Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Some Thoughts on 'Algeria Unveiled'

by Chris McMichael

In 'Algeria Unveiled' Fanon takes the veil as a starting point for an exploration of the new Algeria that was being created through the revolution. The veil appeared to stir a profound and visceral orientalism on the part of the French occupier. The veil maintained an ambiguous status in the mind of the coloniser. It was read as a convenient confirmation of all the most pernicious stereotypes about Algerians in particular and Arabs in general. It stood as confirmation of Algeria's backwards patriarchy, of its primitive insularity and of the passivity of Algerian women. In turn these features were used to justify the occupation: such people were begging to be colonised.

But the veil also stirred darker and less comfortable assertions on the part of the settlers. In its very hiddenness the veil strikes at the less confident aspects of the colonial society. Through wearing the veil Algerian women were able to observe without being seen: this implicitly undermines the colonial process of ordering  and naming, classification and regimentation. Behind the veil the thoughts of the women are unknowable: she could be observing the colonial administration with contempt, calmly plotting its downfall rather than pliantly accepting its reign! The veil also stirs less pragmatic concerns: it speaks to a highly sexualized realm of 'exotic themes deeply rooted in the unconscious.' In this sensual and dangerous realm many of the strict binaries that underpin the colonial project, the Apollonian austerity of European culture versus the low rent Dionysianism of the Maghreb, is revealed to be a constructed and self-justificatory myth, untenable against the fact of some of the most powerful and chaotic of all human emotions. Fanon inverts the veil and shows how by fighting the French, women also asserted their place in Algerian society, and by virtue of struggle struck at both the mystifications of the colonial project and patriarchy in their own country. The veil becomes a badge of an insurgent modernity: hidden grenades, slipping through the checkpoints, invisibly as a weapon.

The colonial obsession with ordering and with ensuring the visibility of the dominated tells us much about the problematic shackling of human progress with aggressive imperialism. The profound hypocrisy of justifying occupation under the name of enlightenment, saving the benighted natives from their atavistic cultures and liberating them from the burden of their natural resources is made clear in the reaction to the veil. The Algerian women’s privacy, in which their thoughts and feelings are hidden from the coloniser invokes a frantic response. It shifts the rules of the game and empowers the allegedly placid. One of the foundational myths of European colonialism was the idea that it was only they who understood the primacy of individual freedom. While people of the South, were used to living under despotisms, and stagnant, conformist cultures, it was only in Europe that the right to privacy and freedom of expression were ensured and internalized. In this we see a picture of discreet bourgeoisie honeycombs of self expression in which people are free to their own thoughts. The extent to which the veil invokes a sense of paranoia, and was perceived as a kind of inexplicable subversion, punctures this myth. Progress is useful when it serves to justify extraction and domination but the lip service stops once the colonised actually start to embody concrete freedom through the process of resistance.

The profound hypocrisy also extends to the claims that colonialism was in some respects a project motivated by a genuine concern for the emancipation of women. In this rubric Arab and African women are crying out for saviours: their oppression is so deeply entrenched that at first they may not even realise that they are in desperate need of assistance!  This conveniently sidesteps the deeply entrenched misogyny within Western culture: it is Freudian projection as it’s most banal. Such a confused moral geography is still at play within contemporary imperialist adventures. The continued military involvement in Afghanistan is sometimes legitimated in terms of ensuring a better future for Afghan women. Stories about the Taliban’s horrific attitude towards the role of women are cited as proof of the necessity of the military entanglement. But while the Taliban’s lunatic patriarchy needs no further exploration, the methods by which NATO is setting out on its project of uplifting Afghan women are often brushed over. In this picture the Taliban’s violence against women is evil both by virtue of its very existence and by the nature of its presentation: atavistic, barbaric, bearded mad men with Kalashnikovs jumping out of flatbed trucks and forcing little girls out of schools at gun point. However the daily violence which Afghan women live under by virtue of the continued occupation is treated in a very different light. Rather than brutal instruments of destruction, the technology of war is presented as an instrument of progress. With depleted uranium shells and drone strikes NATO will liberate the hell out of Afghan women. In reality, the war has emboldened viscous forms of patriarchy. As former Afghan politician Malalai Joya wrote in 2009:

Almost eight years after the Taliban regime was toppled, our hopes for a truly democratic and independent Afghanistan have been betrayed by the continued domination of fundamentalists and by a brutal occupation that ultimately serves only American strategic interests in the region…. Like many other Afghans, I risked my life during the dark years of Taliban rule to teach at underground schools for girls. Today the situation of women is as bad as ever. Victims of abuse and rape find no justice because the judiciary is dominated by fundamentalists. A growing number of women, seeing no way out of the suffering in their lives, have taken to suicide by self-immolation.

As Fanon recognised the language of humanism and progress is one of the best packages for projects of reaction. The relevance of ‘Algeria unveiled’ to the ‘long war’ of today is also seen in his account of the lurid psycho-sexual fantasies which are allowed to be instrumentalized due to colonial domination. The occupied country or city becomes a playground for phobias, for sadism. While generals and presidents use the high-minded language of progress, the troops and functionaries on the ground are encouraged to take a more liberal approach to brutality and violence.  Occupation becomes a conduit for the most basic and viscous of human impulses: torture, dehumanization, sexual assault. During the Abu Gharaib scandal, the US government claimed that the guards were bad apples: degenerate white trash out of control. In reality the army encouraged this kind of violence against Iraqi prisoners. What officials describe as ‘tough tactics’ are filtered down to the troops as a kind of ‘Fuck Hajii’ mentality: all Iraqis are targets. Fanon recognises that behind the siren song of progress lies the daily reality of imperialism in which casual violence becomes a major lubricant of the machinery of occupation. It is this veil which we must continually pierce as we struggle to ensure that noble words are not used as a velvet glove for the iron fist of contemporary power politics.