Thursday, July 15, 2010

The burka ban, and Sarzosky’s sexist determination of what a woman should look like

 Image description: An Afghan woman sells handmade crafts during the opening of a women's shelter in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province Dec. 13, 2007. The Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team provided more than $86,000 in support of the shelter's construction, which was accomplished by local contractors. Photo by Staff Sgt. Mike Andriacco, USAF. From Wikipedia.

As I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, the burka, hijab, niqab and other religious head-coverings have been banned in France. This is Islamophobic, racist, and sexist on a number of axes. It assumes a Western definition of what these articles of clothing means for Islam and for Muslim women. It makes the outsider view of Muslim women the official, legal position. And it denies the experiences of actual Muslim women.

This law is another entry in the long history of legal measures designed to satisfy the patriarchal and kyriarchal need for control over who women are, what they look like, and how they present themselves. Legal management of women’s bodies is an expression of sexism, whether it pertains to reproduction, weight, birth assignment, disability, sexuality, or clothing.

The French government is ordering women to express themselves in certain ways. They are determining the meaning of women’s clothing and bodies for women; they are mandating exactly how much is okay to cover up and exactly how much is too much. Sarzosky is forcing women to show their faces to the outside world, forcing them to place their bodies up for public consumption - whether they want to or not.

This is yet another example of the French government making decisions about women’s bodies for women, as they did in telling Delphine Ravisé-Giard that she is not a woman until her breasts are a certain size. Women are not free to negotiate their own bodies in France; the paternalistic government has decided that they know better.

Nothing that women do with their bodies - how they clothe, feed, exercise, enjoy them - is necessarily, objectively indicative of oppression. The stated reason for banning face and head coverings - that it makes women prisoners, that it is debasing - has nothing at all to do with what burkas and hijabs actually are and what niqab actually represent.

This law is not about intrinsic respect for women. It’s not about liberating women. It’s not about creating a country that sees women as full, independent human beings.

This law is about limiting women’s religious expression. It’s about disrespecting what women want to wear. It’s about disregarding how full, independent human beings wish to express themselves, their marginalized background, their identity.

This ban is not about ensuring that women have “a social life”, not about keeping women from being “deprived of an identity” . This ban is about depriving women of their identity: their religion, their culture, their social interactions, their deeply held beliefs.

It’s about men, once again, deciding exactly what women should and should not, can and cannot, will and will not, dress, wear, and be.

It’s about Western men, individually and systematically, controlling Muslim women - not about Muslim men individually and systematically controlling Muslim women.

Aaminah Al-Naksibendi wrote two excellent posts on the subject yesterday at her Tumblr thingsimreading. This is from also, whether the face veil is “a part of Islam or just culture” is COMPLETELY BESIDE THE POINT:
women that want to wear it - for whatever reason they choose (obedience to Allah in their opinion, emulation of our foremothers, a personal expression of modesty, for the privacy it provides, whatever reason) - should be able to wear it.telling women they can’t wear it is just as bad as forcing women to wear it.
there is no “middle ground”.
you either allow women to have autonomy in these choices
you are the one being oppressive.
Her post oh for cripes is also excellent.

The veil ban is about privileged people maintaining, perpetuating, and exercising their kyriarchal power over Muslim women. It’s about fear and hatred of Muslim modes of expression, of belief. Women are expressing their ideals and independence in ways that clash with Western perceptions of what constitutes freedom and choice, and so: they must be silenced, they must be uncovered, they must be displayed against their will.


  1. This reminds me of something you said in an earlier post: Feminism can, at times, hurt women.

    This isn't to say that Sarkozy is a feminist or that the ban was passed from feminist motives. Rather, the ban, like much of Western feminism (particularly the academic variety), is based on Western-centered notions of what feminism, and by extension, a woman's needs and aspirations, are and should be.

    Mind you, I wouldn't want to be the woman in the photo. But there are women studying in universities, teaching, starting domestic violence centers and doing any number of other things outside their homes who wear burkhas and even veils. Whatever their reasons, no one has the right to take away their right to express whatever they're trying to express.

  2. JV - Yes, exactly. It's taking a very Western Islamophobic feminist argument and using it to oppress women.

  3. Good evening from France!

    I would like to note that hijabs are not up for public banning, only niqabs and burqas. This seems to be a common misunderstanding I see everywhere I read about this issue. Hijabs have been banned in public schools along with other religious symbols (which is a whole other issues all together) but it is not part of this current law. This law only applies to facial coverings. Also, in true French bureaucratic style, the law still has to pass a vote in the Senate which is scheduled for September (where they will also examine the constitutionality of the bill). After that the European Court of Human Rights will examine the bill and can reject it (it's decisions are binding as France is a member of the Council of Europe and personally I think if it gets to this stage they probably will reject it).

    Your argument assumes that women who wear niqabs and burqas want to, that they do so completely and utterly of their own free-will, that no one is pressuring them otherwise, which I find very naive. I blame no woman for wanting to remain modest in this country - the men here are disgusting and some days it seems like men believe a woman walking alone in public in broad daylight is an invitation to bother her.

    But not seeing the burqa and niqab as a form of oppression is ludicrous. They are constructs of men. Men who decide that a woman must be modest. Men who decide what this modesty is. Men who pass judgment on whether women are modest enough or not. Men who want to guard their woman's modesty. Men who argue if you get hassled by other men on the street while dressed in a full abaya it is because you're wearing a modern flashy one with a scarf which makes you not modest enough (3rd comment). In extreme Muslim countries women bear the brunt of the burden of being modest. In these countries where women must wear burqas it is the men who decide this and bringing the burqa with them when they go abroad is a reminder of the control they exercise over their woman.

    At the most this is a new man replacing the old man in deciding what women wear. Yes, the ban is an oppression, but I'd go with it being the less oppressive of the two sides. It's so funny, that as soon as you can't have something you want it: Women in Iran, who by law must wear the veil argue it should be their choice.

  4. Becky, as RMJ just pointed out, this is using a very Western, Islamophobic viewpoint. It's not our say to tell women whether or not their rights are being taken away by men (as one professor of mine pointed out, this is one reason why Western women trying to "help" women in other countries is so often refused: because they usually have very different priorities).

    If a woman does choose to wear religious garb of any kind, that is her choice -- just as we would not go up to a Catholic, for example, who was choosing to carry a child to term despite tough conditions, and scream "Don't you realize you're being oppressed and you could have an abortion and make your life easier??"

    At least, if we did that I hope we wouldn't expect a favorable response.
    Similarly, although I don't disagree that putting the burden of "modesty" on women is inappropriate, and I have the same knee-jerk reaction to completely covering clothing, I am not in that situation. I know women who wear head/face coverings by choice. I think an out and out ban is completely biased and unfair, and the ban wasn't designed to give more rights to women, anyway.

    At the same time, you manage to imply that women would WANT to dress modestly to avoid all the annoying guys in France, which only reinforces the idea that immodest dress invites that behavior.

    No one nation or culture is the "keeper" of human rights, nor can they view them unbiasedly, and that's what we have to be careful of here.

  5. You are being very liberal with 'western islamophobe' in the article, but no mention of the converse. What about the islamic western-phobic people that run some of the countries in the Middle East? If a French woman wanted to walk down the main street of Riyadh wearing a dress slacks and blouse do you think that this would be considered acceptable?

    Two wrongs do not make a right, but piling in white western males is not going to help all that much.

    Perhaps there should be more focus on investigating the culture that leads to women thinking that wearing a burqa is acceptable and desirable. It is generally accepted that female genital mutilation (call it what you will, but that is what it is) is not an acceptable practice, but the justification for allowing it is almost identical to that for wearing the burqa.

    Consistency please people ...

  6. Pointless derail dingram, this is about French law and the burqua ban, not about Middle East law or FGM. Future comments in the same vein will be rejected.

  7. This made me rethink my position on the ban and as always is excellently written, BUT! what about the times when you do NEED to be uncovered? What about doctors who NEED to see your face in order to better determine your health condition?
    I also wish you would say what you think about the mandate to cover yourself, found in not only the Quran but also the hadith, which in certain muslim societies has an even higher status? Is everything ok if it's a religious thing? Sorry but I'm presently surrounded by muslim voices, MOST but far from all of them male, saying women who aren't covered deserve to be assaulted in the streets... can't really help from feeling that always allowing or encouraging the veil is not in our sisters' best interest... help me out here.


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