Coherent feminism doesn't stop at Afghan women

Should all Muslim women boycott the burqa because some women are forced to wear it? Myriam Francois-Cerrah argues not

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, 20 July 2009

Commenting on French president Nicolas Sarkozy's intention to ban the burka in The Guardian, Rahila Gupta argued that because women elsewhere are forced to wear such garb, women over here have a moral responsibility not to wear it.

This is distinctly at odds with the core values of a liberal society, premised on John Stuart Mill's idea that the individual ought to be free to do as she or he wishes unless, in doing so, he or she harms others. Gupta's assessment of the question at hand ignores the fundamental issue of human agency and the varying ways different people relate to the same symbol. Yes, in Afghanistan, many women consider the burqa a tool of oppression. Sadly for those seeking easy answers, there are also women arguing for it in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

To extricate ourselves from the hugely complex national contexts in which the abuse of women takes place, and incidentally in often far more pernicious forms than forced modes of attire, we must focus on the universal principles which bind us in our global village. We must transcend the national and cultural peculiarities, which often cloud our ability to focus on our shared struggles. The real struggle women all over the world are facing is the struggle for self-determination - the struggle to make choices for themselves about themselves, unfettered by over-zealous clerics or patronising presidents.

French Muslim women are regularly paying the price for state discrimination against women in headscarves, a discrimination which is only vindicated by arguments supporting further state encroachment into the private sphere of the individual

When we deal with France, we must focus on the French context, acknowledge its specificities and not ignore the French Muslim women's struggle out of a laudable, but in this particular debate misplaced, solidarity with Afghan women. It is a continuous battle for European Muslims to have the broader public acknowledge us as Europeans - with the distinctive struggles, obstacles and challenges which face us here in Europe. It is not helpful that every time an issue concerning European Muslims arises, the stick of our Eastern brethren's dire social and political rights is used to beat us into grateful submission. And in this urgent necessity to recognise the specificities of the discussions at hand and not conflagrate Afghan, French, Saudi and British women into one lumpen Muslim proletariat, we must begin by being attentive to language.

Semantics, despite its bad reputation in popular parlance, is crucial. No one in France actually wears a 'burqa' - this is the traditional garb imposed by the Taliban on women in Afghanistan. Some, very, very few French Muslim women wear a face veil. By using the term 'burka', Sarkozy was using a mental slippage technique which allowed people to feel like they were opposing the oppression of women in Afghanistan through supporting state oppression of Muslim women in France. The fact is France is in a dilemma over its alleged liberal values and in an even greater dilemma in the face of the state's now clear encroachment into the private sphere of the individual.

The banning of the headscarf in schools and government institutions was justified on the basis that these were state-run and therefore within the remit of state secularism. Thanks to this law, many of France's brightest young Muslim women are facing momentous battles between adherence to their religious principles and the need to receive an education, with little to no support from those decrying the oppression of women's rights elsewhere.

This discrimination has seeped into other educational establishments, including in universities, which are technically not covered by the law, thanks to this loud approbation through silent consent. Most recently, student Sabrina Trojet was banned from her department after one university bureaucrat used a loophole in the law to claim she was infringing state secularism by wearing her headscarf whilst acting as a teaching assistant. She had been studying unimpeded for three years prior to this. She has since been expelled from her laboratory, despite being in the final stages of her thesis, had her university email account closed and been subjected to a harassment campaign, including death threats. She is currently fighting a legal battle whilst simultaneously trying to complete her doctorate.

Rahila Gupta may feel she is defending Afghan women through her stance, but much closer to home and to the reality Sarkozy's statement was addressing, French Muslim women are regularly paying the price for state discrimination against women in headscarves, a discrimination which is only vindicated by arguments supporting further state encroachment into the private sphere of the individual.

As a European feminist woman who happens to be Muslim, I wholly support women's rights to make choices for themselves about their bodies, whether that be not to wear a veil in Saudi Arabia, or to wear one here

The fact is we are not talking about the eastern 'other' we often point to in order to feel good about ourselves 'here' and brush under the carpet the grievances of European Muslims. We are talking about Europe, where personal freedom is so cherished, and yet where so many feel the right to restrict the personal freedom of some women in the name of increasing that of others. It is the principle that women ought to have the right to make their own choices, behind which we all ought to rally.

We may not have the same struggles as Afghan women, but European Muslim women have struggles of our own and the pseudo-solidarity with the oppression of Afghan women should not be instrumentalised to silence the rights of 'our' Muslims. Whether the women in question wear it for cultural or religious or fashion reasons is completely irrelevant. As a European feminist woman who happens to be Muslim, I wholly support women's rights to make choices for themselves about their bodies, whether that be not to wear a veil in Saudi Arabia, or to wear one here. The truth is, there is no one-size-fits all empowerment - we must support one another, as women, in the informed choices we make and combat the real sources of misery - poverty, oppression, discrimination.

The lack of support educated, empowered French Muslim women who chose to wear a scarf or veil receive in their struggles is a stark reminder of the double standards which continue to plague our ideals. Only by supporting women to make informed choices, and by supporting those already making them, can we really claim to be empowering them.

About the author

Myriam Francois-Cerrah

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, PhD student at Oxford University and media representative of the Oxford University Islamic Society

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