Published in The Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, T. Teo (Ed.), Springer, 2013.


False Consciousness

Carl Ratner





False consciousness is a socially induced misperception and misunderstanding of social life. False consciousness is not simply ignorance of specific information -- such as how much money Microsoft has been fined for illegal practices ($1 billion). It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of social events. Political examples of false consciousness include:

Š      people obeying social leaders in the belief they represent god

Š      working class people believing that certain politicians and policies will benefit the working class when they actually represent and benefit the ruling elite

Š      believing that capitalism is a democracy that promotes political freedom (cf. Wolin, 2008)

Š      believing that society is constructed by autonomous individuals freely negotiating amongst themselves, devoid of power differences and social conditioning

Š      False consciousness extends to psychological understanding, such as believing that human nature is egotistical and aggression.

In the midst of the current profound economic crisis that was precipitated by capitalist practices which destroyed jobs, wealth, and opportunities, many individuals continue to believe that capitalism still affords opportunities for anyone to get a job (or create a job) -- even a "good job" -- if they really want one, despite the fact that there are six job seekers for every job, and individuals do not get jobs after applying for hundreds of them over several years.

These examples represent a fundamental misunderstanding -- false consciousness -- of the issues involved, not simply a lack of knowledge. Reciting facts does little to dissuade people from their misunderstanding -- as reciting facts about evolution does nothing to dissuade evangelicals from their belief in creationism.

False consciousness resists falsification because it is a general ontology and epistemology that acts systemically as a sense-making mechanism to produce a set of interrelated misunderstandings that sustain each other, and make coherent sense. Challenging an element of this sense-making mechanism threatens the entire mechanism and the entire sense of life that it affords. This is similar to challenging any paradigm.

False consciousness is additionally resistant to falsification because it is promulgated by multiple social practices, ideology, and conditions that make false consciousness normative and fitting. (This makes false consciousness a cultural mentalité, Volkerpsychologie, Volkgeist, and  Objektiver Geist, not a personal deficiency.) The reason Americans continue to believe that anyone can get a good job is they have been systematically indoctrinated by individualistic ideology that behavior is the individual's responsibility and choice. They have no other way to make sense of jobs and joblessness. Ideology has proven to be more powerful than facts in shaping the consciousness (interpretations and meanings) of people, including social scientists.

For example, American corporations are transforming health coverage for their employees. They are refusing to pay into health insurance plans for employees, and they are instead giving employees a fixed stipend with which they are to shop for their own health coverage. This is dubbed "employee choice" programs that are said to "give control of health insurance coverage to employees." However, employees have no input into the amount of the stipend that companies give them. Nor do employees have any control over the premiums that insurance companies charge. The stipends will be lower than the premiums which the companies formerly paid into employees' health plans, which leaves employees paying more than before. Corporations are freed from the vagaries of rising insurance rates while employees are subjected to them. Consequently, the vaunted control, empowerment, and responsibility of employees over their health plans is specious. (Choosing jobs is similarly choice within the jobs and wage levels that corporations make available.)

Yet the myth of free choice, empowerment, and responsibility is maintained by an ingrained epistemology that focuses upon the specific act of shopping (e.g., for insurance) and disregards the parameters of the choice. This narrowing, isolating, falsifying, individualistic epistemology has political consequences for making capitalism appear free, democratic, and empowering of individuals to control their social lives, when it is not. This political epistemology of individualism is therefore systematically cultivated by social leaders through the social institutions, concepts, and artifacts they control. (Meaning-making is organized by cultural epistemology and ontology, it is not a personal act.) For example, educators are trained to construe pupils' low performance as a personal, technical matter by adjusting pedagogy to accommodate the personal styles of individual students (individualized instruction), and discovering cognitive training methods that facilitate the incorporation of educational material. Educators thus recapitulate and reinforce the misleading ideology of individualism. Utilizing a falsifying, isolating, decontextualizing pedagogy dooms teachers and students to failure with regard to advancing educational psychology.

The foregoing examples demonstrate that false consciousness sustains oppression by preventing individuals from apprehending, criticizing, and transforming social reality. If knowledge is power, then one way to limit peoples' power is to limit their knowledge. Oppressors seek to compound the false consciousness that oppressive practices, ideology, and conditions generate. If knowledge is power, then knowledge is political and it will be controlled for political purposes. False consciousness is a form of social control that enforces the power of oppressors over the oppressed.

False consciousness is a powerful oppressive force because it lends individual subjectivity to misunderstanding and accepting social oppression. False consciousness renders individuals complicit in their own oppression as they pursue and accept oppressive activities as normal. They embrace oppression through their subjectivity and agency, not only because they are compelled to by external forces. American false consciousness defends capitalism as affording jobs to anyone who wants them, and it derogates social critics. False consciousness is therefore not only blind to oppression, it is also blind to emancipation. It promulgates the former and impedes the latter. If oppression appears to be normal, than emancipation appears to be abnormal.

External forces permeate consciousness to make it their agent (see the chapter on Psychology of Oppression, this Encyclopedia).

Historical examples of oppressors creating ignorance-subservience are plentiful. Book burning and censorship are common forms of hiding knowledge from people. Before the Protestant Reformation, education was closely controlled by the Catholic Church, and was limited to elite groups, namely, men in holy orders. Church leaders did not want other groups to read and acquire knowledge. Slaves and women have been deprived of education for the same reason of keeping them ignorant, powerless, and subordinate. After Nat Turner's Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia during the summer of 1831, the fear of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders. Not only did slave owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their lot; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost. In 1832, Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone who undertook a slave's education between $250 and $500. Even North Carolina, which had previously allowed free African-American children to attend schools alongside whites, prohibited the public education of all African-Americans by 1835.

Hawaiian chiefs in 1820 sought to keep literacy restricted to themselves.

The Obama administration deprives people of vital information concerning its misdeeds by persecuting whistle-blowers who expose them. Obama's administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all previous American presidents combined. The assault on Wikileaks' journalistic disclosure of government crimes and misdeeds, included preventing contributors from donating money to it, intimidating citizens from viewing the leaked information, and designating Wikileaks an enemy of the state, which carries over to anyone having contact with it -- all without any judicial process or criminal charges against Wikileaks. Corporations resist labeling ingredients on their products -- such as whether they have been genetically modified -- so that consumers remain ignorant of their dangers and continue to consume them -- just as they consume other features of their exploitation.

Corporate news programs deprive people of vital information by not covering, or distorting, important events such as labor activities, third-party politicians or policies, and secret organizations such as The American Legislative Exchange Council and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There are other ways to deprive people of knowledge besides prohibiting it. One other way is to distract people from knowledge. One form this takes is to inundate people with superficial, titillating, sensationalistic, impulsive movies, games, gadgets, and news shows.

 Fundamentalist religious authorities distract followers from knowledge by displacing scientific explanations with mystical-spiritual incantations about what god desires and does ("god made the king superior to the people," "god made women subservient to men").

Capitalism also disguises social reality so that people do not comprehend its structure and dynamics. One important example is disguising the autocratic control of social institutions by presenting them as freely negotiated by the people.

Distraction, displacement, and disguising of social reality by false consciousness are more effective than prohibiting knowledge. Prohibitions and punishment expose oppression, whereas distraction displacement, and disguise obscure oppression and mollify resentment and protest.

The truth of the matter is that distraction, displacement, and disguise are really "soft oppression" in contrast to "hard oppression" of prohibitions and punishments. Distraction, displacement, and disguise of knowledge are political epistemological mechanisms as much as imposed illiteracy was. They can only be eradicated by political transformation of the oppressive macro cultural factors that generate, require, and benefit from them.

False consciousness is a paradoxical phenomenon. It is formed and punctuated by oppressive features of macro cultural factors. On the other hand, this oppressed psychology is unaware of its oppressive basis and its oppressed, ignorant features. On the contrary, false consciousness misperceives/misunderstands its stunted self and its stunted culture to be natural, fulfilling, comfortable, and pleasurable. False consciousness neither comprehends its society nor itself (Ratner, 2011, 2012a). Subjective data that constitute attitude scales and narratives are thus incomplete indicators of society and psychology.




False consciousness presumes a model or theory of psychology

1) Cultural factors, behavior, and psychology have an objective (e.g., oppressive) cultural dimension that is not subjectively known by the individual. False consciousness has the properties of an illusion. Illusions are a failure to apprehend an objective reality independent of the observer. (Illusion disproves the idea that reality is a subjective construct. If reality was whatever a subject imagined, she could never be mistaken about it and illusions would be impossible.)

2) Consciousness/psychology is structured by cultural factors that may distort understanding social, psychological, and natural reality. For example, cultural practices and ideology blind working people to the reasons for their poverty and what is necessary to correct it.

3) The fact that false consciousness is oppressive and difficult to apprehend requires that it be exposed by individuals who apprehend it. It is socially responsible to do this, just as it is socially responsible to inform people of many harmful issues they may be practicing.  Indeed, it is socially irresponsible to remain silent about injurious acts.

4) Apprehending false consciousness requires a distinctive methodology that does not merely record subjective experience, but compares it to objective social features of behavior that individuals may not know. We would ascertain whether laborers’ attitudes toward a policy registered its objective features—such as the fact that it would inflict social dislocation upon the laborers. If the voters were unaware of this, we would investigate whether their ignorance was a mere factual deficiency that could be readily corrected, or whether their attitudes and behavior were based upon misunderstanding the socio-economic-political system because of a false/falsifying epistemology.



Keywords: ideology, social oppression, psychology of oppression, cultural relativism, objectivism, Islamic veil, hijab, Islam, subjectivism, consumerism, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, women’s liberation, indigenous psychology




False consciousness was described Marx in The German Ideology, where he discusses ideological inversions of reality that are generated by the reality that they obscure. Marx explained: “The finished pattern of economic relations as seen on the surface in their real existence and consequently in the ideas with which the agents and bearers of these relations seek to understand them, is very different from, and indeed quite the reverse of and antagonistic to their inner, essential but concealed core and the concepts corresponding to it” (cited in Lukacs, 1971, pp. 7-8). This distance between empirically given subjective awareness and the consciousness that is necessary to apprehend objective reality is false consciousness.

Engels explained a key feature of false consciousness as follows: " Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him... He works with mere thought material...,he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought" (Engels, letter to Mehring, July 14, 1893;

Marx and Lukacs emphasized that false consciousness is not a subjective error that is caused by the individual's inattention or stupidity. It is an objective cultural-psychological phenomenon (Geist, or collective representation) caused by cultural forces and factors that falsify consciousness (Lukacs, 1971, p. 51; Ratner, 2012a, chap. 5).

This is why Lukacs (1971, p. 50) said that we must not simply condemn people for having false consciousness; we must explain why (culturally-historically) false consciousness exists: "the dialectical method does not permit us simply to proclaim the ‘falseness’ of this consciousness and to persist in an inflexible confrontation of true and false. On the contrary, it requires us to investigate this ‘false consciousness’ concretely as an aspect of the historical totality and as a stage in the historical process."



International Relevance


Identifying with the niqab and hajib as a candidate for false consciousness

A candidate for false consciousness is Arab women’s identification with the black body covering (hijab) and facial veil (niqab) worn in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Islamic countries. Ordinary Arab women identify with this drab garb as a sign of piety, morality, and cultural affirmation. (Upper class Saudi women are not so constrained. They discard this garb in their palaces when speaking with Western men.) Identifying with the veil may qualify as identifying with an oppressive practice that is not understood as such, just as embracing conservative politics by working people, and identifying with sneakers by American youth are false consciousness.

The author has been close to this issue during 2011 when he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Psychology at Imam Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

To ascertain whether identifying with the Islamic veil is false consciousness, we must understand it's cultural-political origins, characteristics, and functions. This is a way to objectively ascertain whether the niqab and hijab are oppressive and whether identifying with them misunderstands their true nature. This objective methodology avoids arbitrary condemnation of behavior that is simply distasteful or unfamiliar to the evaluator.


The cultural-poltical origins of the contemporary Islamic veil

The niqab and hijab have definite oppressive cultural-political origins, characteristics, and functions. They were forcibly imposed upon Saudi women in the 1980s by the leaders of a reactionary form of Islam, known as Wahhabi.  (Wahhabi is not the Islam described in the Koran, nor does it define Islam. Thus, denouncing the niqab does not imply renouncing Islam.) Women had no say in this decision, and they are punished if they disobey it. Islamic police patrol public areas to maintain obedience to it. This clothing was deliberately imposed to segregate women and prevent them from being seen by men and interacting with men. It renders women anonymous, unexpressive, and interferes with their movements. It prevents athletics; the niqab even renders drinking a cup of coffee and eating an ice cream cone torturous. “A woman does not face a man as an equal being; she faces him as a fundamentally different being whose difference must be given the symbol (the veil) of inequality” (Lazreg, 2009, p. 107).

Wahhabi garb comprises a “geography of the body” that physically segregates women in a system of gender apartheid. It is clearly an element in the subordination of women throughout all areas of life. In Imam University, Saudi women students could only use the library two days a week, when male students were excluded. Saudi women are prohibited from working in most occupations—women comprise only 15% of the work force.

The veil is tied to the subordination of women which is tied to the broadly oppressive essence of Wahhabi Islam. It is that essence which underlies the subordination of women and the restrictive veil. To understand the character and function of the veil, it is imperative to apprehend its ground in the hermeneutic circle of Wahhabi Islam's conservatism. We must engage in a cultural hermeneutical analysis that retraces the veil back to the oppression of women and more broadly to the cultural-political conservatism of Wahhabi Islam. This is the "progressive-regressive" methodology that Sartre (1963, pp. 85-166) outlined.

The oppressive character of Wahhabi Islam that is transmitted to, and then transmitted by, the veil includes the fact that Saudi Muslims are prohibited, under pain of punishment, from renouncing Islam and converting to another religion (Christianity, Judaism) or to atheism. Other repressive elements of Wahhabi Islam include the stifling of art, science, philosophy, entertainment, and education. Where Islamic culture was vibrant and its science was the envy of the world from the 7th-14th centuries, recent repressive policies of Islam have stunted science, the arts, and education in Saudi Arabia (Kuran, 2011).

Wahhabi leaders also support the stifling of democratic political participation. They abet the  repressive political policies of the Saudi royal family and other dictators in the mid-East. Islamic authority opposed social change such as land reform in the mid-East in the 1960s and 70s, in places such as Algeria; it enforced political repression in Iran where Khomeini imposed the veil (Lazreg, 2009, p. 98-99).

In contemporary Egypt, the Wahhabi Muslim Brotherhood has opposed democratic movements, working class strikes, and land reform for poor peasants. It is allied with the conservative rural rich, though also providing social services to the people that do not reform the social structure and power relations. Despotic leaders such as the Saudi Royal family enlist conservative Wahhabi Islam to control education, the courts, and the media as a way of cementing royal autocracy. The Saudi monarchy has spent billions of dollars promoting Wahhabi Islam and establishing mosques and Islamic schools throughout the mid-East. (In contrast, Sufi Islam supports democratic causes and opposes theocracy.) The fact that these reactionary despots support Wahhabi Islam testifies to the character of this religion’s practices, that encompass the niqab.

Ahmed (2011) explains how the niqab and hijab were adopted in Egypt as part of a reactionary political movement to close the country to Western liberal influence in the 1970s. It was not a personal choice. Nor was it a mere symbol of Islam. The veil was an active part of institutionalizing Islam; it was a political artifact for "Islamizing society" (Ahmed, p. 9).

Throughout the mid-East, Wahhabi Islam was a counter-revolution against emancipatory socio-political movements. In Egypt, it was directed against egalitarian, socialist reforms that Nasser's government had instituted in the 1960s. Egypt's new President, Sadat, allied his government with the Wahhabi Brotherhood to oppose the socialist reforms of his predecessor. Islam was not simply a religious movement; it was a conservative political movement. It opposed feminism (ibid. p. 79). This is the basis of veiling Muslim women. Wahhabi was a reactionary, backward-looking opposition to Western colonialism, in contrast to Nassar's progressive, socialist opposition to British colonialism. Wahhabi Islam replaced foreign colonialism with domestic colonialism.

A cultural hermeneutic analysis reveals that the veil is an element of a massive repressive, reactionary, theocratic State apparatus. All of this social-political conservativism and repression is incarnated and sedimented in the veil. It is the politics of the veil. The form and significance of the veil extends far beyond the individual, beyond women, and beyond religion; it extends to the political economy of society. The veil expresses this oppressive culture, politics, and psychology. The veil also imparts (socializes) these to women and men who encounter it. The veil was not invented as an adornment, it was designed by despotic, fundamentalist religious authority to impose cultural, political, familial, and sexual restrictions on women as part of a broader program of social and political repression.  

Rationalizing restriction. All oppressive policies/regimes rationalize oppression in non-oppressive terms. Even slavery and genocide are rationalized. Wahhabis justify the veiling (hooding) of women as protecting their sanctity and frailty. This is a protection racket -- an extortion scheme whereby a criminal group or individual forces a victim into servitude as a pretense of protecting her from violence. Racketeers make protection a form of oppression and they bill oppression as protection.


False consciousness of identifying with the Islamic veil

This social-political genesis, character, objective, and function of the veil means that Muslim women (and men) who identify with them unwittingly internalize and perpetuate their oppression/stultification -- in their social and psychological development, their relations with the opposite sex, their self-expression and self-fulfillment (see Ratner & Al-Badwi, 2011 for how Saudi artifacts and institutions generate psychological disturbance). Identifying with the veil perpetuates theocratic oppression as a personal desire. Women (and men) lend their subjectivity to pursuing the behavior -- "I feel good about wearing it," I feel dignified," "I want to wear it." This is what consumers do when they compulsively shop. They convert a profit-driven, induced, debilitating act into a supposedly personal free choice of self-expression. This obscures and silently perpetuates oppression in society at large and in the psychology of consumers.

Accepting the oppressive gender apartheid of women as protecting them for their own good is another element of false consciousness.

Several studies in the early 1980s on Egyptian women’s motivation for adopting the hijab demonstrate the false consciousness involved. First of all, most women (60%) did not know why they or other women had adopted it: “no one knows why one day everyone is wearing dresses and pants. I even wore a bathing suit when I went to the beach…then suddenly we are all wearing this on our hair” (Ahmed, 2011, p. 120). Equally mystified is the feeling that a woman had felt troubled before deciding to wear the hijab and that afterward she “now knew who I was.” Ignorance about one’s own motives for action means they are neither one’s own or rational.

Many Egyptian women felt they were utilizing the hijab for essentially personal and interpersonal reasons (objectives) and not as political statements for the Islamisation of society or denunciations of the West (ibid., p. 123). However, these subjective feelings about their own sartorial behavior are ignorant of its broader cultural-political origins, characteristics, and function. The concerted effort to induce women to wear the veil was a cultural-political movement with definite political objectives, including resisting Western civilization. “In Egypt, the Brotherhood and other Islamists set out to win over the mainstream Muslim majority, encouraging them to leave aside their beliefs, habits, practices, and ways of dress and to adopt in their place those of the Islamists” (ibid., pp. 100, 131-156). The Brotherhood erected minarets to call Muslims to prayer several times a day. Islamist organizations introduced the requirement that men and women sit in different rows in lecture halls. “The growing influence of the Brotherhood and of mainstream Islamists in society and in the professions did lead to a growing atmosphere of repression.  In these years (1990s) the legal system was used by Islamist lawyers to, in effect, harass and persecute people who did not share the views of Islamists” (p. 143). Some women reported that the hijab was not optional and voluntary, but was rather compulsory (ibid., pp. 124-125).

That most practitioners of the veil did not understand this cultural-political hermeneutic circle of their act makes their understanding false consciousness. Marx, Engels, and Lukacs defined false consciousness as precisely not understanding the cultural reasons for consciousness.

Lazreg (p. 126) trenchantly exposes the false consciousness of construing the Islamic veil as self-expression and fulfillment. It “rests on a dubious postmodernist conception of power according to which whatever a woman undertakes to do is liberating as long as she thinks that she is engaged in some form of ‘resistance’ or self-assertion, no matter how misguided” (p. 126).

(Abu-Lughod makes this postmodernist mistake in saying: “we need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this form, as in Iran or with the Taliban” (Abu-Lughod, 2002, p. 786). This is as untenable as urging us to not regard the swastika as a sign of Jews' unfreedom even if we object to its imposition by the Third Reich.)

Muslim women's religious feelings were no more authentic than consumerism is as a means to achieve identity. The fact that consumers ardently crave and identify with products, and feel agentive and fulfilled in buying and using them, does not make their passion authentic, personal, and fulfilling. It is important to elucidate this in order to point the way to truly fulfilling behavior.

False consciousness is additionally revealed in the fact that rationalizations for the hijab and niqab were specious. One rationalization is that the niqab protects women from unwanted advances from men. This is a bad solution that is worse than the problem. In the first place, there is no good reason to “protect” women from casual conversations and flirtations with men. (This is another instance of the Islamic protection racket described above.) Secondly, it is preposterous to segregate and de women as the means to achieve protection against flirtation. It is analogous to many Americans who feel vulnerable in public, attempting to feel secure by carrying guns all the time, even in school classrooms and music concerts. This is a frightening solution that is worse than the problem itself; for it compounds insecurity, violence, and the abrogation of personal-legal means to settling problems.

A far more fulfilling basis of security, identity, and harmonious gender relations would be to address structural causes of insecurity and conflict. Nassar attempted this through socio-economic reforms in Egypt. However, Wahhabis opposed them and choose instead to segregate and depersonalize women.


Personalizing the cultural-historical-political meaning of the veil

Many Muslim women attempt to reconfigure the cultural significance of the niqab as a symbol of their cultural and personal identity. They seek to appropriate the veil for their own use and meaning. They utilize it as a prideful symbol of resistance to Western culture. The question is whether this can be successfully accomplished.  

Lazreg argues it is not possible. She utilizes a macro cultural psychological argument that the oppressive cultural and political significance of the veil cannot be dispatched by an individual act of conscious assertion. As a Muslim woman sociologist, “I am at a loss to understand what new meaning could be imparted to a symbol of gender inequality.” “Seeking to rehabilitate the veil [as an uplifting symbol of cultural and personal identity] does not transcend the history that burdens it.” “Wearing a veil is not simply a personal act; it is a social convention.” “It is a force of social conservatism regardless of its occasional benefits for individual women.” “Muslims were attracted to the use of the veil, approved it, exaggerated its use, and dressed it up in religious raiment, just as other harmful customs have become firmly established in the name of religion.” “A woman who wears it cannot claim equality” (Lazreg, 2009, pp. 71, 65, 6-7, 36, 76, 101, 96).

To attempt to rehabilitate the significance of the niqab is to ignore its oppressive, restrictive, discriminatory cultural-political form and meaning. The niqab and hijab are signs and mechanisms of oppression, just as wearing the star of David was for Jews in Nazi Germany. The niqab is shackles of cloth, and it holds women down just as metal shackles held down slaves. “[The hajib is a] modern version of the medieval chastity belt” (p. 102). It is as naive to believe that women can  liberate themselves within the niqab as it is to believe that Jews could be emancipated while wearing the star of David.

A similar analogy is the swastika. It has a sordid history, politics, and culture. Today people do, and should, incorporate this into their emotional and behavioral reaction to it. They rightfully feel revulsion at the sight of a swastika. If someone identified with the swastika under the claim that it was just a pretty object, we would condemn her as insensitive and uninformed. We would say it implicitly glorifies Naziism which produced it and is incarnated in it as a collective representation. To challenge this engraved cultural-political significance on an individual level introducing a novel personal meaning to it is an imaginary, subjective change that the public will never apprehend.

The same problem would plague black people who decided to wear chains as a personal identity that personalized, negotiated, or resisted the cultural, material, historical, political meaning of slave chains – e.g., to indicate that blacks whose ancestors were slaves proudly proclaim their history as their own.

The fact that Muslim women actively seek to wear Islamic dress today as a statement of personal and cultural identity does not extirpate it from its historical-cultural-political baggage. “Conviction does not escape the overdetermining power of the context within which it occurs, which shapes its contours as well as its timing. Context is the most important factor that undermines the validity as well as the legitimacy of justifications for the veil at the current historical conjuncture” (ibid., p. 124).

Of course, we are speaking here about identifying with the specific, restrictive, depersonalizing, segregating dress known as niqab, hiqab, and burqa. Our characterization of this identification as false consciousness of oppression does not extend to all forms of Islamic or religious dress. We do not say that wearing and identifying with a simple hair covering is false consciousness of oppression. For a simple hair covering does not restrict, depersonalize, or segregate women. It is a simple token of religious observance, like wearing a small cross to express Christian faith. A simple hair covering does not incarnate the objectively oppressive cultural-political history (and intentions) that the niqab, hiqab, and burqa incarnate.   


Practical Relevance


Emancipating subjectivity

Identifying with and personalizing oppressive customs perpetuates their oppressiveness in society and in individual consciousness. This is why the African psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, who fought for Algerian independence against the French, declared that “We are aiming at nothing less than to liberate the black man from himself [his false consciousness]” (Fanon, 2008, pp. xii-xiii).

A politically conscious Muslim would come to reflect on how her identifications, perceptions, emotions, cognition, and gendered behavior such as modesty are forms of subjectivation (social powers forming subjectivity) that reproduce oppressive social practices which have weighed down the entire society. She would recognize that the Wahhabi Islam which coerces her to wear the niqab is responsible for stultifying art, science, philosophy, critical thinking, education, political democracy, and women’s social opportunities and personal development (Kuran, 2011). The niqab would be hermeneutically apprehended as an element of this system. This change in political and personal consciousness would be reflected in new disfavorable perceptions, emotions, identification, and cognitions about the niqab that anchors the cultural-psychological system.

When Muslim women historically have fought for structural change and genuine emancipation, they have repudiated Islamic symbols of gender oppression and discrimination. When Egyptian women discarded the veil from 1919 through the 1960s, this refusal was part of a general refusal to accept the oppressed, backward status of the country as a British colony. Refusing the veil was an expression of lifting the blinders, the subjection, and exclusion of women. The refusal was embraced by men who wanted women to be companions, not servants. "As the nation moved in 1919 toward hoped-for independence from the British, a young Egyptian artist produced a sculpture that he entitled 'The Awakening of Egypt.' It showed Egypt as a young woman peasant lifting her veil" (ibid., p. 39). "For men as well as women, unveiling was emblematic of the desire and hope for a new social and political order, for the promise of modernity. It was emblematic of the will to stand up to injustice in all its forms" (p. 40).

Similarly, during the Algerian Civil War, Muslim women participated in the struggle against social oppression and “were eager to move about, unswaddled by their silky white sheets” (Lazreg, p. 98).

Similarly, Western women in the1960s expressed their rejection of oppressive social roles by adopting freer forms of dress. American Blacks similarly rejected imposed forms of white culture after analyzing their historical-political roots. Importantly, these political rejections of oppressive social practices and artifacts informed subjective reactions to them. What blacks formerly perceived as beautiful (e.g., straight hair, light complexion) became ugly, and vice versa (“Afro” hair became beautiful).


False consciousness resists emancipation, not oppression

An expression and indicator of false consciousness is identifying with oppression and repudiating alternatives to it. Many Chinese women continued breaking and binding their girls' feet after footbinding was banned in 1911. They practiced it until 1949 when the Communists eradicated it. These governments had to liberate people from themselves, from their oppressive desires, perceptions, and calculations. (Just when and how governments should do this requires discussion.)

Muslim women similarly resist opportunities to free themselves of their veils. When the French and Belgium governments condemned the cultural-political significance of the niqab and prohibited wearing it in public as an affront to values of gender equality and freedom, many Muslim women in those countries and even non-Muslim women in Western countries—along with the European Human Rights Commission—decried the ban as an infringement on the freedom of dress and expression. (This is an odd objection from Muslim women whose own countries have the strictest dress codes in the world and allow for no freedom of dress. If Muslim countries can prohibit women from wearing casual clothing in public, why can’t Western countries prohibit the wearing of the niqab? If we would criticize Swedish women for wearing bikinis and shorts in Riyadh, why can’t we criticize Saudi women for wearing the niqab in Stockholm as an affront to local customs?

   Demanding that Muslim women be “free” to wear the niqab is a double standard in another sense. The defenders of the veil deem it to be a human right to choose what to wear. Prohibiting a form of dress is deemed a violation of human rights. However, many defenders of the niqab condemn sexually provocative clothing in their own countries.)


Critical Debates


Cultural Relativism/Indigenous Psychology

Cultural relativists oppose the notion of a false consciousness that does not know its culture or the origins, characteristics, and function of its psychology. They reject false consciousness as


Š      defamatory and condescending toward indigenous people

Š      arbitrarily stigmatizing cultural differences from the dominant power 

Š      used to justify colonialism -- "they're backwards so we must correct them"


Lukes (2008) explains the political basis of cultural relativism.

To protect people from such arbitrary disrespect and violation, relativists validate the practices and self-understanding of indigenous people. They regard cultural differences as arbitrary -- like eating sushi or hamburgers -- and not subject to evaluation. (Cultural differences are construed as "horizontal" -- on the same level -- rather than "vertical" -- ordered in a hierarchy of better and worse.) Cultural relativism is also known as indigenous psychology. Indigenous psychology understands culture and psychology from the self-understanding of the indigenous people who inhabit them.

The relativist position has become instantiated in law; criticizing Islam is now a punishable offense in several European countries. In the past few months, a Danish court fined writer Lars Hedegaard for talking about Islam’s treatment of women in his own home. Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was convicted and fined in Austria in February 2011 for “denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion” because in a seminar she was teaching on Islam she stated that “Muhammad had a thing for little girls” – because according to an authoritative Islamic text (hadith), Muhammad at 56 years of age married one of his wives when she was six years old and engaged in sexual intercourse with her when she was nine.

An example of the relativist/indigenous viewpoint is Abu-Lughod's (2002, p. 786) publication that says people only see the world as they have been conditioned by their own society; therefore, no other, external perspective is relevant to them. They they could never understand or accept an external view, nor should they be asked to. What they construct within their own culture works for them and is nobody else’s business. Abu-Lughod condemns external perspectives as violating indigenous people’s sovereignty. She rhetorically asks, “Is it not a gross violation of women’s own understandings of what they are doing to simply denounce the burqa as a medieval imposition?” (ibid., p. 786). 

This rhetorical question suggests that Islamic women who identify with the veil are doing it voluntarily, for good reason, and they should not be denounced for unwittingly accepting an imposed medieval custom. To question peoples’ self-understanding and cultural practices is to insult the people themselves.

Abu-Lughod provides no evidence for any of her arbitrary cultural relativist assumptions. We have seen that all of them are false in the case of wearing and identifying with the contemporary niqab – just as they are false in the case of American consumers and American working class people voting for conservatives who worsen their socioeconomic position. It would be nice if false consciousness did not exist and if people controlled and understood their cultures and psychology; however, these are goals to be achieved, not an existing state of affairs. True consciousness requires a profound critique of society and a thorough transformation of it.

Proclaiming that people already possess true consciousness denies that is necessary to change society and consciousness to achieve it. This "humanistic proclamation" overlooks people's existing false consciousness and psychology of oppression, and it traps people within them.

Fanon’s prescient writings on colonialism and anti-colonialism help to expose the inadequacy of glorifying the status quo or the past. Fanon cites Marx’s statement in The Eighteenth Brumaire: “The social revolution cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped itself of all its superstitions concerning the past" (Fanon 2008, p. 198).  The process of opposing oppression and becoming fulfilled must break with oppressive tradition, not identify with it. “In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past.” “I am not the prisoner of history. I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction” (ibid., pp. 201, 204). Fanon fights so that the oppressive past of his people will never be repeated (p. 202). “The struggle does not give back to the national culture its former values and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or content of the people’s culture” (Fanon, 1968, p. 243).

The three reasons that cultural relativists/indigenous psychologists give for denying false consciousness are unwarranted.


The construct of false consciousness does not disparage people or justify colonizing them. The construct repudiates existing class society and the domination by the ruling class. It calls for the replacement of this oppressive social system by a democratic, cooperative, collective system. This is far from colonialism.

We have explained in detail why critiquing false consciousness is not an arbitrary stigmatizing of cultural differences. False consciousness is based upon macro cultural factors that have been shown to be objectively oppressive. Moreover, false consciousness has been shown to objectively recapitulate oppressive cultural factors and to objectively debilitate people. False consciousness is an Objektiver Geist, in Dilthey's and Hegel's term, which means an objective cultural mentality, Volkerpsychologie, or mentalité in French historiography (Hutton, 1981), just as prejudice, romantic love, personal space, and impulsive-compulsive consumerism are.

Cultural relativists refuse to recognize indigenous, domestic oppression (see Sikka, 2012 for a critique of this refusal). They depoliticize, and deculturize culture and psychology; they treat them as abstractions and ignore politics that inform them. For example, Abu-Lughod uses the cultural relativist claim that the niqab and burqa are simply icons of modesty and morality, no different from any other society’s (p. 785). She claims that French women are similarly forced to cover their bodies with clothing. All clothing covers the body, and the burqa is just one way of realizing this abstract phenomenon, just as valid as the French way, and no more restrictive.

This claim reduces the concrete to the abstract: concrete differences are nothing more than diverse forms of a common abstraction.

This is as wrong-headed as claiming that slave labor and worker-owned cooperatives are just different forms of the common abstraction "work." Just as concrete differences in forms of work are substantive and irreducible to the abstraction, so forms of clothing are irreducible to the abstraction "clothing." French clothing has none of the restrictive, segregationist, discriminatory, and depersonalizing cultural-political origins, features, and functions of the burqa.

(Lower class oppressed behavior is similarly abstracted from its political-economic basis and idealized as just a culturally different behavior. For example, when lower class blacks speak an ungrammatical form of English, and do not achieve basic literacy, numeracy, and writing skills, do not employ logical reasoning, and communicate in limited linguistic forms (that are unintelligible to the majority of the society’s people) instead of generalizable, abstract forms, this is idealized as “black poetic communication” that should be accepted by teachers, employers, etc.  This relativism does not consider the political-economic reasons/conditions that generate the behavior, the cognitive and communicative limits of the behavior, the personal consequences for the subjects (for educational success, occupational success), or the cultural function of the behavior – to maintain a permanent, immobile, disposable, exploitable underclass of people to work when needed by capitalists at low-skilled, dead-end jobs. Willis, 1977 desribes how these issues are imposed upon, and limit, lower class behavior).

It is also irresponsible to validate the niqab and hijab as genuine, authentic signs of modesty that should be respected. Underneath, Saudi women wear revealing clothing, tight, low-cut jeans, sexy lingerie, and they adorn themselves with make-up, perfume, and jewelry. They are not modest in their desires or tastes. The veil simply hides this from public view. This hypocrisy deserves no respect as genuine modesty.

Equally disingenuous is the Islamic contention that Islamic garb equalizes women in a common appearance. In fact, the hiqab is tailored for different classes of women. Expensive hijabs are replete with silver and gold sequins that contrast with the stark, unadorned cheap versions. Moreover, below the hem of the hijab, rich women wear fancy shoes that contrast with the bare shoes of poor women.

The false modesty of Muslim women’s protective attire is further revealed in the fact that Muslim women in Western countries often work in the bowels of finance, in predatory, fraudulent companies such as Goldman Sachs. These companies earn obscene profits and interest on speculative monetary transactions that flagrantly contradict Islamic principles. Yet during this sacrilege, Muslim financiers sanctimoniously proclaim their purity by insisting upon wearing hijabs, refusing to shake hands with men, and insisting on praying throughout the day. One Muslim financier at Goldman Sachs rationalized her behavior as follows: ““What I was doing wasn’t 100 percent legitimate in terms of religious ruling,” Ms. Jukaku says of her work at Goldman. “But after a while, you stop feeling guilty, I guess” (New York Times, April 15, 2012, p. BU1). So she could overcome her guilt at making millions of dollars on deceptive, speculative, profit-seeking deals, but could not bear the guilt over shaking the hand of a man or removing the veil.


Future Directions


In contrast, to the socially conservative politics of uncritically validating subjectivity regardless of its oppressive character and cultural context, the concept of false consciousness is critical and liberatory because it exposes oppressive cultural factors and forms of psychology. This is the way to genuinely respect people and support them.

Contemporary humanistic social philosophy is anti-political in that it ignores politics of human behavior and macro culture, and attributes behavior and culture to the free, agentive individual. In contrast, true liberation requires counter-politics that challenge the politics of macro cultural factors and psychology.

The most important implication of this chapter is to create a democratic, cooperative society that would eradicate false consciousness. Such a society would be run by the populace so they would be aware of the social structure and dynamics. The populace has no interest in obfuscating and promulgating oppression through falsifying epistemologies and ontologies; for this would debilitate themselves. Creating a democratic, cooperative society will eradicate the basis of false consciousness and the social functionality of false consciousness. Macro cultural changes are the key to psychological enhancement. s




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