Acclaimed Algerian writer Kamel Daoud provoked a global media firestorm earlier this year, when he described the Cologne New Year’s Eve assaults as evocative of the “sexual misery” of the Arab-Muslim world and its “sick relationship” with women and their bodies.
His powerful, polarizing Op-Eds that declared, from first-hand experience, that women in the “lands of Allah” were “denied, killed, veiled, enclosed or possessed” and that a woman was “the incarnation of necessary desire and is therefore capable of a terrible crime: life,” were published in different versions in January and February in Italy’s La Repubblica, Le Monde, and The New York Times.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 had “failed to touch ideas, culture, religion or social norms, especially the norms relating to sex,” he argued.
But it was in France — where the author was awarded the prestigious Goncourt first novel literary prize for The Meursault Investigation, an Arab take on Albert Camus’ The Outsider — that Daoud came under the most sustained attack for daring to speak out.
In a collective column in Le Monde on February 11, what his supporters depicted as a “cabal” of 19 mostly Paris and western university-based academics condemned Daoud — raised Muslim and living in North Africa — for fueling what they termed “Islamophobia,” that played into the hands of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the worst “Orientalist” and “culturalist clichés” about Muslims and Islam.
The accusations were so serious Daoud decided to retire earlier than planned from journalism and consecrate himself to literature, with the parting shot: “I’m not Islamophobic, I’m free.”
The ‘Daoud Affair’ has taken on such proportions in the media, university, publishing and even political world, it is easy to forget that one of the first to spring to his defense — triggering a wave of public declarations of support from feminists, media organizations, assorted intellectuals and even the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls — was the Franco-Tunisian novelist Fawzia Zouari.
Zouari, the author of novels including The Returnee and The Second Wife is best known for her latest first-person book Je ne suis pas Diam’s or I am not Diam’s). As she explores her personal journey towards support for the French republic’s ban on the veil schools, she draws on memories of her own childhood in Tunisia. The book attempts to explain to ex-rapper Diam’s, and her followers, that converting to Islam and shutting herself up inside her house in a traditional full veil is not emancipation.
In keeping with the theme of her new literary work, and furious her fellow feminists and writers did not immediately come to Daoud’s aid, Zouari took up verbal arms to insist Arabs and Muslims must be free speak out against Islam, Islamism and control of women’s and men’s sexuality if they wished. “Yes there is a psychology of the Arab crowd,” wrote Zouari in Liberation. “Yes, women are seen in our lands as bodies that must be hidden. Yes, there is in our societies a pathological relationship with sex that is created by religious morality. Yes, there is a form of racism that considers it is acceptable to rape a Jew or a Christian because she is worth less than a Muslim. Yes, the fundamentalists are in a culture of death. Yes, the refugees in Europe must receive an education in the equality of the sexes. Yes, we must put a treaty on secularism in their hands and teach them about the respect for women of other religions. In short, for women.”
Since her impassioned plea, first published in Jeune Afrique magazine, for Daoud’s liberty of expression in the face of a “double fatwa” — he lives already under a religious fatwa and Zouari says the academic diatribe against his “sexual misery” Op-Ed amounted to a secular fatwa — Zouari has been followed by a growing number of leading French thinkers and activists, newspapers and media figures, backing Daoud against the “Islamophobia police.”
“Support Kamel Daoud,” was the headline of the French prime minister’s Facebook post last week, in which he implored the “urgent” backing of the writer “without any hesitation.”
“Instead of illuminating, nuancing, criticizing … they have condemned in a peremptory manner, rejecting debate and closing the door on all discussion,” he said of the academics’ collective targeting of Daoud.
In an interview with Women in the World, Zouari said she “perfectly understands” the indignation sparked by the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, and agrees with Daoud that the harassment and rapes clearly shared similarities with the physical attacks on women in Tahrir Square, Cairo during the revolution in Egypt in 2011. ‘‘Europe has built itself around the possibility of women having access to the public space without fear or threats: as part of legitimate freedom of movement, and in opposition to the idea of the body as a bait and an element of discord,’’ she said. ‘‘The rapes and harassment of Cologne are an attack on one of the fundamental rights acquired by feminism. They bring back the supremacy of the masculine presence and represent the resurgence in the heart of Europe of patriarchy and mass machismo.
‘‘And where is this patriarchy and this attack on the physical and moral integrity of women the most present?” she asked. “Unfortunately, in the head of many Muslim men who are victims of a macho tradition and a proven ‘sexual misery,’ which made Tahrir Square in Egypt a trap for protesters in skirts and increasingly makes life hell for Arab women who walk around without a veil.’’
Feminists in France are so ‘‘panicked and afraid’’ of Islamists but also of other progressives, they do not dare attack the wearing of the veil or sexist practices, according to Zouari. A fear of being accused of racism relegates them to silence and stops them from denouncing women’s oppression in their country. ‘‘We have feminists who have become so unscrupulous they sometimes rush to defend the veil in the name of women’s rights and virginity in the name of cultural relativism,’’ she said.‘‘I think the West has not understood the meaning of such symbols and it is a kind of guilt that pushes it to make concessions on some of its liberties in the name of principle …”
In response to her critics, Zouari insists she is not arguing Europe should be afraid of Islam or Muslim immigrants and refugees, noting that the majority of Muslims in France are secular and integrated. But instead of trying to censor writers like Daoud, feminists and the Left should oppose the Islamist project of “changing the face of Europe” so that it becomes a theocracy with public spaces off limits to women. “This is liberticide and feminicide if I may say so,” said Zouari. “I am happy that feminists are finally waking up. But it is astonishing that they have waited for the warning cries from Muslims to do it.’’
As for the academic ‘‘cabal’’ that tried to silence Daoud, Zouari believes they are blinded by ‘‘intellectual conformism” and a form of ‘‘neo-colonialism’’ that obscures reality.
‘‘A hateful atmosphere of consensus and weakness reigns when it comes to the Muslim question,’’ she said. ‘‘There is a fringe of intellectuals who are self-proclaimed defenders of Muslims, whatever their wrongs. They are our lawyers, our spokespeople and we are under their protection. Just like in colonial times. We don’t speak for ourselves!”
Arab and Muslim intellectuals who warned against the dangers of Islamism were not listened to, or were stigmatized like Daoud, she said. ‘‘He lives on the ground (in Algeria) and can testify to the truth but they bring his testimony into doubt in the name of principles learned in Western universities,’’ Zouari said.
Muslim women were therefore right to ‘‘cry out’’ in the Arab world and elsewhere that the veil was an obligation they abhorred — without European academics and feminists always countering with a defense of the veil in the name of women’s freedom. ‘‘This is a way of denying us Muslim women the right to reclaim the rights that Western women enjoy, as if we didn’t deserve them. Isn’t this an insidious form of contempt towards our own people that doesn’t allow them to claim the same values of liberty and equality?’’ Zouari asked.
The author suggests the Daoud scandal is forcing the Left to re-examine its attitudes and when it comes to Islam which, in the end, only excludes Muslims from democratic debate. ‘‘We need to question why speech on Islam has been usurped by academics, who are blinded by their theories, and stuck behind their book-learned knowledge. They explain Islamism to us without really understanding it, and end up issuing decrees and hurling accusations against authors like Kamel Daoud that simply echo religious fatwas.
‘‘We need to denounce the discourse of a French intelligentsia that believes it has the duty and power to dictate to intellectuals of the Arab world what they should and shouldn’t say.
‘‘Finally, the ‘Daoud Affair’ as it will be known from now on, will mark the date of an earthquake among an Arab elite, waking up to the need to bring Muslims out of the eternal posture of the victim.’’
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons