On banning the burqa
Posted by Nic Heath on August 18, 2009
As has been widely reported in the last few months, French President Nicholas Sarkozy has the burqa in his sights. In June he announced to his compatriots that France would not accept a garment that made prisoners of the women who wear it. The latest controversy has seen a woman banned from wearing a burqini in a French public pool, ostensibly on hygiene grounds.
Sarkozy is the latest in a long line of politicians who have attacked aspects of Islamic dress in the name of women and their rights. These moonlighting feminists, by headlining their stance with a women’s lib tag, I think mask the true scope of their agendas – which in Sarkozy’s case could be to protect a certain aspect of a country’s cultural identity, or to marginalize another, or to assert authority.
As much as I dislike the burqa myself, vilifying the aesthetics of fundamentalist Islam – rather than say, focusing on the actions and beliefs of those who oppress women in the name of Islam – is a misalignment of energy and policy. Symi Rom-Rymer says it well in the Christian Science Monitor:
There are, no doubt, some women who are forced to wear this all-encompassing garment by their families, just as there are non-Muslim French women who are mistreated by their families in other ways. But to view the garment solely as a prison and as a symbol of male oppression, as Sarkozy does, oversimplifies a complex issue and may end up hurting the very women he’s trying to help.
If Sarkozy is truly concerned about the rights and dignity of these women, he ought to use high-profile speeches to discuss their needs, their concerns, and to focus on what they can contribute to and gain from French society, rather than on what they wear while doing it.
What will happen to women not permitted to wear the burqa in French public life (of whom there are reportedly 400 in France)? Will they happily cast it off and bare their exposed faces to shopkeepers and bus drivers? Will they enroll in university or vocational courses? Will they leave abusive husbands? Will it solve all their problems?
I have no definitive answers of course but I imagine that the result could be otherwise – could lead to further marginalization, could leave women further ostracized and isolated from the general community. As difficult as it is, if one is concerned about the rights of women wearing the burqa, it would be more useful to take a positive stance through giving those women support and fostering opportunities for their self-determination.
The wider Australian community also has a strained relationship with Islamic dress. The burqa perfectly manifests the other when held against Australia’s traditional cultural identity – laidback laconic larrikins living it up on the beach etc. The burqa threatens many people’s sense of self and of belonging. As Irfan Yusuf noted in July in The Age, Muslim women wearing the burqa provide the media a ‘potent symbol of Islam in the West’, one that is regularly exploited by news outlets.
When one Sydney Muslim man called for polygamy to be legalised, the Herald Sun website carried a photo of two burqa-clad women crossing the street. The website of its Sydney equivalent regularly carries photos of burqa-clad women in any story even mildly related to Muslims.
Julie Posetti, speaking at a forum at the ANU in July (which you can watch at ABC Fora), sums up my position pretty well. She argues that banning the burqa would be an oppressive move, and that much of the language used in calls against the burqa recalls cultural imperialism. She rightly says that the state has no place in a woman’s wardrobe. Imagine the government legislating against bikinis, or Catholic nun’s habits – it becomes an ethical minefield. Similarly murky of course is the boundary between cultural sensitivity, or regard for an individual’s rights, and cultural relativism.
Banning the burqa looks more like another symptom of France’s troubled relationship with ethnic minorities than a step forward for feminism and women’s rights. Policies of social inclusion and education would surely be more beneficial than those of prohibition and exclusion.