positive. 120 minutes plus in, and numerous unnecessarily long scenes later, my impression had somewhat changed. It had reached the point where I was desperately second guessing when (if?) this film was finally going to end. From the trailer I had discovered Moderat’s A New Error and fallen in love with this amazing track, and when this song finally played (I was waiting for it, as I knew it featured somewhere along the line) it was used in the Ile au Noir scene (see video above) – this, I believed, was a perfect ending. Visually and aurally this scene was sublime and was easily one of the films best; but everything continued.

By the time I came to leave, I quite honestly didn’t care what happened to Fred or Laurence. I didn’t care about artistic scenes, soundtracks and questions of sexuality and gender identity. I stupidly decided that as a result of my exhaustion, this film was ‘crap’. Yet something strange happened in the coming week. My boyfriend and I would discuss it more and more, we would rewatch scenes on Youtube and eventually we realised that actually we loved it after all, and so now I found myself back at square one – right back where I was when I saw the trailer. Intrigued and impressed.

So what I am trying to say is that this film is in fact great. It doesn’t make for a great ‘cinema experience’ (in the sense of sitting in a room with a crowd of strangers who can’t do anything quietly), but instead it is a brilliant piece of cinematography, and only if you give it the chance. Apart from the scene above, another stand out scene is the Scene du Bal (below) which again demonstrates Dolan’s aptitude for synching aural and visual elements perfectly. The soundtrack to this film was perfect and as you can see from the clip, costume and makeup were outstanding too. Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément give strong and deeply emotional performances – particularly Clément’s portrayal of Fred – Laurence’s partner and soulmate. Clément’s character, in my eyes, stands out much more than Poupaud’s performance, which is reflected in her win at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard Best Actress category.

If you can spare the time, this film is a must see for so many different reasons. I haven’t even touched on the films exploration of (trans-)gender identity and sexuality here – there are so many different levels and layers to this film and it is difficult to take it all into account all at once and in one place.

(I do not own the rights to these videos)

The Invisible Men (2012)

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Last night I watched The Invisible Men; Yariv Mozer’s polemic documentary about the situation of gay Palestinians inside Israel. The documentary follows the lives of three men, Louie, Abdu and Faris, who have escaped from the Palestinian territories across the border into Israel.

Tel Aviv is well known for its gay scene and relative equality compared to other Middle Eastern countries when it comes to homosexuality. Homosexuality is legal in Israel, and homosexuals enjoy much the same rights as in Europe. Equal marriage isn’t legal, however, and, of course Jerusalem is somewhat a special case when compared to Tel Aviv. Despite all this, this tolerance doesn’t extend to homosexual Palestinian refugees, and as a result they live their lives in fear of being sent back across the border into the Palestinian territories, where their families, friends and the police are often waiting to attack.

The documentary focuses on Louie, who has a noticeable scar on his face from when his father attacked him with a knife after finding out about his homosexuality. He has lived illegally in Israel for 10 years, mostly avoiding the police but occasionally being returned across the border. He meets with Abdu who has applied for humanitarian asylum in Europe. While this may seem like the logical option, this is a difficult decision to make. Applying for asylum in Europe is a long process with no guarantee. Furthermore, for these men, Europe is a world apart from the world they have grown up in. Obviously, they will be able to live openly as homosexuals in Europe in relative safety (the EU Fundamental Rights Agency survey has proved, however, that even Western Europe isn’t a utopia for gay rights and equality), but they will be alone and a long way from home. On top of this, they will experience a language barrier and it is unlikely they will return to Israel or the Palestinian territories any time in the near future. Louie doesn’t want to leave Israel. He was born there and has lived there this entire life, but a lack of an Israeli birth stamp and residency papers means that he cannot legally stay in Israel or apply for Israeli asylum.

This raises many, many questions. This film was only made possible because all three men ended up gaining asylum in Europe and as a result they are now safe from their families and the Israeli police force and the Magav (the border force). Politics is obviously a huge and contentious issue in this area of the world and it is something for which there is no clear and simple answer. Palestinian citizens need to be able to claim asylum in Israel on the basis of sexual discrimination in the Palestinian territories, however. Israel is progressive in terms of its policies concerning homosexuality, and as we see time and time again from Eytan Fox’s films (for example) gay Palestinians could live happy and safe lives in Israel just like homosexuals do from many other countries in the world. This would mean they would not have to leave the Middle East to find safety, and would solve a lot of the fundamental issues that face them everyday, or issues that they would face in Europe. Here Israel has the opportunity to become a safe-haven and model for rest of the Middle East on social reform and sexual equality. At the very least the police forces should be more understanding of the plight of these men, instead of simply seeing them as the Palestinian papers they hold.

This documentary is very moving, and can be difficult to watch at times. The stories these men tell, and the obvious fears they have are testaments to the inequalities of this world. There are many sub-issues that influence this particular problem (all of which are political) and it seems a crying injustice that these men should be returned to, what is essentially, their deaths on the grounds of their sexuality and their nationality. If we are to promote that all love is equal in the Western World then we need to think of our brothers and sisters all over the world that are discriminated against to the point of death on a daily basis.

Die Zeit newspaper in Germany recently ran a story on Palestinian gay men in Tel Aviv, which featured many heart-breaking stories of boys being pushed from pillar to post, back and forth across the border in a fight with the Israeli police and their families. One boy had been in Tel Aviv since he was a teenager; he was raped as a child but his father believed his rapist’s lies because of the position he held in their town. As a result, he punished his son, locked him up and physically and mentally abused him. When the boy finally managed to escape he crossed the border to Israel. Living in an abandoned bus station he was involved with drugs and lived in fear of the police. He once returned home, only to be attacked again by his family. The article, entitled Wir Kinder vom Busbahnhof (Us children from the bus station) is available here in full, if you speak German.

I can only assume there are only stories of male homosexuals in this situation in the press and on film because, as is often the case when homosexuals are persecuted, the (all too often) men in charge in these countries do not see lesbianism as a real threat for reasons that link back to misogynistic ideologies. Whereas male homosexuals are often seen, and portrayed in propaganda, as dangerous and ‘infectious’ bodies due to the penetrative nature of sex between men. There seems to be a belief that female sexuality is also not a threat because this is a ‘weak decision’ that can be changed by a man. Men are scared of other men that threaten their masculinity or patriarchy. For more information surrounding this, see research into the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich – particularly Richard Plant’s seminal text, The Pink Triangle. Ernst Röhm is a fine example of a gay man who became too powerful and was killed by the fears of his fellow party members.

Finally, the Israeli LGBT+ organisation can be reached here (in English and Hebrew) and they feature as helpers in the asylum process in Mozer’s documentary. More information about Mozer’s documentary can be found here.

(I do not own this image).

ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map – 2013

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The ILGA recently posted this ‘Rainbow Map’ to show which countries in Europe provide the best level of human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex residents. From the first glance I was surprised to learn that the UK provides the best human rights at 77% , compared to 66% for Norway, 65% for Sweden, 57% for Denmark and 60% for the Netherlands. I find this difficult to believe as the above 4 countries are well renowned for offering some of the best human rights to people across the LGBTUA+ spectrum.

Legislation doesn’t mean equality or human rights are adhered to and this is a pitfall of this graph. Results from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey show just how high homo-/transphobia are in the Western world, despite misconceptions.

To see a larger version of the map click here. 

To see the results from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights click here.

Ps. In an article entitled “Europa lebt die Diskriminierung” (Discrimination lives in Europe) Die Zeit discusses the above mentioned studies and concludes: “Such laws are great. However, at the end of the day, the new EU study shows that it’s not enough to declare equality in the law books. These laws have to actually come alive too.” This is a statement I wholeheartedly agree with as we learn time and time again that legislation is all well and go. Yet it means nothing unless everyone takes it into practise.

The Knife – Columbiahalle, Berlin

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For many this was a long awaited night. For my boyfriend this was a night that had been waited on for longer than he can remember. For me, if I am completely honest, this was a night, as a middle-of-the-road fan who had read the bad reviews, from which I didn’t really know what to expect.

Arriving at 6pm, an hour before the doors opened, I was surprised to be met by a smallish crowd of mixed personalities. And there was me expecting to see the whole of Neukoelln – typically seen as Berlin’s expat ‘place-to-be’. My mistake. Heading in after a squash at the doors, everyone seemed to dissipate and we headed straight to the front. I must admit, there was a lot of standing around and despite the show being moved forward an hour, earlier in the week, nothing actually happened until 30 mins into this ‘extra hour’. Having caught a flight that morning and as a result being dragged from my bed at 4am… I had a little nap standing up.

However, when something finally happened I was wide awake and ready to be hit by whatever may be coming my way in the next two hours. Unfortunately, I had to wait another 30 minutes before anything of worth happened as the worst ‘support’ I have ever had to experience burst onto a side stage to some heavily misogynistic R’n’b. An image that will stick in my mind is the upper tier’s reaction to this ‘act’. Stoney-faced silence. Thank you, Germany. Now I have seen many comments complaining about this opening ‘act’ and many negative reviews have been responded to with ‘well it’s because you don’t understand irony. Idiot.’ Charming. Now, I’m sorry but there is irony and then there is shit. And this was shit. The Knife had plenty of social commentary and irony to dish out in the next 90 minutes and thus, this 20-minute ‘aerobics class’ with a broken microphone was completely unnecessary. Anyway, it could only go upwards from here…

And it did. It really did. The show itself was genuinely one of the most interesting I have seen in a while. It was different. It was complex, yet simple. But, most of all everyone on stage was clearly having the time of their lives. The outfits were great; the dances were amateurish yet complex at the same time, and the concept was thought provoking. I genuinely really enjoyed it and it completely boosted my regard for The Knife from middle-of-the-road fan to whatever comes next. Yes, there were some poor bits. Full of Fire was an awful ‘performance’, which saw everyone stand on stage for 6 minutes with barely the blink of an eye. Sure it was like being in a club, but it was also lazy and didn’t deserve the applause it got at the end. Sure it was making a point, passing the buck over to the audience to break down the hierarchy between the stage and the audience, but it just didn’t push my buttons.

But, as I have said, overall I was hugely impressed. Much more impressed than I thought I would be. I can see where people have come from with their negative comments but at the same time I also can’t. Sure, there were some bad parts but aren’t there always?! There is always that song you hate and stand there just waiting for it to be over. But, that is life and you could clearly tell that a lot of effort had gone into all the preparations for this tour. As a result, it is completely unfair in my opinion to accuse them of ripping anyone off. They shook the habitual as they had always claimed they would, and no one could accuse them of not being open about their intentions from the offset.

(I DO NOT own the rights to this photo. Credit to Erez Avissar.)

(2009) עיניים פקוחות

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Eyes Wide Open is a film I have wanted to write about for a long time, having watched it well over two years ago, I finally got around to getting my own copy and watching it again. As you may have already realised I have a penchant for Israeli queer cinema and have previous written about The Bubble, Yossi & Jagger and it’s sequel Yossi. Here we have a film directed by Haim Tabakman, not Eytan Fox. Moving away from the liberal metropolis of Tel Aviv, this film is set in deeply orthodox Jerusalem and it’s surroundings.

Aaron is recovering from mourning his father’s death and decides to reopen his father’s butchers. The young Ezri comes to Jerusalem to confront his boyfriend who is uncomfortable with his homosexuality and a conflict with his religion. Looking for an assistant Aaron takes on Ezri despite the rumours that are rife in this small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. As a friendship develops between the two of them, it becomes clear that both men have feelings for each other. Ezri, despite his orthodox stance, is much more at ease with his sexuality than Aaron, who is married with children. Soon the tension becomes too much and they end up sleeping together. As rumours begin to spread (they do not spread on fact, but instead merely on the notion that Ezri has brought a bad reputation with him) trouble increases for the pair and for Aaron’s family. Aaron is warned, and later threatened as a result of his involvement. As everything escalates, Aaron fells alive for the first time in years but realises that he can’t live this double life.

The film is very touching and covers a wide range of issues. Aaron is also involved with the modesty police and his seen to threaten a man who is believed for be unsuitable for a friend’s daughter. Throughout the film the audience sees how patriarchal this society is and how much danger Ezri, and later Aaron, could be in if they are discovered. This film is in stark contrast to the liberal and privileged lives Fox’s characters live in Tel Aviv and as a result highlights the paradoxes so rife in Israeli society today – society, religion and politics all fight for the upper hand.

(I do not own this image)

Contracorriente (2009)

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Set in Peru this 2009 film, Undertow in the English speaking world, by Javier Fuentes-León tackles the love triangle between Miguel, Mariela and eventually Santiago. Miguel is married to Mariela and they are expecting their first child in this deeply traditional and religious village on the Peruvian coastline. I personally found the film quite difficult to judge and while I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t find it compelling at the same time.

Credit where credit is due though, this film is quite unique in the fact that the villages post-mortem rituals are central to the storyline. It was a fresh look at what can be a tired script. It was also nice to see some queer cinema from South America. Don’t expect to blown away, but I would still recommend this touching and emotional film.

(I do not own this image)