The hypocrisy of burqa banning

NS August 19th, 2009

Yes, I’m talking to you, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The French President says the burqa has no place in modern French society because it is “not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women.” He goes on to say: “…it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.”

A French minister responsible for families expressed concern that some women would not be allowed out of their homes if they were banned from wearing the burqa and how this would further isolate them. I think her fears are justified. What does a ban on a type of clothing common to religious fundamentalists who use their power to oppress an entire class of people do, exactly? It isolates and humiliates the very people it’s meant to protect and enrages the oppressors. Rarely does a ban enacted under the guise of protection do anything but make the people doing the banning feel better about themselves. Rarely do those doing the banning help come up with viable alternatives or proposed exceptions, or make real attempts at diplomatically discussing the issue to explore why the activity is objectionable to some people in the first place.

However, despite protestations, Sarkozy seems intent on defending “French values” wherein women have the right to dress how they want. No matter that the way many women in France dress is prescripted by a male-dominated society that puts pressure on them to appear thin, beautiful and youthful for as long as possible. If men didn’t like the way the way high heels looked on women, would anyone wear them? If men weren’t obsessed with big breasts, would women get implants or wear uncomfortable, underwired, push-up bras?

Undoubtedly, many women claim to “like” high heels and that their implants were put in “for them” but because of the value Western society places on long legs and big breasts, it is impossible to know if these women truly do these things because they prefer them or because they have been conditioned to believe they are necessary for their self-esteem and helpful in attracting and keeping the kind of partner they want (i.e. by appearing thin, beautiful and youthful).

Therefore, to ban the burqa because it subjugates women is not a good enough reason because a) it is impossible to tell whether a woman is wearing it freely or not;  b) in cases where extreme subjugation is taking place, the woman in question will likely be further oppressed and isolated; and c)  it is entirely hypocritical of a Western society that also puts pressure on women to look a certain way for the benefit of men and passively allows (if not actively encourages) practices that subjugate its own female citizens, to pass judgment on another culture’s method of oppression.

As uncomfortable as it may make us to see women remain invisible behind the burqa, the wearers’ true selves are not necessarily more hidden away and denigrated than a woman with a face caked with make-up who walks down a British, French or American street in her short skirt and impossibly high heels, hoping someone (likely a man) reaffirms her right to exist and be noticed.

Consequently, banning the burqa (or miniskirts and makeup, for that matter) would merely be attacking a symptom of a disease, not the cause of it. Second class status and impossible beauty standards are the hacking cough and streaming nose of the virus called Patriarchy. And no woman, no matter in how “free” a society she lives, can avoid being contaminated by it.

24 Responses to “The hypocrisy of burqa banning”

  1. Anji says:

    I have nothing poignant or meaningful to say… “Hear, hear!” is the best I can come up with. :D

  2. andrea t. says:

    As someone who speaks Arabic, has spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and way too much time studying the Middle East in American universities, I must say that I have never heard so eloquent a defense of women who are Muslims. This post needs a wider audience, NS. Very rarely do we read about women without the qualifier of “Muslim,” and you did away with it absolutely perfectly. Most people who write on this in an academic sense either exceptionalize Islam (“Islam is an inferior religion/culture”) or pretend there is no oppression in the first place (“Islam is misunderstood”). You were able to so succinctly capture the issue that I can hardly believe that you haven’t spent fifty years thinking and writing about it. Bravo, my dear. I am not surprised.

  3. NS says:

    @Anji – LOL. That’s the best I come up with when I read things you write as well! Thanks.

    @andrea t – Thank you my dear, that means a hell of a lot coming from you. As someone who really knows next to nothing about Islam in the academic sense, I can only go by my gut feelings and try to understand situations through a feminist lens. It’s nice to know I didn’t muck it up entirely!

  4. andrea t. says:

    I just re-read what I wrote – and I think it sounds condescending. I didn’t mean to! Of course you know what you’re talking about. I just read so much effing crap about it on a daily basis that I was stunned to come across what I’ve struggled to say – not only from someone who isn’t stuck in my little bubble but also from my college roomie! I love love love it! I maintain that this should be on the front page of the NYT or WaPo.

  5. BoozleBox says:

    Hmmmm. This is a tough one. I must state up front that I loathe the full veil with a passion and I agree with the principle that it has no place in French or indeed British society. A full ban? I guess not because as you say it may further isolate vulnerable women. But I think we should state as strongly as possible that it is culturally unacceptable for women to be completely covered. It’s not a popular view I know and I expect to get grief for it. And while I support someone’s right to dress as they choose, it is the inequality of the full veil that’s so enraging to me. No fully covered Muslim men around – can’t women be unintentionally inflamed with passion by a good-looking man?

    As for impossible beauty standards – well I think the view of Western societies portrayed by the media show alot of limited stereotypes that affect everyone, men, women, gay, atheist, etc etc. But looking around at the myriad people we’re surrounded by it seems that individuals can and do, pick and choose what standards they want to apply to themselves. Despite the obsession with youth and beauty the ‘shallow’ Westerners have somehow managed to produce a society where you can find all types of people with all types of beliefs. I also think changing how you look to try and attract a mate is too complex a behaviour to blame completely on patriarchy.

    Sorry – I’ve written an essay and a confused one at that. But I worry about fully covered women. For those that have no choice in the matter – well I’d hate to be complicit in that.

  6. jen says:

    the burqa is psychologically harmful to women – both those who wear it, and those who observe others wearing it.

    and while i’m not sure that banning it would achieve any greater aims, i keep thinking about the argument that people challenge me with when i boycott a particular place or product.

    they remind me that my small act of boycott, will likely do no good. and i can only counter with: it may not effect any fundamental change… but at least i will not be complicit in something i disagree with. i have to believe that that is the same position Sarkozy is coming from…in which case, i have a hard time calling him a hypocrite.

    i don’t know what the answer is. i think in this instance, where so many others make decisions on behalf of the women who wear the burqa, that whether they are currently able to exercise their choice in this matter or not, we should not take this decision away from them as well.

  7. jen says:

    i should also add: i see the full burqa here on an almost daily basis, and, as scary as it is… i’ve gotten used to it. in many ways, that unsettles me even more.

  8. NS says:

    @andrea t. – No, it wasn’t condescending, I promise.

    @Boozle Box – Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do feel viscerally that the burqa oppresses women but I know that it is much more complex and deep-seated than I, a non-Islamic woman, can comprehend. Though I realise that a direct comparison between the burqa and Western society’s beauty ideals don’t have perhaps the same political implications, I still maintain that they are cultural markers that seek to contort women’s appearances for the comfort, satisfaction or pleasure of men. In the burqa’s case, men are afraid of what impact a woman’s sexuality has on them while in Western culture, a man fears what a woman’s sexuality would mean if it were viewed through a lens other than Male.

    @jen – I do think that there’s a hypocrisy on Sarkozy’s part for wanting to BAN the burqa, not just vocally oppose it. He can do the latter all he wants and I won’t stop him. He’s entitled to his opinion and I may even agree with most of his points. But banning an item of clothing when it is so tied up in oppression, religion and sexuality is a dangerous, dangerous thing and only serves to allay Western fears of what the burqa represents to *us*, not necessarily the women wearing it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the idea of the burqa at all, but unless we can kill the root of the oppression that led to its donning in the first place, a ban could potentially do more harm than good.

  9. nicola says:

    As usual, an incredibly thought-provoking piece. And I totally agree – particularly with the last sentence of your comment reply to Jen. I am by no means an expert on these matters. I have read a few books – some fiction, some non – which explore this issue and am totally uncomfortable with all ‘traditions’ or religious rules which impact how women are allowed to behave / dress within society. This includes even the tradition of women taking their husband’s name, which to me just smacks of old-fashioned ownership/2nd class citizenship than anything to do with creating a family bond or to indicate how much love there is between a couple. Also in Orthodox Judism wives are meant to cover their own hair with a wig at all times when in the company of other men and always wear skirts. I just don’t get it. Of course, the Burqa is the most extreme form of oppression and I welcome strategies to ultimately free women from it. But as you say, I think a ban within a Western Society is not the answer.

  10. jen says:

    sorry, i still disagree – it just seems to me that saying he shouldn’t try to end one form of oppression unless he can do something about *all other forms of oppression* as well, seems just as futile as saying he should do nothing.

    further, i don’t think we can say that it just about assuaging our Western sensibilities. we can’t know that it *doesn’t* have an impact on the women who wear it, for the exact same reasons we can’t know that they electively choose to wear it.

    (in all practicality, he couldn’t actually ban the burqa if he tried, so what does he actually have to lose by taking a strong stand against it? it seems to me, he has little to lose and much to gain, which is probably why he did it.)

    all that being said… as i mentioned above, i think that we cannot take this decision out of the hands of women, no matter how well intentioned our motives may be. not because it may further isolate them by banning, but because the principle that lies at the foundation of this is that NO ONE and NO GOVERNMENT, should be making decisions about what they do or do not wear.

  11. andrea says:

    I’ve got to respond to Jen (and I’ve followed you on NS’s blog, and I’m not a troll, I swear!).

    Banning is ineffective. It does – and must – provoke. Sarkozy – as a head of state – has a LOT to lose, and so does France; even if the folks who currently live in the shanties can’t vote, their children surely will. Europe has a completely different immigration issue than does the US (where I live), and I understand that. However, Am nailed it. The burqa *is* the makeup and high heels of our own culture. It really is. It is how women protect themselves, and how they negotiate a political space to which we will never be privy. We are tourists, no matter how much time we spend “among.” I have lived in the Middle East, and while that includes glorious places like Damascus (where the veil is – when employed – merely a fashion statement), the burqa is also a political statement. As unbelievable as that is to us Westerners, it is. It is a statement against the authoritarian rule in Egypt and Syria and Iraq – states that officially claim secularism but are only nominally so. Islam has become the vehicle by which people protest government oppression (this happened in Iran post-1979). There are no democratic outlets. Islam is the only viable sanctioned expression of protest. The burqa is a very recent phenomenon – I’d argue that it is indeed a unique product of modernity. We in the West must be incredibly careful about superimposing our own standards of normative behavior on a people who have suffered enormously under the standards of our ancestors. You will get nowhere with bans and censorship – they never work, and they never will, in sha’ allah. Only when we approach women in the way NS suggests – which is incredibly radical, by the way – will we get somewhere. The burqa is much a part of Islam as make-up and high heels are of our (supposedly) secular culture. We’ll go nowhere with the burqa until we recognize our own bullshit.
    NB: I’ve been drinking wine, and fear this made no sense. I’m sorry!

  12. geekymummy says:

    Hear hear from me too.

    Where will he draw the line? Burqa banned but headscarfs OK? All head covering banned? People can wear what they choose, even if we don;t agree with those choices (or even agree that they are “choices”)

    You can’t promote freedom by using oppression.

    Would a man be banned from wearing one? How would those enforcing the law be able to tell?

    So very many problems with reactionary laws like this.

  13. NS says:

    @Nicola – You’re right, there are many other cultural and religious traditions that oppress women and restrict their behaviour and dress. While the burqa may represent an extreme form of it and seem the worst among them all, I think part of our revulsion at it is simply that we are not used to seeing it, and what it represents. We’re used to seeing Pentecostal women with their long, never-been-cut hair and long skirts; we’re used to seeing Jewish women with their hair covered; we begrudgingly accept that some evangelical Christian women will ‘willingly’ subjugate themselves to the task of being a submissive wife and reproductive machine because they have been conditioned to believe that it is their place, and all they can be good at. To me, the burqa is just like any of these but I have to wonder if the reason it offends us even more than the others is because it is the opposite of everything our own society demands of women — more skin, more sex appeal.

    @jen – I don’t believe that he shouldn’t speak out against the burqa and the roots of its oppression against women until he’s eradicated other forms of oppression, but banning it altogether without a thought for the implications for those living under its rule smacks of arrogance, fear and, yes, hypocrisy. However, that hypocrisy is not the main reason I find a potential banning reprehensible, merely a part of it. I completely agree with you that no government should be able to tell a woman what to do with her body or dictate her behaviour. I don’t like it at all. But the fact remains that they *do* and many women gladly participate in their opression because they too have been indoctrinated. A ban may relieve those women who are already politically aware enough to know that it oppresses them, but for a large percentage of women who wear the burqa (or other variations on the veil) “willingly” (i.e. through social conditioning), a ban may only double their resolve to demonstrate that the burqa doesn’t oppress them and, in some instances, even frees them.

    It also sends a message to Islamic fundamentalists that only serves to fuel their image of us as moral arbiters interested only in promoting and protecting our own cultural norms, not necessarily in helping them better theirs. This is why, despite my personal dislike of the burqa and understanding that its root is deeply misogynistic, I still think a ban would do more harm than good.

    @andrea t. – Thank you again for sharing your interesting insights as someone who has lived in the ME and studies the implications of issues such as this. Your perspective is really interesting.

  14. I respectfully disagree with the idea that the burqa allows women to protect themselves and negotiate a political space that one of the posters above suggested.

    I have a different perspective on this issue as my husband and his family have spent much of their lives in the Middle East and are Turkish. My father-in-law worked with the UN as a diplomat and they spent much time living in places from Cairo to Tehran and are fiercely proud of the fact that Turkey is still a secular nation, although that has changed slightly with their new government. However, dinnertime conversations are peppered with phrases that they picked up whilst living in places like Afghanistan, a place where uncles routinely sleep with their nephews, such as, “Women are for procreation, boys are for fun.”

    I could spend several years typing out the stories of things that my mother-in-law had to endure as a female living in some of these countries, the high point being when she was forced to dress from head to toe in a full-on burqua to witness the statue of a dead Muslim hero. When one of her toes was showing, one of the women accompanying her shrieked that she needed to cover herself up completely, or the the statue of the dead man might see her flesh. Forget the fact that the man was now dead and it was in fact a statue that they were going to see. No, the other women around her thought it would be horribly disrespectful to let your little toe peek out of your clothing.

    While I do agree that placing a ban on the burqua will no doubt make many people get up in arms and probably accomplish the exact opposite of what it’s meant to do, I do think that when in Rome, you must do what the Romans do.

    When I visit mosques in Istanbul that they allow females inside, I’m supposed to wear a headscarf and do so out of respect because this is a rule of theirs. Here in the West, we don’t wear headscarves. My personal belief is that if I, as a female, am expected to wear either a headscarve or a burqua if I visit the Middle East and abide by their rules and laws that they, too, should abide by the rules of the West when they are here. So while some Muslims may get angry at Sarkozy’s idea of banning the burqua, there are many people that are equally angry at the fact that they must wear cover themselves if they visit the Middle East. I think the best thing to do in general is to respect the fact that these are two totally different cultures and to follow the rules of the land where you happen to be at the time.

    Just my two pence worth.

  15. jen says:

    well first, i think my larger point (that a ban disempowers women as much as the burqa does and that on that principle alone, i could never agree it) is being a bit lost.

    and of course a call for a ban is deliberately provocative. however there are many other acts of oppression and abuse which we already ban by law – for example, beating or raping women. we would never argue that beating or raping one’s wife should be allowed because women might suffer more isolation or abuse if it is banned. look at the recent law in afghanistan – we have no problem speaking out against that and calling it morally reprehensible, we have no qualms about taking the moral high ground there.

    so if you believe (as many do) that the burqa is a form of psychological abuse, then there is no contradiction.

    those who wear it may view it as a political statement, or feel it empowers them. just as people who wear other types of deliberately provocative clothing do. however the huge distinction for me, lies in this: we who decide not to wear miniskirts or high heels are not *punished* for not doing so.

    that’s where the analogy falls apart, in my view. what are the consequences for choosing not to submit? there is simply no comparison betweem the stakes for rebelling against the burqa, and rebelling against high heels.

    in any case, as i said before, i don’t know the answers. but i don’t think such a complex issue is neatly compartmentalised by calling people who feel they’re taking a stand against active abuse hypocrites. i think they’re calling it like they see it – and while i may disagree with the approach, i can fully understand the sentiment.

  16. I like the parallels you raise between the burqa and the idealised and narrow view of female attractiveness seen within Western society. As the mother of daughters, the early classification of girls into thin and pretty and those who aren’t worries me intensely

  17. Ellen says:

    I love the analogy you’ve drawn to illustrate different kinds of oppression. I think your point is an important one. Too many women, in any society, dress and present themselves in order to please men. Obviously, wearing the burqa is a little more complicated than wearing high heels in that it is done for religious as well as societal reasons. But after all, Allah is seen as male, so in a sense you could say that even religious devotion is another example of “man”-pleasing for a woman. Will we never be free of this eternal judging of women by men??

    Bravo for such a thought-provoking article.

    BTW, you might like to read one of the posts I wrote about hijab dress: There’s a difference between the headscarf and the full burqa, but I suspect that both make non-Muslim people uncomfortable. Another thing I wish people would realize is that there is a wide variation of dress among Muslim women; some don’t dress hijab at all. The women I work with–who happen to be doctors–wear tunics and pantsuits with their colorful headscarves. Some even wear high heels! We need to broaden our perspectives to include the possibility that many Muslim women wear hijab dress because it is meaningful to them, not because they are forced to.

  18. mothership says:

    wonderful, well thought out piece. I love the parallels you draw between the underwired bra and the mutilating implants and the burqua. Also how the ban will merely empower the enforcers of the burqua but further vicitmize the wearers. Bravo! I’m going to RT this fabulous post.

  19. Eruname says:

    (found your blog through an expat site…I’ve really been enjoying your writing!)

    While you do raise very valid points and I don’t see how an all out ban is going to make things better my thoughts are still more on the lines of frost at midnight and BoozleBox.

    “the wearers’ true selves are not necessarily more hidden away and denigrated than a woman with a face caked with make-up who walks down a British, French or American street in her short skirt and impossibly high heels,”

    This I most definitely do not agree with. While I can agree that the main reason why makeup and high heels have come around is for women to attract men, those items still do not cover up women in the same way and if one wears them, it isn’t necessarily to cover up but to enhance. I personally wear makeup because it makes me look a hell of a lot better. :P I don’t need for men to find me attractive. I’ve got a husband and he’s seen me at my worst. But eyeliner, mascara and lipstick enhance my features. It makes me happy with what I see. It pleases me. It’s the same as when I edit photos and dodge and burn certain parts to bring out the contrast…and in many ways makeup can be art. I think it has both good and bad qualities depending on the manner it is used.

    But a burqa doesn’t enhance. It does the exact opposite. It dehumanizes. I was thinking about this the other day while watching footage of the Afghanistani elections (which was before I read this blog entry of yours). When women are completely covered up like that, they don’t look like humans anymore. They look like some thing walking around…a commodity. While makeup and high heels can have some bad aspects in no way do they come close to what a burqa does in my opinon. At least we can still see the woman’s features and can see that she is a human and an individual.

  20. Mercy says:

    Agree with the points made that some women do (for whatever reason) chose to wear the burqa and if you are going to ban it because it’s a symbol of oppression then that ban should go hand in hand with a ban on breast implants, high heels and skimpy/restrictive clothing too even though some women chose to have/wear them.

    One aspect that hasn’t been touched on is this: broadly speaking in Western societies, a covered face (whether with a veil or hand covering mouth, etc) is culturally recognised as hiding something or dishonest – a widow used to wear a veil to signify her withdrawal from society due to grief, a bride covers her face to signify her withrawal from other man but reveals her face to her husband during the marriage ceremony, the liar fidgets, puts their hand over their mouth. I think therefore there is an argument for burqa-wearing women and men who favour burqas to re-think the veil particularly if living in Western societies.

    I declare an interest in that I’m hard of hearing and sometimes need to lip read. It is very awkward trying to talk to someone with a veil over their face because I can’t see that I’ve made my hearing problem clear and that she understands I need her to uncover her mouth.

  21. Iota says:

    i can’t abide it when I see women on tv talking about how their cosmetic surgery did wonders for their self-confidence. How truly sad that we are bringing up our children in a society where their self-worth is wrapped up in the size of their body parts, or their hairstyles, or the way they make up their face for that matter.

    I saw a new oncologist this week, and he was surprised that I hadn’t opted for reconstructive breast surgery after double mastectomy. He said

    “you’re young, you’re fit…”

    to which I had the presence of mind (doesn’t often happen) to reply

    “I’m young, I’m fit, and I’m happy”.

    I don’t think he was pressurising me. Just found me something of an anomaly, I think. But of course it made me feel “am I weird among women? does EVERYONE have reconstruction except me?” and that was slightly pressurising.

    I agree with you that there is a parallel: Western women are pressured to look a certain way just as Burqa-wearing Muslim women. And we’re led to believe it’s all our own free choice. It is too complex an issue just to ban the burqa.

  22. An old schoolmate of mine has this quote that I quite like and think is relevant to the thought of women wearing burquas everywhere:

    “The absolute absence of women in the public space is the most disorienting aspect of being in Saudi. Those that are present are shapeless, expressionless, noiseless figures usually accessorized with small children. Were there any other women walking to the mall or anywhere else? Of course there weren’t, because there are no women visible anywhere in public.”

    Kind of creepy. The rest of the post is here and I love all of Carpetblogger’s blog in general and her views about life away from the West.

  23. andrea says:

    Saudi is often called the most conservative place on earth. I think that’s an insult to conservatives. I see what you’re saying, but Saudi is not the model for Islam. Saudi Islam is where Islam went to die. I’m serious. That’s the most fucked up place on earth.

    I loved reading all the comments here, and I think it’s such an interesting issue. Thanks to NS for bringing it up so lucidly and eloquently.

  24. [...] Savage writes an excellent post about “The Hypocrisy of Burqa Banning.” [...]