Do You Support a Burqa Ban in France?

About 2000 Muslim women in France wear the full body burqa, and the French Parliament is slated to vote on its ban Tuesday. The idea of a burqa ban is popular in France (in polls, about 80% of French citizens tend to express a desire for it).

In any case, in the run-up to the French vote, Salon interviewed an Egyptian born Muslim feminist, Mona Eltahawy, about the proposed ban, and I thought that she offered (to my mind) a compelling rationale for burqa prohibition:

What I hope it will do is that it will create a situation where a woman can say to a man, look, you know that I have to go out and work so that we can continue to live here, and I can’t go out with my face covered, even though you want me to, because that’s what the law says. I hope the law gives women this kind of out. I have no idea if that’s actually going to happen or not.

In other words, Mona Eltahawy is suggesting that the burqa ban will give a woman who doesn’t want to wear one some countervailing power against her husband’s demand. The argument becomes an economic one, and it forces a man to actually have to make a choice concerning his own comfort (does the man want to live without his wife’s income)? Thus what might, at first, appear to restrict liberty, may in fact make life choices for both fundamentalist Muslim men and women more stark and honest.

I wish there were halfway houses for the women stuck in these noxious households (as we have halfway houses for women who are physically abused by their husbands). They really need a place to flee, if they choose, from these fanatic men. But short of this, I think I agree with Mona Eltahawy that the burqa ban would be a good thing: it would give women living under repressive household regimes a bit of leverage against their tyrannous and misogynist spouses, and drive those spouses who would like their wives to earn income into some inconvenience of their own.

And religious liberty and conscience, while extremely important, is not sacrosanct. You cannot, for example, violate drug laws in the name of your religion, or harm children.

Here’s a bit more from Mona Eltahawy:

I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you — and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman’s right to choose to wear a burqa because it’s her natural right. But I often tell them that what they’re doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman’s right to do anything. We’re talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them.

I agree. But is there something here, as an Enlightenment positive liberal, that I should be considering?

And what does it mean to hold one’s face as private to all but your husband? Participatory democracy is theatrical: it is a confrontation of faces, personae, voices. Thus wouldn’t that make wearing a burqa in public akin to wearing manacles (chains) or prison attire in public? This, I think, is the feeling of revulsion that greets so many of us at the presence of someone in a burqa. We are encountering a person who is a slave. We recognize it as a grotesque step backward for the rights and independence of women. When we see someone in a burqa, we are encountering a person who is announcing that she is not a full and living participant in the democratic community, but is, instead, constrained to another.

It’s not the dress of a free human being, is it?

File:Francesco Primaticcio 002.jpg

Odysseus and Penelope by Francesco Primaticcio (1563). Image source: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Do You Support a Burqa Ban in France?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    What about the case against where this is akin to The Fashion Police?

    Get ready to be liberated Muslim women! Now you get to be judged not only by your husband, but by every other woman who sees you!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew,

    I love that video that you directed us to because it illustrates (in an admittedly superficial way) what it’s like to live in a democratic community. Sarah Jessica Parker puts her persona “out there” and people debate the presentation. Wearing a burqa, by contrast, is a rejection of presentation on principle: women should be neither seen nor heard from as personae. The generic and indistinguishable female alone is permitted.

    Furthermore, burqa wearing is anti-aesthetic. Two key things that make us human—the projection of personae and artistic expression into the world—are denied the burqa’d woman.

    —Santi

  3. When women in Muslim dominated countries are free to dress as they please, then and only then should non-Muslim dominated countries feel any hesitation about banning the Burqa, the hijab, or any other similar symbols of the subjugation of women under Islam.

    The basic principle of individual liberty should guarantee everyone the right to dress as they please. But Muslim women are not free to dress as they please, whether they are in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. They are subject not only to intense psychological pressure but also to violent physical abuse. This happens in Europe and it happens in the US. Everyone knows this.

  4. Grad Student says:

    Hi Santi,

    I half-way agreed with the position you outline in this post until I read Martha Nussbaum’s essay in the “The Stone” at the NYT,

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/veiled-threats/?hp

    Money quote:
    “A third argument, very prominent today, is that the burqa is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women (that they are being seen as mere objects). A Catalonian legislator recently called the burqa a “degrading prison.” The first thing we should say about this argument is that the people who make it typically don’t know much about Islam and would have a hard time saying what symbolizes what in that religion. But the more glaring flaw in the argument is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. And what about the “degrading prison” of plastic surgery? Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects?”

    • santitafarella says:

      Grad Student:

      Martha Nussbaum is one of my favorite writers, so I’ll be curious to read the link that you are directing me to. As to the Nussbaum quote you’ve provided, I think of Anaxagoras who once said to a dying man distressed at his exile: “The descent into Hades is the same from every place.” In other words, the fact that being a woman in Western culture is full of potholes and psychologically problematic is no excuse for tolerating anti-democratic modes of being.

      But I really don’t think objectification is the final issue here. We are all objectified, male or female, when we step into the public square. We are evaluated by our speech, our dress, our looks, our choices. To be an adult in a democratic culture is to wrestle with the complexities and risks of being an object on display and to present a face to the world, and to negotiate that face through the world.

      What the burqa does is reject this adventure of Western personae—the projection of a self onto the public stage—and makes female existence generic and erased from the public square. It is a form of hypermonotheism in which the individual female is seen as an idol arousing lust that must be covered from the eyes of men. But it is a model that is not compatible with any democratic experiment that is determined to make women equal and fully participatory in the traditional male realms of business and politics. France, in my view, has to protect its democratic, feminist, and secular experiment, and one way to do that is to insist that French citizens function as public personae.

      I realize that this is a restriction of a very narrow “liberty” for the sake of a culture’s broader ethos, but we have other decorum laws (you can’t enter a restaurant without shoes; you can’t go to a soccer game naked). The burqa is such a grotesque reversal of two centuries of women’s advance in the West that it simply cannot be shrugged at as just another keen and subtle way that women end up in a masochistic position in relation to men (in my view).

      This is one of those rare instances where a fine for such behavior raises the stakes on the practitioner, forcing choices, commitments, and decisions. It is a way of accelerating assimilation. Right now, there is a nine year old girl somewhere in France who, as an adult, will be so thankful that the French Parliament banned this grotesque practice and freed her from the pressure of growing up under a heavy sack.

      You might just as well fret over whether there should be laws against keeping little girls in closets for prolonged periods. It is a distortion of the humanity of girls and women in the service of male psychological perversity.

      Lastly, I would liken France’s dilemma to that of America with regard to the Civil Rights Act. Nobody likes to tell a restaurant or hotel owner who he or she can or cannot accommodate. We broach such liberties only very reluctantly. But for the sake of a crucial element of our country’s democratic vision, America has made laws that insist that nobody operating a business in our country can discriminate against nonwhites, period. France is making a similar determination as to the bounds that reactionaries can set up against the advance of feminism.

      —Santi

    • santitafarella says:

      Gato:

      Thank you! I’m a bit more clear on the issue as I think about it, but I’m still conflicted. It’s not a no-brainer one way or the other. I’m pretty strongly siding with the burka ban position. But Martha Nussbaum’s piece gives me pause.

      —Santi

  5. Ed Palamar says:

    This is your captain! Burkas to Hurkadurkastan! NOW!

    Seriously, they have served to shield the body from sand and sun, but not from dress codes.

  6. In short, yes I do support a ban. But only for security reasons, and only if this the “best” solution. As I’ve written elsewhere – http://spritzophrenia.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/religious-freedom-and-the-veil/

    Pulling in cultural or feminist reasons is spurious, imoho.

    🙂

  7. From my experience with conservative Christian women, it may not just be the men that pressure women to wear these things. Often the women totally buy into it and support it too. I think Naomi Wolf wrote something about the Beauty Industry actually being promulgated by women against women.

  8. Jacob says:

    It does make sense. And I would argue it’s not just because of security reasons.

    The same way freedom of speech cannot be ruled for those who wish to preach for hate or against the very freedom that they themselves use.
    It’s pretty similar as you can’t expect someone who grew into a culture which educated him that his only 2nd best after men, to go against everything he had been taught and indoctrinated since childhood even though it’s put her at the very bottom for no reason.

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