Of Intentions and Contentions: Why did von der Leyen make the right statement for the wrong reasons?

Ursula von der Leyen’s stance was not in solidarity with the oppressed women of Saudi-Arabia but a message to the German voters.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) is recieved by the Vice Regent and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud, in the Divan Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 08 December 2016. The minister is currently on a five-day tour of the region. Photo: Rainer Jensen/dpa

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) is recieved by the Vice Regent and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud, in the Divan Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 08 December 2016. She refuses to wear hijab during her visit to Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Rainer Jensen/dpa)

When German minister of defence Ursula von der Leyen made her visit to Saudi Arabia recently, she refused to comply with the country’s strict laws forcing women to dress up in a way declared modest by the male religious authorities. What followed was a wide reaction in international media outlets.

When asked about this not totally unprecedented act of transgression von der Leyen remarked that “being able to choose your own clothes is a right for both men and women alike.” A true statement is true regardless of who makes it or for what purpose it is made, but intentions and purposes do matter too. Her statement seems to point to a universalist understanding of the freedoms and rights of individuals. However, such an understanding contrasts highly with the purpose of her visit: EU cooperation with the army of Saudi Arabia for the training of their officers. This is the same country that crushed the democratic uprising in Bahrain, is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, funding Wahabism in Pakistan and is part of the oppressive system denying Saudis these universal rights. This religious dictatorship is able to take a little half-hearted slap from time to time – knowing that especially Germany is a partner that would never really question the numerous violations of basic human rights and the barbarous practices employed in disciplining Saudi society or draw consequences from these actions.

In actuality, the head-scarf-discussion helped veil these far more problematic aspects of the visit. Just some days ago Malak al-Shehri, a woman from Saudi-Arabia, was arrested for posting pictures of herself without headscarf and abaya on social media. While von der Leyen can probably be a symbol for women like Malak al-Shehri her overall mission is objectively aiming at strengthening and giving legitimacy to the regime in Riad.

What then could be the wrong reason behind von der Leyen’s true statement? That is an important question, worth probing. With the populist, racist, and in parts neofascist anti-Islam party Alternative für Deutschland on the rise, the conservative party CDU of von der Leyen and chancellor Angela Merkel has to sharpen its right-wing profile. Ursula von der Leyen’s stance was not in solidarity with the oppressed women of Saudi-Arabia but a message to the German voters. The whole uproar seems to be a misunderstanding. This not giving in to local customs is also contrasted by chancellor Merkel’s call for a ban of the burqa, who recently said that “the full-face veil is not acceptable in our country.” Here again, a right statement is made for the wrong reasons. The full-face veil should not be acceptable – anywhere.  Limiting the reach of this to a certain socio-cultural context is betraying the cause of individual freedom for people around the globe. This search for reassurance in identity and customs — which is nothing more than a form of slave morality — is not only led by autocrats, conservatives and pseudo-liberals but also by huge parts of the self-proclaimed radical left.

The prospect of a truly humane life for everyone is happily given up for the imagined authenticity of local customs while their concrete functions as systems of oppression are overlooked and romanticised. Our fight, therefore, must be twofold: On the one hand against the real systems of oppression and on the other hand against their apologetic proponents especially from the political left.

moritz

Moritz Maurer

About the Writers:

Moritz Maurer is a PhD student in religious studies at the Ruprecht-Karls University Heidelberg. He holds a M. A. in religious studies from Heidelberg University and a M. A. in Iranian studies from SOAS, London. His focus of research lies in the religious history of the Iranian world and theoretical problems in the study of religions.

Usman Mahar

Usman Mahar

Usman Mahar is an editor with THE PASHTUN TIMES. He is a medical anthropologist at the Ruprecht-Karls University Heidelberg. He studies the place of healthcare within and across different socioeconomic structures and cultural settings. Of particular interest to him is the issue of ageing. His alma maters include Aitchison College, University of Toronto and Utrecht University. His other interests include: issues of identity in a globalised world, a moral-philosophical approach towards politics and human rights as well as issues of gender and sexuality. He tweets @usmanmahar.

THE PASHTUN TIMES

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