France and the Burqa

This post was written by Guest Post on January 20, 2010
Posted Under: Islamophobia,Religion

Guest post by Carl Packman

While Sarkozy in France has realised that the burqa ban will be harder to enforce than originally believed – and so, therefore, will be shelved – another group of angry right wing men (and women), this time in Britain, have decided the issue is for them, namely UKIP, and for not too dissimilar reasons to those that originally informed UMP’s plans.  

The fact that Sarkozy has “climbed down” has sparked the debate of enforcement and his strength as incumbent once again, but enforcement is only one element of the argument at play here, with regards to the burka. Rumbold, in a piece for pickled politics, has rightly said that

Enforcing such a ban would be hard. Would we have police ripping off women’s clothes if their faces were covered? Pregnant women and young mothers put behind bars for repeatedly defying the ban? Would anyone who covered their face up be breaking the law?

As we can see, for Rumbold it is not as simple as detailing who exactly is eligible to be vilified were this new law ever to be passed – if it were so then extended rigidity of the law would be the answer – but rather questions on how the police would operate, what would be their limits, and what would be the women’s human rights, are raised.

Those who are not instrumental in policy have a far easier ride in many ways; they can question whether the banning of the burqa is legitimate with little concern for their practical application, and our ideas – so far as we are strong headed about them – need not come into compromise with others’. On this basis I shall explain why I despise burqa’s, but am against the banning of them. In doing this I will largely ignore whether my ideas are enforceable, because for me whether something is right or wrong transcends the problems it might be met with in trying to apply them. Freedom should not be compromised by people with ideas to the contrary.

France has been trying to ban the burqa for many years now, using its obedience to the ideas of the republic, liberty and equality, as justification. But a full ban would have been met with many setbacks. It was originally believed that in the scheme of things France was immune from Islamic-led criticism, especially in the early stages of the Iraq war, which French forces declined to take part in. The imagined respect that the French felt they had saw many American and British journalists “pretending they [were] French when they [stepped] into hot spots,” according to Georges Malbrunot, a French journalist working for Le Figaro. Days later, that particular journalist was kidnapped by a group of Wahabbi fundamentalists, calling for the ban on headscarfs in public schools to be repealed, to which Chirac responded with a resounding non, shortly before a show of solidarity with French Muslims, showing how all religions could operate freely inside the republic, albeit privately. This was a huge step for those who supported the ban, but Sarkozy’s great leap has been more punctuated, turning from a full ban to a ban in public places, to temporary shelving, with grievances from the European Court of Human Rights to boot.

Nevertheless the burqa remains a tool for submission. But how this submission is identified remains a wider problem. Last year France denied a Moroccan woman citizenship for her incompatibility to French values, particularly equality of the sexes. Further details saw that the woman, known as Faiza M., had lived in France since 2000 with her husband and three children all of whom were born in France, though social services reported that she lived in “total submission” to her husband. Reports of her incompatible radical politics were subsequently quashed. So what made her incompatible? At first it would seem too extraordinary that the reason she was incompatible to French values was because she was the human embodiment of inequality. But wouldn’t this show cowardice on the part of the French government for not vilifying the oppressor? Of course it would, and it is this precise reason that the French government has chosen to pick on the oppressed and not the oppressor, cowardice. French philosopher Alain Badiou said of burqa banning in 2004:

Grandiose causes need new-style arguments. For example: hijab must be banned; it is a sign of male power (the father or eldest brother) over young girls or women. So, we’ll banish the women who obstinately wear it. Basically put: these girls or women are oppressed. Hence, they shall be punished. It’s a little like saying: “This woman has been raped: throw her in jail.”

Most would recognise that the burqa is a symbol of oppression, and therefore, morally, there is no reason on this world to extend respect for it, but if this is so, then why are coward governments attacking the symbol, and not the oppression itself. It is this dilemma that should be put to the French parliament, now that the plans for a public ban have been put back.

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Reader Comments

Martin Liddament

If you listen to Muslim women and discuss the issue with them you will find that many of them see covering up as a free choice and – though they would not say so – as an act of religiously-justified power over something that religion finds hard to control: namely difficult feelings. The burqa is not a symbol of male domination, but it is a symbol of the discomfort that Abrahamic faiths feel when confronted by a society where people are living out happy, fulfilled and self-determined lives that don’t leave space for the powerful (whether they are patriarchs or matriarchs) to insert their own insecurities and the cultural constraints that they have developed to deal with those self-same fears.

The women concerned may well view the act of hiding themselves from eyes that are not “supposed” to see them as empowering and culturally reassuring. By recognising that this is the basis for wearing a burqa, it is easier to analyse the question of whether tolerance of the choice made by these women is in line with western values or an example of liberal relativism that is being exploited to strengthen an absolutist stance. The burqa wearers’ position is very simple. It is that men should not look on them. Why? Because God says so.

Wearing the burqa may be a viable social strategy in cultures that have not developed the same forms of tolerable public interaction between the sexes that we have in the West, but I would question whether it is a healthy road to go down here and would suggest that wherever a woman wants to wear a burqa in a public institution (school, court, etc.) then her decision immediately comes into conflict with key values that the institution enshrines, reflects or promotes. It is a considered and socially subversive political act rather than one of submission and should be challenged on that basis, not on the false premise that a man has made her do it.

Written By Martin Liddament on January 22nd, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

twaddle, Martin.

Women that think wearing the burqa is a free choice are under a deep false consciousness, embedded by a cultural trait that they so often happen to belong within. Often what we feel is a free choice is illusory, it seems rather suspicious to me that those who wear burqa’s owing to a “free choice” are Muslims, either culturally or religiously. Some women do cover their heads for reasons such as aversion to being looked upon, but the burqa is a religious symbol, an institutional demand that women be covered up (although this demand could well be erroneous – see here

Do you suppose a ban on high heeled shoes appeals to a pseudo-feminist aversion of the male gaze (see rule 13)?

Written By Carl Packman on January 23rd, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

I would disagree with you there, Carl, at least with France in mind. A large proportion of its burqa-wearing population are white converts – how can that not be out of free will?
I just don’t see what is hoped to be achieved with this law. For crying out loud, it targets a minority of 2000.

Written By alice on January 24th, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

That’s something of a fallacy Alicey. Often times it’s the converts to an ideology or religion who become its most devoted followers. That’s why you also find a disproportionate number of white converts who become jihadists. Their decision to convert may have been out of free will, and prima facie their decision to wear the burqa is their own. However, the burqa, as a device deployed by the strictest interpretation of religious texts written by men to justify their dominance over women and their bodies, remains a tool of control. As Carl pointed out, it is false consciousness. Or one might look at it in terms of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Control is not physically enforced, but rather it is so complete that women believe that wearing the burqa is a natural state of being and do not question it as a repressive device. I agree with you that it shouldn’t be banned by the state. In general, the state should interfere as little as possible with religious freedoms, the rights of minorities and what the individual is allowed to wear in everyday life. But as a tool of male dominance over women, it should be actively questioned. The Muslim community itself must meet these challenges, they can’t be imposed by Western society, but they must not be ignored.

Written By Salman Shaheen on January 24th, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

Alice has an important point, though, that none of this discussion should ignore what a tiny minority of people we are actually talking about here.

It is also important that it is often experienced as free choice, even if we use whichever favourite sociological term to point out it is more complicated than that.

For people who are serious about taking on “human embodiments of inequality” then there are many better places to start.

Written By Dan on January 24th, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

Really Dan, you don’t think sexual inequality in Muslim society is a massively important issue? I certainly do. I suppose I get a little bit more liberty to say these things because I have a Muslim-sounding name, but I understand that we as Westerners, as atheists, have to be careful when criticising Muslim cultural practices. We certainly wouldn’t want to stray into the territory of Islamophobia. I’ll leave that one to Harry’s Place. However, our concern with avoiding racial or cultural prejudice should not prevent us from criticising gender inequalities where they exist. Certainly I don’t believe this is a matter for the state, but I do believe it is an argument that progressive voices in Muslim societies need to win.

Written By Salman Shaheen on January 24th, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

I think you might be reading far more into my comment than I intended, though I suppose it all depends on what you mean by ‘massively important’. I think any discussion which focuses on ‘the burqa’, a garment worn by a tiny minority of women in Europe, is looking in the wrong place. You are right to note the danger of islamophobia, but the problem is that the terms of these debates are too often set by islamophobes; certainly that is the case in France.

Written By Dan on January 24th, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

You’re right, the burqa itself is a very small issue for women in Europe, however I would treat the niqab and the hijab as extensions of the same problem – male control over the female body. These sorts of debates are often set by Islamophobes, and our first duty has to be to opposing them. We should also recognise that the state has no more right to tell women what they can and cannot wear than their husbands do. But it’s also necessary to re-define the debate in our own terms and to encourage an internal debate amongst Muslims themselves.

Written By Salman Shaheen on January 24th, 2010 @ 11:03 pm

In spite of the numbers we are talking about here, I’d still want to engage with the terms of the burqa debate. Dan, you said something, it is experienced as a free choice, now this I suppose is a very pertinent question, one I suppose for wider discussion on freedom is itself, and a subject for someone more qualified than I am. Nonetheless, the logic of the burqa – whether or not correctly interpreted correctly in the Quran – should be bracketed within gender politics, hegemony and control, false consciousness. The use of sociological concepts allows us to operate in the terrain where we really question the co-ordinates of exhibiting free will by wearing a burqa, and whether this choice is really so embedded in the consciousness of women – whether from an early age or later on in life.

Also, Salman, I agree that islamophobia should stay with Harry’s Place (made me laugh that did) and this is why we step away from patronising burqa wearing women. Many people try to obscure the terms of our debate (since I see we are mostly in agreeance), and that this is not us expressing superiority for our so-called “western liberties” – anything but – this is us seeking to apply objectively observable expressions of cultural freedom (by making the point that the state should stay out, as far as possible, of deciding how a person expresses themselves) whilst also seeking to find answers as to why people do express themselves in certain ways (are there unpalatable forces at play here, is the demand to wear a burqa one such unpalatable force? Is it grounded on sexism?)

I have these opinions on the burqa, I don’t believe I have western-tinted glasses on, I’m not a moral relativist, I have what I see as objective criteria to believe the burqa is, by and large, a repressive demand. But the crux of my original article is to say that the point of blame does not lie alone with the female involved, there is wider background to address and target. Within the Islamic narrative itself, it might be worth looking into how tangible the original demand in the holy text actually is, for there are some groups who dismiss that the burqa is an actual demand (it doesn’t affect my attitude towards the burqa even if it is definitely written up in the scriptures, but it would interesting to see how it fares with the debate held within Islamic context).

Written By Carl on January 25th, 2010 @ 10:59 am

There’s nothing in the Qur’an that says women should wear the burqa. There is nothing in it even that says they should cover their hair or wear the hijab. All it calls for is modesty, for men and women I believe. The rest is down to interpretation and over the centuries the body of conservative Islamic literature has grown through the hadiths written by male Muslim rulers to justify their authority.

Written By Salman Shaheen on January 25th, 2010 @ 11:23 am

And this is what many Muslim groups have brought to the table (see for example here ). This should be acknowledged when arguing the case about burqa’s – and should inform our attitude towards those who demand not modesty, but wholesale invisibility of women. Furthermore, it should not be the terrain of the right (the French UMP, or UKIP) to address this, this is a progressive issue.

Written By Carl on January 25th, 2010 @ 11:29 am
Martin Liddament

I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that oppression can be culturally subtle and is often embedded in “family values” whether that family is small or as large as a whole society. I have argued this with a very close friend who wears the headscarf and I have made the points to her that I made in my original post. Believe me, the debate has been long and passionate and deeply personal. No-one, and I mean no-one, tells my friend what to do. My initial stance before I met her were that this is a matter of male suppression of women – pure and simple. Personal experience and long arguments changed my view. I now see the issue as one of religion wanting to dictate how I think and feel about someone else. I quoted another very strong-minded Muslim woman I heard on a radio broadcast saying that she covered up because “you are not supposed to look at me”. I find that extremely pertinent. There is an important difference between her wearing a Burqa because she does not want to be “looked” at and wearing one because she believes I should not be allowed to “look” at her. Her comment reinforces my view that this is another example of religion wanting to first of all say what I should or shouldn’t do and secondly, dictate what I should or shouldn’t think or feel. OK, I will accept an argument that (possibly) male authoritarian values power that as well, deep down, but I believe that is only part of the story.

Written By Martin Liddament on February 2nd, 2011 @ 6:14 am

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