Guest post: A few words about France and the burqa

// 24 June 2009

zohra asked if I could write about France’s project to launch a Parliamentary inquiry about the burqa from a French perspective. I write with two caveats: I am not a Muslim so I am wary not to take up space in the debate, and my position on the issue isn’t black or white: I supported the 2004 ban on all religious symbols in schools for example, but fail to see what good can come from a ban on burqas in the streets.

Most of the comments I’ve seen in the American blogosphere have annoyed me as they were UK-US centric, when they were not straight-up offensive. I’d like to see more contextualisation and nuance.

France’s social model, also known as laïcité, is not “better” or “worse” than those of the US or UK, just different (see this great explanation). It’s held dear by the vast majority of French people – no matter their religious affiliation. An inquiry on burqas wouldn’t last two seconds in the UK because the multicultural model here is more or less happy to accommodate a nation made of many identities who actively claim their differences. The French Republican model insists on considering all its citizens to be children of the state – ideally devoid of any individual characteristics or special treatment, all treated fairly and equally. Of course, both models fail more often than not as we still silence minorities and perpetuate racism, colonialist attitudes, sexism and so on.

But here’s a few key points to add to the debate:

  • Unlike in the UK, few French women wear the niqab and very few wear the burqa. This is partly because they are more likely to descend from Algerian, Morrocan and Tunisian families where the burqa is not often used. In addition, most French Muslim families who immigrated in the 60s and 70s were usually not strongly religious. From what I can gather, those who do wear the burqa do it by choice (and not coercion) as a radical political act. Still, serious data is missing. This is why an inquiry could be a good idea: a map of numbers and religious affiliations is needed.
  • Most French Muslims are overwhelmingly opposed to the burqa, seeing it as an extremist symbol. Not enough is said about such Muslim secularists who oppose the burqa. For example the French Muslim-feminist group ‘Nor Whores Nor Submissives’, which made waves a few years back, fully endorses the government’s inquiry. It sees a direct link between the degradation of women’s rights in France’s underprivileged neighbourhoods and the growing number of political Muslim radicals who “take women’s bodies in hostage”. Another militant feminist-Muslim group, Les Insoumises, is more nuanced in its approach: it is clear that it detests the burqa, but worries about the implications of such a ban for women (‘Will they be forced to stay at home?’ seems to be the main question).
  • A lot of the debate will focus on practicalities: kindergarten teachers asking about the security issues involved in giving a toddler back to a parent whose face cannot be seen; questions about going to the Post Office to receive employment checks where identification is necessary; identity controls by the police; receiving medical treatment. Such practicalities are crucial and hard to legislate on.
  • If our government decides to legislate on the burqa, it would paradoxically automatically turn women who wear them into second-class citizens in the eyes of the state by treating a minority of women differently than any other citizen. In turn, the secular principle our constitution is built upon would be undermined. For that reason, I think the government should refrain from legislating at all.

But in the meantime, it would be very nice to not read a deluge of comments which only see the issue through an Anglo-centric prism – especially since launching an inquiry isn’t like putting a ban in place right away. On the contrary, it’s about launching a national debate involving the French public and elected politicians. And while I’m sure many politicians will use the platform to spout racist and sexist nonsense, I always think that debating women’s rights in the public space is better than keeping quiet.

This is a guest entry by Jessica Reed, who works for Comment is free. She’s French and English but more French than English.

Comments From You

Jen // Posted 24 June 2009 at 11:13 am

But in the meantime, it would be very nice to not read a deluge of comments which only see the issue through an Anglo-centric prism – especially since launching an inquiry isn’t like putting a ban in place right away. On the contrary, it’s about launching a national debate involving the French public and elected politicians. And while I’m sure many politicians will use the platform to spout racist and sexist nonsense, I always think that debating women’s rights in the public space is better than keeping quiet.

Yes, I get pretty fed up of seeing that deluge of comments too, it seems that with any country outside of the UK or US, whenever someone has a problem with what’s going on there, it has to be announced in terms of “that damn country got it wrong again!” – cue me violently biting the heads of jelly babies and deciding tactfully not to comment. Plus whenever I’ve blogged about more France-specific feminist issues people haven’t been that interested, so…

A couple of things though – I grew up in Alsace, so it’s possibly a bit different and more of a religious environment anyway, but I knew quite a few Muslim girls at high school or at university who wore the veil and it wasn’t really a radical political act, more a traditional thing. Although, in Alsace, at least when I was in school, there was still religious instruction in school, and if you didn’t attend you had to get a dispensation – whereas that’s obviously not the case in the rest of France. Naturally, there was only Catholic or Protestant religious instruction, anyone else – and anyone who was simply atheist or non-religious like me – could get an exemption. Still, I think the slightly less secular environment might make everyone slightly more attached to their religious traditions.

Isn’t there another women’s group that you didn’t mention, which is totally opposed to Ni Putes Ni Soumises as well? I can’t remember their name…

And around the veils in school thing, I’m for not having any religious symbols in school as well, because a secular school system is a very valuable thing, but I don’t agree with girls getting thrown out of school for it: the argument people usually use is that they didn’t choose it but their dads make them wear it, which, surely, is no reason to deprive them of their education.

Then there’s a whole lot of political context aside from the religious reasons, mainly that most of the immigrants who came to France in the 60s and 70s were coming from former colonies, and that they were subjected (and still are) to a great deal of racism, and that a few hundred of them died in events like the Paris massacre of 1961.

It’s really a far more complex and painful issue than it appears, and I think launching an inquiry, as you say, isn’t an outright ban, just an attempt to study the situation closely, because I certainly don’t think it’s something you can sum up in terms of “for” or “against”.

I guess in the end it’s a question of how, in practical terms, best to ensure that everyone gets to enjoy the full range of human and civil rights.

Frances // Posted 24 June 2009 at 12:22 pm

On the one hand, I instinctively find it abhorrent for a white man in in a considerable position of power to decide, on the part of women, what they should and should not wear, on whatever grounds. This is further re-inforced by President Sarkozy’s own dubious record of recruiting women to his senior cabinet. (Rachida Dati, once beacon of an inclusive French ruling class has since been sidelined for a notionally more powerful, but essentially invisible role in the EU parliament.) However, this is not the principle issue.

Sarkozy contends that the Burqa is not a religious concern, but a garment which deprives women of their identity and of their freedom. Leaving aside the notion that Islam requires women to cover themselves to varying degrees (I cannot comment on the theological veracity of this statement), surely there is something inherently disturbing in Sarkozy’s assertion that ‘identity’ is conferred by outward appearance. Arguably, the ‘freedom’ that appears to be at the core of the debate, that some Muslim women value is a freedom from this (male) gaze, where women are primarily interpollated by their bodies and personal appearance. To juxtapose and hierarchise this freedom with the Western definition of the term, where individuals can dress as their please (though still in carefully orchestrated norms) is nothing other than pure orientalism.

But there is something in his argument that rings true.. as Jessica points out there are inherent socialisation and integration needs that the Burqa effectively renders impossible, or at least extremely difficult. Equally, if there are women who are being made to wear the garment against their will, then legislation to override this coercion would be welcome, though problematic to enforce.

Ultimately, this is a question of the role of government – can and should legislators ban certain garments, whether religious or not? My ultimate contention is no.

Jessica // Posted 24 June 2009 at 12:37 pm

Hi Jen,

May I ask when you went to school? It sounds crazy that religious education was still on the schedule! Was it an Alsace-only thing?

I can’t think of the group that’s radically opposed to Ni Putes Ni Soumises (I know Les Insoumises broke away from then when the leader joined the Sarkozy government though). Is it a group made of female militants who would defend the right to wear the niqab and the burqa/sitar? I’ll have a look…

Juliet // Posted 24 June 2009 at 1:22 pm

There’s an article about this by Saira Khan in today’s Daily Mail, written from her viewpoint as a British Muslim woman.

As she writes, the Koran states simply that both men and women should “dress modestly”. It says nothing about covering the entire body, including the face.

Jen // Posted 24 June 2009 at 1:40 pm

Hi Jessica,

May I ask when you went to school? It sounds crazy that religious education was still on the schedule! Was it an Alsace-only thing?

It was the depths of northern rural Alsace, near Hagueneau, and it is an Alsace-only thing I believe – unless there are other remote parts of France where it’s the same and I’m not aware of it. It was a state school though, not a private one. We actually got a phone call at home from the local preacher as well, “your daughter’s not registered for religious instruction, this can’t be right surely?”. First questions kids at school asked you after your name was if you were catholic or protestant, which felt kind of weird, since I’d come from Paris where maybe two people I knew considered themselves to be anything but atheist.

Although in high school it wasn’t so much religious instruction as discussing the problems of society, and no one was assessed on it or anything.

As for that group I mentioned, I’m looking it up right now so I can tell you, they’re a strongly anti-colonial group more than a feminist one. I’m about to trawl the French wikipedia article on NPNS… nope, no luck, it’s gone. I’ll tell you if I find it again.

Fred davis // Posted 24 June 2009 at 3:38 pm

It says nothing about covering the entire body, including the face.

Actually there’s a bit where muhammed may or may not have pointed at either his face or his hair (I get the impression that when it was originally written down it wasn’t deemed that important a passage, hence the vagueness) when critising his sister’s dress sense and telling her what she shouldn’t put on display when she went out for an evening (we’ve all known brothers like that I’d imagine).

But the general point of hijab in general is that women should cover up to prevent rape, and that men and women should cover up to avoid inspiring lustful thoughts in the opposite sex.

Now obviously the rape prevention aspect of it doesn’t really work from a feminist point of view, or any other point of view really, as it puts the onus of rape prevention on women.

But from the modesty point of view, bringing up the issue of whether or not any particular practicing of hijab stems from a valid reading of Muhammed’s and God’s intention is a huge derailment – the problem is that women who ascribe to a minority, and highly conservative, tradition within the various islamic faiths honestly don’t feel fully dressed without the full face covering – and unlike equally conservative traditions in christianity and judaism which constrain women’s ability to dress and socialise outside the home in many ways just as much as the ultra-conservative islamic traditions do, these extreme interpretations of hijab do have the positive (though obviously not ideal) effect of allowing these highly conservative women, and women from highly conservative families, to interact with society at large and go out in public without a male chaperone of any kind, in a way that other faiths generally don’t.

Take the burka away from them and you’re massively limiting their ability and freedom to participate in society more than any ultra-conservative interpretation of hijab does.

And even if the method of enforcement for these anti-burka laws doesn’t involve white policemen effectively stripping muslim women in the street (which I hope most here can agree would be a quite sexualised form of assault), the laws would still be limiting their freedom to work, to shop, to interact socially with other people, more than its going to free them by removing a thin piece of cloth.

And this is ignoring that in general, if muslim women in france are oppressed, it is due to France’s continuing refusal to set up any sort of standard and government enforced anti-discrimination laws wrt either religion or race, and this failure on the part of the French government is more effective than any muslim tradition in shutting muslim women (and men) out of french society, and creates the sort of social inequality and community-wide frustrations which produces hardcore ultra-conservative misogyny in minority communities in the first place.

Madeleine // Posted 24 June 2009 at 4:38 pm

Are there not any Muslim women reading the F-word who can give their viewpoint(s) on this? As so often happens, the voices of the people most affected by an issue are not being heard.

Jessica // Posted 24 June 2009 at 5:15 pm

Hey Fred,

You say:

“the laws would still be limiting their freedom to work”

A question (because I don’t know) – can women who wear the buqar/sitar work in the UK? Would they be employable (and I cringe at the word)? It sounds like it would be a difficult task, to employ someone whose face you never saw (unless the person applied/is working from home, or similar?).

Also, we do have anti-discrimination laws (people can refer the La Halde, a high authority of sorts, if you feel they’re discriminated against – and the court will look at your case). What France doesn’t have is affirmative action, which would go against its founding principle (i.e it’s akin to admit some people have a different status than others to begin with… Not saying I agree with it though).

Heather // Posted 24 June 2009 at 5:18 pm

Hardcore ultra-conservative misogyny is certainly not limited to “minority communities”.

There are a lot of women (and I am not being flippant here) who wouldn’t feel fully dressed or able to interact with society if they went out without wearing makeup. And why is that? Because from an early age they have been pressurised/socialised into thinking that wearing makeup is a good, desirable and necessary thing for women to do and that if women don’t do it there will be negative consequences. Some people will say “that’s not the same as wearing a burqa”, but I feel it is the same principle.

Jessica // Posted 24 June 2009 at 5:37 pm

Hi Madeleine,

I commissioned this person for my day-job, and she wrote what I think is an excellent good piece:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/jun/24/france-veil-muslims

There’s another one in the pipeline too… by a fellow French Muslim scholar.

Of course we would like to commission something by a French woman wearing the burqa, but it’s estimated that only a few hundreds (!) do in France (more for the niqab – in the thousands). Which kinda means… perhaps it’s a whole lot of noise for nothing.

Qubit // Posted 24 June 2009 at 5:45 pm

There is at least one women who wears the burqa (eyes uncovered) in my department and it hasn’t affected her ability to work including teaching. I am not sure whether she has experience any problems or harassment due to it as socialisation tends to be done in work groups and she is in a different group from me.

I certainly wouldn’t consider it a problem working in an office with someone wearing a burqa. In an office environment you know your colleagues so you would know if it was someone else. Similarly it doesn’t harm interaction or socialisation as much as people assume.

I can see problems in identification at customs etc but couldn’t that be got around with a private booth where the woman in question shows her face to a female security guard? I may be wrong in my understanding but I thought in solely female company the rules were less strict and so such a move would not be against religious customs.

I am not sure you can ever say anything against an enquiry unless you know it is conducted for a particularly motive. If the motive is to show enough evidence to enforce a ban then it is flawed however if it is just to try to understand issues better so they guide policies for the good of the people it is difficult to oppose. Until the enquiry releases its results it is hard to formulate a proper opinion.

Jessica // Posted 24 June 2009 at 6:07 pm

Hi Qubit,

“I am not sure you can ever say anything against an enquiry unless you know it is conducted for a particularly motive.”

Agree 100% with that. But I already imagine the anti-Muslim hardline some politicians will be happy to use, using the inquiry as an excuse to spout bigoted views of Muslim women and their “oppressors”. This makes me a bit sick just thinking about it.

The burqa/niqab and work – I’m not sure I would be happy seeing *public servants* wearing one. In schools, in hospitals, as social workers? I would oppose it. That goes with other ostentatious religious signs, too – not just Islam. But perhaps that’s my knee-jerk, secular French reaction.

Excuse previous typos – still at work, been a long day ;)

maggie // Posted 24 June 2009 at 6:15 pm

My girls have said they would be horrified to be taught by a woman wearing all black and with only a mesh for them to see through. Simply put they think it’s horrible. Maybe that’s just being young, teenaged and highly critical. There is no religion in my house and the eldest has decided that she is a vegetarian budhist.

I was taught by nuns who wore all black gowns and had the veils around their chins and foreheads. At the age of 12 I felt quite intimidated by them. They did not wear make up. They had heavy crosses hanging from their necks and wore platinum ‘wedding’ rings which they often tapped on the desk. They looked stern, even when they smiled which was hard to do against the starched rim around their face.

Within two years of being at the school the nun’s dress code had changed. The full length gown had gone, just below the knee being preferable. The cross was replaced by a lighter, prettier version. The veil was also just a covering of the hair. Some nuns wore foundation, blusher and lip gloss and (gasp) sandals. The older nuns embraced this also. The atmosphere in the school lightened immediately and I saw my nun teachers for the persons they were.

I think it’s all about choice. Though how that’s ‘policed’ is another matter. I put in ‘policed’ because in Iran many women voted to stop the policing of what they were wearing and how they were behaving.

It would be hard to get the opinion of a woman who was forced to wear the burka against her will. If she is that repressed then she has no voice or say on the matter.

Madeleine // Posted 24 June 2009 at 6:56 pm

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for the links and other info.

I also wouldn’t be happy to see “public servants” wearing burqas. In a hospital setting, for example, it would be just plain inappropriate simply for hygiene/infection control reasons. And if somebody wearing a burqa wants to make a radical political statement, okay, fine – but not in a court of law where proceedings are supposed to be impartial. I think secularism should be the desired norm in these instances.

Someone I know was in the US when he had an accident. In hospital he got very upset by nurses who continually forced their hardcore Christian views on him, saying “Jesus saved you” or “Jesus decided it wasn’t your time”, or told him to pray etc. One day he got so pissed off he said it was a pity Jesus hadn’t stopped the bloody car from hitting him. The nurse snarled, “would you rayther be in a friggin’ box?”

No one should have religious or political opinions forced on them, especially in situations where they are more than usually vulnerable.

Jess McCabe // Posted 24 June 2009 at 7:15 pm

@heather I think that’s a difficult comparison you’ve made there. But, regardless, I can’t imagine anyone suggesting women should be banned from wearing makeup on the street, nor are there debates about how can employers/people usin public services be expected to interact with (cis) women wearing makeup.

RadFemHedonist // Posted 24 June 2009 at 7:44 pm

If it’s not already illegal, I do think some legislation needs to be put in place to stop parents from making five year old girls wear burqas, as that unquestionably is forcing unevidenced beliefs on them, and I do not think encouraging girls to feel that they must dress modestly instead of however they like (and I really do mean that, if an adult woman chooses to wear a burqa, though I will disagree if it is on religious or traditional grounds as neither are justification for anything, I have nothing against that, some people may expect everyone to dress fashionably or in a manner that pleases their aesthetic sensibilities but not me, the only things I really object to anyone wearing are clothes bearing objectionable writing or symbols) is a good thing, I definitely object to any notion of covering up to prevent rape, as exposed flesh on the part of the victim or wearing makeup a certain way are not what cause rape, rapists cause rape. I don’t agree with teenagers getting thrown out of school for wearing one, as that denies them an education, though I would argue that as with any other overt religious or spiritual symbol, they shouldn’t be worn by public servants.

Fred Davis // Posted 24 June 2009 at 7:53 pm

“What France doesn’t have”

What france doesn’t have is a body of legislature that requires employers, land lords and eductors to keep track of the number and propensity to employ or failure to employ non-white, non-christian job applicants and people applying to various shools or trying to secure accomodation outisde of one of the ghettos they’ve currently consigned to – the effect of this is that there is very little evidence that a non-white french person can present to support their claims of discrimination when faced with employers and landlords and educators who routinely and consistently discriminate against non-white applicants.

“Would they be employable (and I cringe at the word)? It sounds like it would be a difficult task, to employ someone whose face you never saw (unless the person applied/is working from home, or similar?).”

They chat, they do their work competently… what else would you want from them?

zohra moosa // Posted 24 June 2009 at 8:29 pm

Hi Maggie

In my opinion, the fact that you couldn’t/didn’t see the nuns you were surrounded by on a daily basis for ‘the persons they were’ until they changed their clothing says something about your sensibilities, not them as people.

Hi RadFemHedonist

Can you explain why you would be ok with a woman wearing a burqa for something other than ‘religious grounds’? What reasons are justifiable to you, where religious ones are not?

Also, if you don’t believe religious grounds are ‘justification for anything’, it sounds to me like you are anti-religion – is that right or no?

Jess McCabe // Posted 24 June 2009 at 9:19 pm

Madeline, erm- how is wearing a piece of clothing at all comparable to the example you gave? Wearing something that expresses your own religion is not the same as saying something which directly imposes your religious belief on someone else. A more apt comparison would be with a Christian nurse or doctor wearing a cross, a Jewish doctor or nurse wearing a yarmulke or covering her hair.

Just wearing something that indicates your religion is not an imposition of that religion on passersby. It’s a very worrying idea that it might be in my view, as it suggests to me that people of some faiths are expected to hide signs they are of that faith, to blend in, and that is much greater imposition than someone wearing whatever they want to.

SnowdropExplodes // Posted 24 June 2009 at 9:35 pm

@Madeleine:

“I also wouldn’t be happy to see “public servants” wearing burqas. In a hospital setting, for example, it would be just plain inappropriate simply for hygiene/infection control reasons.”

I find this comment utterly absurd, because hospitals are actually one of the few places in Western secularised society where it is expected that people cover their faces and skin to do their work!

I am absolutely certain that standard surgical wear (just use google image search for examples!) can easily be adapted to provide a form of niqab-style costume for muslimahs to wear while at work in a hospital.

My other comments on this matter are all posted to the Feministe thread, but my sentiments are summed up by my post concerning an incident a few years ago when a Muslim woman was accosted for wearing a burkini to her local swimming baths: http://afemanistview.blogspot.com/2007/04/burkini.html

muslim // Posted 24 June 2009 at 10:15 pm

ok people are missing the point here!!! Islam is a religion of love, to love Allah the most high the eternal. Allah loves humility and modesty, although the burqa is not compulsory, if i wanted to wear it or any other muslim to get closer to Allah then i dont see the problem. If France or any other country cannot see a problem with women walking around or even young girls walking around wearing playboy clothing (or u might want to call it nudity) then they shouldnt have a problem with women wanting to wear the burqa. And NO not every muslim women is oppressed as the west thinks, i think the west needs to look at it own ethics and morals before they comment on others. Just to finish i wouldnt care less if legislation prohibited the burqa i would wear it because France aint my God, true muslims do deeds for the sake of Allah and people often try and stop that but lets make it clear Allah is one the all mighty the all knowing.

SM // Posted 24 June 2009 at 11:09 pm

As a registered nurse with twenty years nursing experience, I also agree that the burqa would pose as a cross-infection hazard purely down to the looseness and voluminous nature of the garment. This is the reason why long-sleeves, “cuffs, caps & aprons” were abandoned many years ago (I’m thinking of delivering a baby, changing dressings on oozing wounds, burns nursing, working in operating theatres here).

The garment would also create a hazard pertaining to health and safety whereby it would most definitely hamper safe lifting and moving procedures for both the patient and the nurse. It is also well reconised that violent, distressed or confused people often grab onto their carers creating another hazard for the health-care professional.

On a more personal level, most folks are apprehensive when undergoing medical treatment, or at the very worst, downright terrified. You need build “The nurse-client relationship” which is essential to nursing practice usually within a small period of time. I’m wary of how some groups of clients, especially children, serious psychiatric illness, confused patients and so forth would react to someone where most of the face is occluded. This is why nurses and doctors to not talk to patients wearing surgical-masks.

Jo // Posted 24 June 2009 at 11:17 pm

Might be wrong, but I thought France did have affirmative action – 2003 Parity law?

Lucy Joy // Posted 25 June 2009 at 1:21 am

@ SM – Excellent point, but I also agree with Fred that if a burqa doesn’t inhibit a woman’s ability to do her job and she wears it by choice, then there is no issue and it’s no one else’s buisness. It is difficult for people to accept that there are some women who chose to wear them but that is *our* problem, not theirs. Although, of course I agree that no woman should be forced or coerced into wearing anything or behaving in any particular way.

Personally, however,I view the burqa as an oppressive item of clothing and it pisses me off when I see men in western attire (say, shorts and t-shirts) who are coupled with women who wear burqas. To me, the disparity represents oppression.

@ muslim – All major religions claim to be movements borne of love for their particular God though, don’t they? If any one person is loving and humanitarian – and also religious – then their religious perspective will be in keeping with their moral views, but it is clear that all major religions have huge movements within them that are not respectful of love, tolerance and humanitarianism and it’s quite evident that people are selective about what they adhere to from religious texts, so to say that Islam is a religion of love may indeed be true but it doesn’t negate the fact that there are plenty of people who follow Islam and who love Allah but who certainly don’t love and respect their fellow human, or live by the supposed word of their God – as there are with all other major (and probably minor) religions.

Jen // Posted 25 June 2009 at 9:52 am

Might be wrong, but I thought France did have affirmative action – 2003 Parity law?

You’re right, and also the difference with the UK is that France has a written constitution based on the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen from 1789, that mentions freedom of religion, and also everyone having equal rights and so on. It would kind of go against the principles of that to add in “Yes! Even if you’re not white! Isn’t it amazing, what they can do nowadays?”

I’m generally against having obvious religious symbols in public institutions, but with the caveat that these institutions are not working from a theoretical blank slate, they’re working against a background of an extremely violent history between them and the people they might be employing, and if it’s going to prevent some Muslim women from going to work or even going to school, then concessions need to be made for practical reasons, because it’s not fair to just send them home and forget about them – and anyway, with compulsory education until the age of 16, I really think public institutions should be bending over backwards to make sure that people working for them are enjoying the full range of rights they’re entitled to.

But yeah, I feel very strongly about keeping everything secular in public institutions, particularly schools, not because I’m anti-religion (I’m emphatically not) but to ensure total freedom of religion, if anything. I think (correct me if I’m wrong) in the UK you can still be prosecuted for blasphemy, correct? I know that the BBC has a duty to promote the official state religion, and whatever regional variations there are – to be honest, much as I think the BBC is a great institution, I get slightly horrified every time something reminds me I’m not living in a secular country, because it entails that you’re going to be either “Christian” or “Miscellaneous (see our diversity policy)” and that’s not ideal either.

On the other hand, as a medium-term solution equal opportunities policies are obviously essential.

Also, I think racist divisions are equally as bad in France as in the UK – they manifest themselves differently, but in both countries they’re the consequence of something that runs far deeper than legislation, there’s a colonial history, there’s torture, violence, and a generally abusive relationship between France and countries like Algeria particularly, much as there is between the UK and its former colonies. Also, France still has sort-of colonies (Tahiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe…), which makes the situation different again.

Sabre // Posted 25 June 2009 at 10:49 am

I see the debate about the burqa as being about one thing – discomfort. I don’t think Sarkozy or anyone else who would ban the burqa is really looking after the best interests of muslim women, I think they are merely acting on their own discomfort at not being able to see women’s faces and bodies or at the display of religious faith. The reasons for that discomfort can include racism, intolerance of difference, their own political or feminist ideals and anger at the barrier to the male gaze. But whatever the reason it is wrong and hypocritical to expect others to conform to one visual expectation, no matter how widespread that desire is.

I find the argument that the burqa is demeaning to women particularly annoying, as I don’t see the pressure on women to dress skimpily as particularly empowering either. Of course some women are forced to wear burqas and similar garments but the solution isn’t to impose a dress code. All that does is remove choice for women, and those women who are forced to wear a burqa could simply be prevented from leaving the house instead.

I find this debate interesting as a feminist and former-muslim. I saw a girl of about 10 years wearing a headscarf a few weeks ago and my initial reaction was ‘that poor thing’ or something similarly patronising. Then I realised the girl looked really happy (on a day out with family) and it was really my discomfort that caused my reaction, not any real concern for the little girl. That was an eye-opener. And I think other people also need to look at themselves and question whether their opinions on this issue are really more about a personal (political or feminist) discomfort than anything else.

Jessica // Posted 25 June 2009 at 10:51 am

“Might be wrong, but I thought France did have affirmative action – 2003 Parity law?”

Unless mistaken, that’s for quotas concerning elected politicians and their lists, not businesses etc as we understand it here or in the US. Also, it was about gender, not race.

… And it was never enforced (political parties would rather pay huge fines than respect gender quotas – ugh ugh ugh, the mofos).

—-

And what Jen said – I find it telling that I support (if I can use that phrasing, which is weird) the right of religious men and women to wear religious signs *in the UK*. Because the UK model is okay with it, and that doing so is not in direct contradiction with what the UK stands for.

I am however opposed to the display of religious symbols in France’s schools/hospitals/social work buildings/etc because any visible religious symbol has nothing to do in classrooms – at least in a French setting. My fear is that they can be seen as a visible sign set to willingly differentiate yourself from others and asking for specific rights, rather than universal ones (examples the French system struggled with: Catholic students/teachers refusing to attend/teach sex ed classes, Muslims female students refusing to attend sports classes, etc).

But that view is very tightly tied to French secularist values, which are extremely protective of the influence of religion – and if one doesn’t “get” them, it’s a very tricky thing to explain.

Jess McCabe // Posted 25 June 2009 at 11:10 am

I feel very strongly about keeping everything secular in public institutions, particularly schools, not because I’m anti-religion (I’m emphatically not) but to ensure total freedom of religion, if anything

I think though that the concept of what a secular space is needs a bit of analysis though. What customs and cultural norms are determining what is acceptable in that secular space?

To me, public institutions should be accessible by everyone, that’s the more important thing than protecting passersby from knowing that some of the other people using or working for public services are of a particular faith.

mary // Posted 25 June 2009 at 11:19 am

I do think some legislation needs to be put in place to stop parents from making five year old girls wear burqas, as that unquestionably is forcing unevidenced beliefs on them

What? But dressing your child in a tshirt and a pair of jeans from H&M is – what? Evidenced?

All parent bring their children up in a culture, just as they bring them up in a language. It’s not the case that secular Western capitalism is some kind of default neutral space where there are no “unevidenced beliefs”.

Good heavens.

Jessica // Posted 25 June 2009 at 11:47 am

Last thing: Agnes Poirier’s piece in the Times was really, really fucking good in my opinion:

“French tourists visiting Britain for the first time, London in particular, are struck by what they perceive as a kaleidoscope of different ethnic minorities going about their day in their religious and cultural attire, cohabitating seemingly peacefully with punks and the half-naked: being free to differ.

What those visitors may discover later is that the price of this peaceful cohabitation lies in a constant bargaining of specific rights for specific communities in the name of cultural difference – the opposite of equality as understood in France. In France, public swimming pools would never allow women-only sessions to satisfy the demands of a minority. A public space is constructed for citizens to interact freely, and legislation written to remove the barriers of difference that separate them.

Seen from Britain, French principles of equality and secularism are often misinterpreted, and dismissed as authoritarian or prejudiced. But critics of the French approach don’t seem to understand that secularism is neutral – the State doesn’t recognise any religion in particular but protects them all, guaranteeing cultural and religious diversity by ensuring that one faith does not get the upper hand.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6565064.ece

She explained it way better than I did – and I think many of the knee-jerk reactions accusing France of “authoritarianism” I’ve seen on blogs show a basic misunderstanding of the concept of laïcité.

Saranga // Posted 25 June 2009 at 12:33 pm

Really interesting debate. I struggle with articulating and even working out my views/feelings on this issue so I am not going to add anything extra tot he debate. I will however say that right now I find Sabre’s post most convincing.

As for the differences between France and the UK and the framework in which these discussions operate, I’m learning a lot reading this!

Madeleine // Posted 25 June 2009 at 12:53 pm

What is wrong with being anti-religion? (I don’t mean wanting to ban it, but feeling uncomfortable about it and disliking its influence). It’s not as if any religious faith has ever been proven to have any basis in reality – which of course is why it’s called ‘faith’. There is no religion now or in the entire history of this beautiful blue planet which has not tried to hinder any kind of progress. And the major thing which all religions have in common is the oppression of women.

If people want to hold certain beliefs or dress in a certain way or wear whatever religious symbol, that is of course their right. I would never want that banned.

Secular spaces could be analysed as public spaces, funded by taxpayers, to which people of all beliefs – and people of no beliefs! – have access. The cultural norms, I suppose, would be the cultural norms of that particular country. That’s the best I can think of, anyway.

Sabre said that people should look at themselves and question whether their personal opinions on this issue are based on personal discomfort. Well, yes. I admit mine are. When I see either a skimpily dressed woman or a woman covered in a burqa I do feel personal discomfort, yes, because to me those are extreme ends of the same spectrum, i.e. women conforming to masculist/patriarchal pressures. It doesn’t mean I would ever want to ban anyone from dressing in a certain way. I just feel uncomfortable. And I get the distinct impression that those with strong religious beliefs are hardly ever tolerant towards people who don’t share their belief.

Ellie // Posted 25 June 2009 at 1:04 pm

I’m more disturbed that anyone thinks it’s ok to make it illegal to wear a certain item of clothing. This should no be a matter of government enforcement. God knows if a similar law was aimed at the clothing of white middle-aged men it wouldn’t get a look in.

Qubit // Posted 25 June 2009 at 1:49 pm

Jessica, I think the difference in our view comes from the fact that I am used to being surrounded by Christian symbols (despite not being Christian) and therefore am not used to a secular society. I can see how this would differ for someone who finds the idea of someone publicly displaying their religion unusual. In fact during university it wasn’t unusual for the Christian Union to give out copies of John’s Gospel and run numerous events to convert people. In this way I feel used to being around people who are a different religion to me and do believe I will go to hell for my beliefs. I think to people not used to that it can be very disconcerting.

In this sense the French and British attitudes to this should be very different. While I certainly advocate keeping religious conversion out of environments like hospitals etc I am fairly comfortable with religious symbols. I am not sure if this is true of the British in general. I think put in the context of a society that views wearing a cross as a strong message the burqa takes on a different meaning and I can understand a greater discomfort.

When it comes down to hygiene, that is obviously a practical issue however I find it hard to believe there are not practical solutions available as for example the burkini which Snowdrop mentioned. I have never assumed people wearing the headscarf or burqa are repressed by that may be due to working in a University and mistakenly (?) feeling if the woman was truly oppressed she wouldn’t be here.

In the end not coming from an Islamic background I don’t know about the motives or how to tell whether something is forced. I am prepared to listen to Muslim women on this issue and think their opinions will differ. In the end though I think at least in Britain, a country which allows religious symbolism, forcing women to show more of their body seems just as oppressive, if in a a different way to forcing women to cover up.

However as your mention this issue is about France and I know and understand very little about French culture therefore understanding things in this context would need more research on my part.

Jen // Posted 25 June 2009 at 2:41 pm

To me, public institutions should be accessible by everyone, that’s the more important thing than protecting passersby from knowing that some of the other people using or working for public services are of a particular faith.

Well, there’s a bit more at stake than just keeping people from knowing that others are of a particular faith, it’s more about making sure that a public body isn’t seen to endorse one faith or another, and that individuals working there aren’t seen to endorse one faith or another. It’s really about freedom of religion, as I explained before, rather than preventing people from practicing their religion.

Although as you say it’s important for institutions to be open to all, so concessions need to be made, and as a few people have pointed out, at which point does it stop counting as a religious symbol and start counting as clothes? I’ve worn a bandana over my head quite a lot over the years, sometimes quite a covering one, particularly in high school, and it’s not right that a girl wearing a similar scarf tied over her ears and under the chin would be banned from wearing it, whereas I’d get away with it just because it’s tied behind my neck (although people were fine with headscarves in my school, well, officially anyway, they got called “fatima” by some of the students).

Anyway, I think where banning headscarves would exclude certain people from being able to benefit from all their civil rights the same as anyone else, then concessions have to be made, but laicite should be preserved as much as humanly possible while taking this into account.

But there’s no point to me waffling anymore since I’m just repeating myself.

Jen // Posted 25 June 2009 at 3:03 pm

But that view is very tightly tied to French secularist values, which are extremely protective of the influence of religion – and if one doesn’t “get” them, it’s a very tricky thing to explain.

I think part of the difficulty in adapting this to the current situation with people from colonised countries, aside from the colonial tensions (and let’s face it, the fact that France was a huge massive unbelievable dick to those countries), is the fact that the “freedom of religion” part of the Declaration of Human Rights was written with the persecution of Protestants and various Christian sects like the Catharres in mind – if you read the Enlightenment philosophers from the 18th century, freedom of religion and freedom to be an atheist or an anabaptist or whatever was a huge concern for them. The UK is still a monarchy, and I think having a state religion is very much tied in with that, and it’s very important if you have a State religion to make specific allowances for all other religions, and in effect public bodies would endorse the Church of England in that officials of that Church are kind of official figures.

Whereas in France we kind of, to be blunt, beheaded all that lot in the 1790s, so there isn’t a State religion anymore, we still have an aristocracy somewhere but it’s a lot more discreet and secret-society-ish – it hurts my hands to type letters to HM anything, it really does – and this makes a hell of a difference to the approach to religion. Also because the French monarchy wasn’t constitutional, the King was by divine appointment and an absolute monarch, which probably makes a difference with the UK again.

Although that said, you still get presidents going to bow their heads at Notre Dame in the event of a national tragedy, so it only goes as far as it goes really – I think they should do that in their own private time too, because you can tell they’re thinking “man, the shit I have to do in this job, and I could be eating a bacon sandwich right now” and it’s just for the cameras.

But yeah, that’s why it’s important for commercial media and private and corporate concerns not to become too powerful also, otherwise laicite really goes out the window – a lot more so than if you allow people to wear religions symbols to work, I think.

Laura // Posted 25 June 2009 at 3:03 pm

@ Sabre – Your comment pretty much sums up my thoughts, thanks for that :-)

maggie // Posted 25 June 2009 at 5:30 pm

Sabre, you wrote that you could see that the girl looked happy. If she wore the burqa then you wouldn’t be able to guage her happines by the look on her face. What’s wrong with wearing a veil anyway?

I do agree that it’s a matter of discomforture on the part of the onlooker. But to me the burqa represents something more than a garment that women may choose to wear.

There is nothing wrong with being anti religion. I myself, having once been a catholic, am now against organised religions. But not to the point were I’d want to impose that on anyone else.

Sam Rico // Posted 25 June 2009 at 5:47 pm

@zohra moosa, when you said that RadFemHedonist is anti-religious as being a bad thing, i think that was pretty unfair.

to me, one of the main things which should be fought by socialists and feminists (i am both) should be religion. i understand that some muslim women see the hijab/ burqa as a way of avoiding the male gaze and objectification in society (and i disagree with some liberal feminists who attempt to trivialize these), but it is completely the wrong reaction, and a sadly mistaken response to a very real problem. there should never be compromise with religious zealots, even in such things as opposing the sex industry (which i do). otherwise, the reasons for doing these things is simply being misunderstood.

Cara // Posted 25 June 2009 at 5:52 pm

Agree with maggie, there is nothing wrong with being against organised religion.

Not the same thing as being anti people who choose to follow a religion, of course.

I do think banning the burqua is just counter-productive.

Sabre – do you really mean that because someone looks happy at a certain moment in time they have no problems? Would ‘she looked happy so it’s OK’ be an excuse if she had been, say, sexually abused??

Noelle // Posted 25 June 2009 at 6:08 pm

Most of the commenters here seem so heart warmingly tolerant of all the religious folks who want to go around spouting whatever fanciful rubbish someone is supposed to have decreed x thousand years ago, and wearing burqas, crucifixes, yarmulkas or whatever other symbol helps to give them an identity. Well, great. If only people with religious belief would be equally tolerant to those who didn’t share it! Wouldn’t the world be a much better place? No question.

Here’s my personal feeling – the religious of all denominations creep me out! End of.

Ruth // Posted 25 June 2009 at 11:26 pm

And here’s my personal feeling:people who bang on about how much all religion is rubbish and make generalised unprovable statements like “all religion does is oppress and hold back progress” (untrue on both counts but don’t let me bore you with an alternative point of view) based on a position of no actual knowledge annoy the heck out of me. End of.

Watch this not get published because attacks on faith and people of faith: apparently A-OK and not at all offensive and unnecessary around here…because ‘of course’, feminists must be anti-religion.

Well, not this one. I may have left the practices of faith myself for sundry unrelated reasons, but I know from personal experience the two are not incompatible and and am fed up with it being assumed other people on the outside know better than me how it is – and for the record, all the people of faith (various) *I* know and have known personally in my life are a lot more tolerant and respectful of all types than any of the hardline unbelievers [munching lunch in front of a Muslim during Ramadan whilst lecturing him on how wicked Islam is for ‘forcing him to starve himself’, anyone?]…

What happened to being respectful of the experiences of others which we do not share and therefore cannot fully know? Does it only apply to the ‘correct’ experiences?

Jehenna // Posted 26 June 2009 at 2:48 am

@Noelle

Actually so far here there’ve been an awful lot of unpleasant comments directed at religion and religious people, and a remarkable lack of the same being directed towards agnostics and atheists.

Perhaps you missed them:

Noelle -“Here’s my personal feeling – the religious of all denominations creep me out! End of.”

Cara-“Agree with maggie, there is nothing wrong with being against organised religion.”

sam rico-“to me, one of the main things which should be fought by socialists and feminists (i am both) should be religion.”

Maggie-“There is nothing wrong with being anti religion.”

Madeleine-“What is wrong with being anti-religion? ”

Madeleine-“And I get the distinct impression that those with strong religious beliefs are hardly ever tolerant towards people who don’t share their belief.”

Not a huge amount of tolerance being directed towards those with religious sentiments here I notice.

Saranga // Posted 26 June 2009 at 9:30 am

Noelle: I think that’s an unfair comment.

I know plenty of religious people who don’t force what they believe down other’s throats, and are ‘tolerant’. Although tbh that’s the wrong word – they don’t see that someone not being religious is something to be tolerant about, it just is. To tolerate non religious people would be akin to tolerating someone with brown hair.

Sabre // Posted 26 June 2009 at 9:40 am

@ maggie and cara

Firstly I said the girl was wearing a headscarf so I could see her face. She was laughing and from the body language between her and her family I they were clearly having a good time. Of course I’m not saying I saw this girl laughing one time and extrapolated that to mean she’s happy 24/7. My point was that I was feeling pity for this girl and it was wrong and patronising for me to do so because she wasn’t looking bothered. I assume the headscarf is part of her life and she only notices it when other people treat her differently. And that’s what I was doing, in my head.

That led to this thought:

For women and girls who CHOOSE to wear headscarves/burqas/similar, it’s not the clothing that oppresses them, it’s other peoples’ negative reactions.

This was demonstrated beautifully on Question Time last night when there were lots of comments about the burqa separating muslim women from society, and how oppressed the poor things were. I wanted to shout at the TV “Aside from the fact that many women with burqas do have jobs and engage with other people in society, it’s not the burqa separating them from society, it’s your attitudes!”

Last point: I think that many of us who are non-religious feel annoyed when religion takes a prominent or visible role in society. But when we bleat on about how religious people need to be more tolerant and accepting, we should remember it’s a two-way street.

Jen // Posted 26 June 2009 at 10:15 am

Cara,

Is anyone talking about anything so clear-cut as “Banning the burqa”? I know the alliteration is tempting, but it’s no excuse to oversimplify the issue…

Interesting point though, this:

Agree with maggie, there is nothing wrong with being against organised religion. Not the same thing as being anti people who choose to follow a religion, of course.

Part of me is tempted to agree, and part of me recoils. Again, I think being “anti-religion” is way too much of a sweeping statement, because religion isn’t something small it’s one of the underpinnings of civilisation – well, so are a lot of other things we don’t necessarily want to celebrate. But, most of the underpinnings of the kind of left-liberal thought on sites like the F-Word comes from Judeo-Christian religious figures. Even our secularism is founded on Christian principles. I’m an Atheist, but my various ethical stances, coming from a Protestant background, are very different to those of Atheists from a Catholic background, I’ve often noticed. For instance, I’ve got a very down-to-the-basics, do-some-fucking-work, Protestant work ethic.

The supernatural beliefs that I see a lot of atheists taking as being the whole of religion only really make up about 1% of it. Even the codes of conduct that seem crazy to us are only the tip of an ethical iceberg, a lot of which is incredibly valuable.

As institutions I think a lot of Churches are completely fucking despicable – colonial missionaries, charities that insist on converting people to Catholicism before they’ll help them, exploiting lonely old ladies for unpaid labour, making young women terrified about issues surrounding childbirth and abortion, and worse. In their own special ways, the Catholic Church and Focus on the Family are equally as 150% comic book villain evil as each other – and I’ve only really mentioned modern-day stuff. But again, as far as organised religion goes, they’re also only the tip of the iceberg. This is monopolised organised religion I’m describing, basically – but there again, being Catholic or Protestant or any other faith has different meanings depending on where you go.

Asking someone to be anti-religion is like asking someone to be anti- a whole branch of philosophy and a whole branch of the human quest for knowledge and understanding.

And if you’re going to tell me that religion did so much terrible stuff to people, I’ll give you three words: eugenics, social darwinism, which were all based on the kind of mysticism, ideology and pseudo-science that we all tend to hate about religion – which it, evidently, doesn’t have the monopoly on, which suggests that the problem isn’t religion so much as a failure of methodology and a whole bunch of selfishness on the part of a few people who want to protect their private property.

And aside from anything else, I’ve seen plenty of statements against religion coming from high profile feminists, and they’re always written like “thank god I’m not silly and brainwashed”, which makes me think they can’t think very much of all those women who do belong to organised religions. Surely – as a socialist and a feminist, this is for you Sam – we can’t assume hundreds of thousands of people are just dumbasses.

zohra moosa // Posted 26 June 2009 at 12:02 pm

Hi Sam Rico

I think you’ve misunderstood me. What I said was: ‘it sounds to me like you are anti-religion – is that right or no?’

By which I meant ‘have I understood you correctly?’ not ‘is that a good thing or a bad thing?’.

Even if I had said that being anti-religious is a bad thing (which I don’t believe incidentally, and certainly don’t think is a problem at the level of abstract discourse), can you explain why you think ‘that was pretty unfair’?

As it happens, I do have a problem with the way being anti-religion has been brought into this conversation, not least because some of the comments have been disparaging as Jehenna points out. For example, your comments are patronizing to Muslim women, suggesting that you are a better authority on their lives and what’s right for them than they are: ‘but it is completely the wrong reaction, and a sadly mistaken response’.

Others’ comments have similarly invoked being anti-religion as relevant to a conversation about what France should do about the reality that some Muslim women wear the burqa. Your or my opinions on religion per se are besides the point, unless we also believe that people should not have the right to have religion or practice it *at all*. In which case we need to move countries as both France and the UK have signed up to international conventions that enshrine the rights to both.

So before anyone emigrates, I would find it helpful if we refocused on the point of the post: how might France reconcile its secular tradition with the fact that some Muslim women wear the burqa. And, I would add, how can this be done in a way that supports Muslim women’s perspectives on their lives and rights, and resists the temptation to be both Islamophobic and Orientalist.

Madeleine // Posted 26 June 2009 at 12:08 pm

So statements like “all religion does is oppress and hold back progress” are generalised and unprovable? Well, in between, say, Galileo and present day Iran, there is one hell of a long list of documented proof of religion holding back progress.

And no documented proof of religions promoting science, learning, the arts or the rights of women.

Sorry if some people here don’t like that.

zohra moosa // Posted 26 June 2009 at 12:14 pm

Hi Madeleine

There are actually entire libraries full of documented proof of religions promoting science, learning, the arts and the rights of women.

Indeed, the first university in the world was Muslim, and much of our current knowledge on medicine, physics, mathematics and other sciences is based on Muslim scholarship, cultivated as part of a religious tradition that emphasized knowledge accumulation and the pursuit of scholarship.

Jehenna // Posted 26 June 2009 at 1:14 pm

@Madeleine

All religion =/= Christianity and Islam

“all religion does is oppress and hold back progress” – This is a generalisation and it is unprovable, because there are examples where religion has encouraged progress and not been oppressive. One example is enough to disprove a generalisation, which is why they’re not brilliant in debates.

“And no documented proof of religions promoting science, learning, the arts or the rights of women.” – Which religions? What do you know of Zoroastrianism? Hinduism? Aren’t you aware that some of the most lauded art ever done was commissioned by Christians? Michaelangelo’s David? The Sistine Chapel?

No, I don’t like it, mostly because I believe you are both wrong, and prejudiced. Being offensive and then saying you’re sorry that other people don’t like it when you offend them is a tactic used over and over again by different people excusing bad behaviour. It would be nice if we could have a discussion without that kind of silliness here.

Madeleine // Posted 26 June 2009 at 1:32 pm

Zohra, yes, of course there is the tradition of Muslim learning and scholarship and the fantastic culture Muslim societies/countries had while Europe was grubbing in the Dark Ages, I totally acknowledge that. Women in Muslim societies then had more rights than women in Christian societies. But I think it was the culture and tradition rather than actual religion itself. And it was all a lot more enlightened, dare I say secularist, before the extremists got the grip they have now.

It doesn’t negate my point that there is a very long, documented, proven list throughout the centuries, of all organised religion trying to destroy all kinds of progress. That is fact.

Jehenna // Posted 26 June 2009 at 1:46 pm

@Zohra

Getting back to the point – I think France would be more comfortable with the burqa if it moved from a symbol of religious affiliation into something more secular. Espousing it as fashion rather than religion.

I lived in France for a few years, and although I was religious, my religion doesn’t wear too many obvious ‘faith symbols’ so it wasn’t physically evident. The reaction I got when French friends found out was more bemusement than hostility, which makes me wonder why this push for removing physical evidence.

Surely in a tolerant society, we could accept physical signs of our beliefs – because we wouldn’t have this hierarchy of what belief was better? After all we can express lots of other kinds of belief through our clothes and this doesn’t cause much of a fuss.

zohra moosa // Posted 26 June 2009 at 1:53 pm

Hi Noelle

Are you able to measure the length of your creeped-out-ness and what you’d like to do about it with respect to this site – which is a place for both the religious and non-religious? Would you prefer, for example, not to read my posts on The F Word? Or is it just that you’ll have to hold your nose when reading my comments?

Hi Madeleine

Be fair: your point was that there is ‘no documented proof of religions promoting science, learning, the arts or the rights of women’ and that that is why the statement ‘all religion does is oppress and hold back progress’ is both not a generalization and is provable.

I provided evidence which (1) contradicted that there is no documented proof, and (2) shows that the statement is therefore a generalization and is not provable, as has Jehenna.

In terms of your current comment, three points:

1. Islam has never existed without ‘culture and tradition’, so there is no point trying to separate out ‘actual religion itself’ from these.

2. Can you explain what you mean when you use the word ‘secularlist’ to describe that period?

3. There has rarely been only one manifestation of Islam, so which do you mean when you make your generalizations and use the word ‘it’? For example, you are clearly referring to some kind of Islam that has nothing to do with the one I practice in your second last sentence, as mine is not under the ‘grip’ of ‘extremists’.

Saranga // Posted 26 June 2009 at 2:04 pm

@ Madeline: “it was the culture and tradition rather than actual religion itself”

How can you serparate out the two? Religion has a huge influence on culture and tradition. Isn’t this one of the issues that France is trying to resolve?

“there is a very long, documented, proven list throughout the centuries, of all organised religion trying to destroy all kinds of progress.”

Would you kindly provide some examples then, and explain how they cancel out the good that religion has done, and the progress and achievements that has been done in it’s name.

Good things and bad things come out of religion, it’s down to the folks that are involved in it.

Madeleine // Posted 26 June 2009 at 2:36 pm

Jehenna, I didn’t think I was being silly and offensive and behaving badly, but I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Re. my so-called generalisation about religions, I did give two examples, Galileo and present day Iran. And of course I’m aware that Michelangelo’s lauded art was commissioned by the Catholic church. But he had to paint the way they wanted! If he did something they didn’t like he had to change it, he had no choice because he was under their patronage and without it would have been practically penniless. You could hardly call that artistic freedom. Religious people were using him and his great art to further their own ends.

I don’t think (if I’ve understood you right) that “all religion” means only Christianity and Islam. I meant the major organised religions. I know some things about Christianity (I was brought up Catholic) and about Islam and Judaism. I admit I know hardly anything about Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

Zohra, when I say “secularist” I mean human life/culture/traditions which are not dominated by a religious belief. When I said ‘it’ I meant the societies/cultures/traditions. Sorry I didn’t put that better.

Yeah, I admit that I exaggerated and wasn’t fair. There are examples for both sides of the argument, i.e. good and bad things religions have done. I did want to make the point though, and I stand by it, that organised religion has largely (!) not been a force for progress, especially where women’s rights are concerned. I know there are different interpretations/manifestations of Islam, and I was referring to the extremist kind that I do consider a threat, especially to women.

I think that’s it.

Madeleine // Posted 26 June 2009 at 3:05 pm

Dear Saranga,

I’m starting to wish I’d kept me gob shut. Yes, of course there are good and bad people in religions. But you want some examples of religion trying to destroy progress? Okay.

– Galileo and the Catholic church. Think most people know about that one, it’s a real classic.

– Northern Nigeria, 2005. A group of Islamic religious figures issue a fatwa to declare the polio vaccine a conspiracy by the United States and the UN. No one is allowed to administer the polio vaccine to infants. Within months, polio is back and has spread to several other previously polio-free African countries. All previous good work undone.

– Pakistan. Present day. There is a law which states (whether or not it happens) that a woman can be sentenced to be gang-raped in order to expiate a crime committed by her brother.

– Not long ago. Several bishops in the Anglican church point out that homosexuality is “unnatural” because it does not occur in other species (which is not true).

– The former Pope (and probably this one), condoms and the AIDS virus, say no more!

– female circumcision

– Northern Ireland

– Creationism

I could go on, but I (and youse) don’t have the time. I’ll just end with this great quote from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“And do you think that unto such as you,

A maggot-minded, starving, fanatic crew,

God gave a secret, and denied it me?

Well, well – what matters it? Believe that, too!”

and from Emily Bronte:

“vain are the thousand creeds that move men’s hearts,

unutterably vain,

worthless as withered weeds

or idle froth amidst the boundless main”.

Ah’m done.

Saranga // Posted 26 June 2009 at 3:36 pm

@ Madeliene.

Thank you for the examples.

I do not dispute that a lot of crap has been done in the name of religion. However, I do not believe the bad cancels out the good, and I believe that the bad is down to a lot of individuals being given power, and being twisted.

I am also considering that maybe I shouldn’t have opened my mouth as I am getting rather het up about this and snapping.

Madeleine // Posted 26 June 2009 at 3:50 pm

Saranga, no, no, you should have opened your mouth, ditto Zohra, as I have rightly been called out on some exaggerated statements I made and forced to think/explain some more. That’s one of the things that’s so good about the F-word.

I’m going to open my gob again now to have a cuppa tea and several shortbread bikkies.

Have a lovely weekend, F-wordinis!

Jen // Posted 26 June 2009 at 3:51 pm

Indeed, the first university in the world was Muslim, and much of our current knowledge on medicine, physics, mathematics and other sciences is based on Muslim scholarship, cultivated as part of a religious tradition that emphasized knowledge accumulation and the pursuit of scholarship.

Phew, yes, thanks for mentioning it, and that should be the end of that particular branch of the discussion really.

I don’t know how it’s possible to separate “religion” from “the rest of culture”.

Just briefly also,

when I say “secularist” I mean human life/culture/traditions which are not dominated by a religious belief.

Where do you think the whole idea of being “secular” came from? or “atheist” for that matter? Can those exist without the concept of religion, really?

Also, why is no one looking into eugenics or social darwinism? Margaret Sanger had some real doozies of quotes in that department, check out her work on Project Gutenberg.

And yeah, funny how a discussion about “launching an enquiry” into something turned into “ban! for! against! good! bad! suffer! death!”. Then we complain about them religious types having obscurantist black & white views of stuff.

But I’m way too bacon and cake addled at this point of the afternoon to make anymore cogent points, if I ever did, and I’m emigrating, funnily enough, back to France tomorrow, so this is my final contribution to this discussion.

Shea // Posted 26 June 2009 at 4:57 pm

I’m apt to think it is any ideology that is followed blindly and slavishly that leads to evil things being done. You could hold the same criticism of religion true for facism, communism or even at a point secularism. It is possible to be dogmatic in the extreme about any ideology (although I’m not a fan of religions of any sort, I think they have always been a form of social control).

I am very interested in this though. At one I am deeply opposed to any group of (predominantly male) powerful people dictating what other minorities should wear. One commenter on here made a point that middle aged men would never accept being told what to wear – and I think that is correct. But at the other there is the practicalities of inclusion and exclusion. Employer’s really dictate to all of us what we can and can’t wear for work. Also at a practical level I can see why you wouldn’t want a primary school teacher wearing a burka- (it scares young children and it is very hard to teach them the alphabet phonetically if they can’t see your mouth).

I don’t see why muslim women (and is it just muslim women who wear the burka?) are so much more oppressed than the woman in high heels and a mini skirt for a night out in sub-zero temperatures. We are all subject to cultural pressures. I really would like to see more from the women in the middle of all this and from muslim and arab feminists generally. I think we are in a very real danger of colonising the debate here.

I don’t want to incite a feud but this: “eugenics, social darwinism, which were all based on the kind of mysticism, ideology and pseudo-science that we all tend to hate about religion”

Is wrong.

The founding members of eugenics movement both in the US and Europe were predominantly hardline Calvinists not secularists or atheists. The worse excesses of eugenics were either done by CHRISTIAN organisations (Catholic missionaries in the new world, or the Stolen Generation in Australia) or with their tacit consent (The Catholic church, which was aware of the forced sterilisations of mentally and physically disabled people, Jews and Romany people up to and during the Second World War).

Atheism = the absence of belief. There has never and will never be atrocities committed in the absence of belief. For this to occur you need ideology, be it Christian, Islamic, National Socialist, Communist or any other.

Secularism = is the assertion that governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.

I think the laicite in France has some similar secularist principles to the UK. There has always been (well for the last 500 years) a principle in English law and constitution that religion is a private affair and the business of the individual. (It hasn’t always been adhered to) but you can see it from the court papers of Elizabeth 1st to the present day.

And talking of secular countries, does anyone know what the Turkish answer to the burka is?

Shea // Posted 26 June 2009 at 5:46 pm

“Where do you think the whole idea of being “secular” came from? or “atheist” for that matter?

……erm Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, (Epicureanism – pre dates Christianity and Islam by some 250 years), Amafinius, Cicero, Diagoras, Theodorus Critias, Socrates ? The Cārvāka school of Hinduism ? What about the Samkhya and Mimamsa schools of philosophy? Not to mention Arabic scholars of which I am entirely ignorant.

“Can those exist without the concept of religion, really?”

Yes, why not? They are not necessarily dichotomous (well secularism and religion are not, think of the founding fathers of the USA). They are not the same thing- atheism and secularism are different and mutually exclusive concepts. You don’t have to be an atheist to be a secularist and I think we are seeing this currently played out in Iran.

Even within atheism there are two strands- a rejection of theism and/ or a denial of the existence of deities. The meaning of “atheist” has also changed over time. Early Christians were regarded as “atheists” for their non- belief in pagan gods. Some Muslims hold that “infidel/unbelievers” to be “atheists”.

I do find it bitterly ironic though, that those pointing out the misgivings of religion are being attacked on this page, when it is really only in the last 30 years that any openly vocal opposition to religion has been tolerated. Those following the events in Iran can see that this opposition is still not tolerated everywhere. So hurray for the secular countries that allow for expressions of religion of any kind, because it will be a bloody long time before freedom FROM religion is a universal right!

Deya // Posted 28 June 2009 at 7:54 am

This is a very interesting discussion about the relationship between secularism of the state and its intervention upon individual freedoms. My personal feeling is that the state should not intefere with citizens’ dress code. At the same time employers should be free to specify their requirements to potential employees.

Off topic @ Zohra: a) The first university in the world is Nanjing in China and it was/is not Muslim.

b) You claim “Islam has never existed without ‘culture and tradition’, so there is no point trying to separate out ‘actual religion itself’ from these”. However the fact is that Muslims exist around the world and a Muslim from Istanbul, Turkey has rather different ‘cultures and tradition’ from a Muslim in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia or Muslim in Turfan, China. I’m curious as to why you are giving the impression that you believe that it is not worth exploring the differences in religious practice of the varieties of Islam. You seem to want to dismiss the national and regional identities entirely in favour of a homogenized “One Muslim culture” which is simply not the case. For all you know, these three Muslims may hold different beliefs when it comes to hair covering – no?

zohra moosa // Posted 28 June 2009 at 11:27 am

Hi Deya

1. It’s the oldest university according to wikipedia and other sources:

“the oldest university ever for both religious and secular studies”.

2. I think you’ve misread my comment. I am not at all saying that “it is not worth exploring the differences in religious practice of the varieties of Islam” – in fact I’m saying the exact opposite. My point is the same as yours: culture and tradition have basically always influenced how Islam plays out in various contexts, so it’s meaningless to not take them into account and operate as though there is a ‘pure version’ somewhere. I even challenged Madeleine to be more explicit about which ‘version’ of Islam ze was speaking about when ze made hir generalized comments later in the thread…

Amy Clare // Posted 28 June 2009 at 1:53 pm

I find it interesting that people are criticising Sarkozy et al for attempting to tell women what to wear, when surely the burqa-wearing woman’s religion/culture has clearly also told her what to wear.

If a girl is brought up in a family where everyone she loves and trusts tells her that there is an all-powerful supernatural being in the sky who must be obeyed, and that he wants her to dress in a certain way, then in what sense exactly does that girl have a free choice in what to wear, from the outset? It is very difficult even as an adult woman to ignore conditioning like this. Of course women would hotly deny that they have been conditioned: I have heard many rationalisations of burqa wearing, such as “I’m doing it for myself” and “I find it empowering” and etc. These such excuses are often espoused by women who conform to patriarchal rules – I’ve heard them used in defence of Brazilian waxing and pole dancing for example. Two things that would be ardently criticised by feminists.

Surely what we should be aiming for ideally is a society where people are truly free to make a choice over what they wear, and where religious dress is concerned, this necessarily involves being free to choose one’s own religion. I don’t believe parents have the right to tell their children that their own, personal beliefs about god are true – especially seeing as there’s no evidence for the existence of a god. I think that as much as possible, children should be brought up without the influence of religion, and encouraged to decide for themselves what to believe after hearing all the arguments.

To that end I think the fact that France keeps religion out of state schools is admirable and I wish we had that principle in this country. I don’t think, however, that a ban on wearing burqas in public places will do any good, as it does nothing to tackle the actual problem – patriarchal, religious rules which are obsessed with women’s ‘modesty’.

Anna // Posted 28 June 2009 at 3:02 pm

‘Two things that would be ardently criticised by feminists.’

They would? It’s certainly not my feminism that tells me I can’t/shouldn’t sport a Brazilian should I so desire.

Amy Clare // Posted 28 June 2009 at 3:52 pm

@Anna:

Feminists on this site and others have been openly critical of the apparent trend for women to remove all their pubic hair. I can think of one F Word article off the top of my head which criticised Anna Richardson, the presenter of ‘The Sex Education Show vs Pornography’, for telling girls to wax or shave their pubes ‘for themselves’.

You can criticise the patriarchal ideology behind an act (in the case of waxing, the idea that women’s genitals must look like little girls’ in order to be attractive) without criticising the people who do it. I would never tell a woman “don’t have a Brazilian” but I would, and do criticise the idea that pre-pubescent genitals are sexually desirable.

It is the same principle with the burqa. I would never tell a woman not to wear one, but I would criticise the ideology behind it. My point with the waxing analogy was that feminists in the West are very astute in their criticism of patriarchal beauty/dress standards that arise in our own culture, but quite scared of doing so when similar standards are born out of a different culture.

Victoria // Posted 28 June 2009 at 4:48 pm

Amy Clare,

I don’t think you meant it in the way it came out, but your comment is quite arrogant. Firstly, you’re assuming that you know the reasons why women wear niqaab – it’s all because their parents have told them a story about a man in the sky, focusing on reward/punishment. In so doing, you ignore all those adult women from varying backgrounds and cultures who have chosen to convert to Islam and adopt the niqab as adults. What’s their ‘excuse’? You also underestimate the intellectual capacities of Muslim women if you think that they’re conditioned into making the choices that they make, all the while devising creative excuses. Again, what of women who leave Islam? Women who return to it after a long time away? Women who make the decision to abandon the niqaab and women who make the decision to wear it against the will of their families? When you see a veiled woman in the street, you don’t know her story. It’s important to remember that there is an individual behind every veil, so don’t be so quick to assume that you know exactly why they’re dressed that way.

A lot of Muslim women don’t see niqaab as patriarchal (perhaps because Islam also enacts a modesty code for men). For some it’s an important part of their personal relationship with God, which doesn’t involve any other human being. For some, it’s a political statement. For others it’s a question of culture. (Would it surprise you if I told you that in some regions of southern Saudi Arabia there are Muslim men who wear veils made of flowers out of long-standing tradition? Women there wear cloth veils decorated with silver, and for them this is an important part of their culture.) In expecting Muslim women to justify themselves for wearing the niqaab, and then dismissing what they say as excuses, you’re assuming that you know them and their lives better than they know themselves. You’re also making the implicit assumption that with your omnisicence comes total neutrality. Other women might be conditioned into behaving in a certain way and believing certain things, but not you! You can see the truth for what it is! Contrary to popular belief, secularism does not equal impartiality.

zohra moosa // Posted 28 June 2009 at 6:16 pm

@ Amy Clare

feminists in the West are very astute in their criticism of patriarchal beauty/dress standards that arise in our own culture, but quite scared of doing so when similar standards are born out of a different culture

where do you place ‘Muslim feminists in the West’ in your schema?

Amy Clare // Posted 28 June 2009 at 8:04 pm

@Victoria:

“you ignore all those adult women from varying backgrounds and cultures who have chosen to convert to Islam and adopt the niqab as adults”

I should have mentioned converts, I agree. If an adult woman converts to Islam and adopts the burqa, then that is indeed her choice. However conversion when an adult is not the usual means by which people become religious. Usually, people identify with the religion of their family, and are brought up in a religious tradition from birth.

“You also underestimate the intellectual capacities of Muslim women if you think that they’re conditioned into making the choices that they make”

Every person – Muslim or not – is conditioned by their upbringing at least in part. I did actually use a nonreligious analogy as well, so please don’t imply that I am calling all Muslim women stupid.

“A lot of Muslim women don’t see niqaab as patriarchal (perhaps because Islam also enacts a modesty code for men)…Would it surprise you if I told you that in some regions of southern Saudi Arabia there are Muslim men who wear veils made of flowers?”

The vast majority of Muslim men (excepting those in Saudi Arabia that you mentioned, I’ll take your word for it) do not cover themselves from head to toe. They do not cover their faces, or even their hair. They do not hide the shape of their bodies. In a Muslim family who are devout to the point that the women in the family wear a burqa, why then do the men not also wear one, if the modesty codes are equal?

“For some it’s an important part of their personal relationship with God, which doesn’t involve any other human being.”

So like I said, the burqa is a religious garment, a direct result of beliefs about what a supernatural being has deemed appropriate. Other human beings are directly responsible for the proliferation of religion.

“In expecting Muslim women to justify themselves for wearing the niqaab, and then dismissing what they say as excuses, you’re assuming that you know them and their lives better than they know themselves.”

I am not claiming to know every Muslim woman’s story, I was merely making the observation that in general, when women conform to patriarchal norms, they often say things like ‘I am empowered by x’ even when the most powerful group in society, men, do not do x!

“You’re also making the implicit assumption that with your omnisicence comes total neutrality. Other women might be conditioned into behaving in a certain way and believing certain things, but not you! You can see the truth for what it is!”

Well I don’t see myself as omniscient, but thanks for the compliment! ;) Like I said above, we’re all conditioned to a certain extent. Even me! The point is that in all religions (not just Islam!), questioning the prescribed practices is frowned upon, and fair counter-arguments are lacking. Because after all, the practices are supposed to be what god wants, and god is never wrong! I have not claimed to “see the truth”, I merely expressed the opinion that people should make up their own mind what they wear and part of this means being free of religious influence when one is a child.

You criticise me for claiming to know why a Muslim woman wears a burqa, but aren’t you doing the same by insisting that coercion, conditioning, religious laws and patriarchy have absolutely nothing to do with it?

@zohra:

Although I concede that my phrase was badly worded, I stand by my point which was that feminists tend to shrink from criticising patriarchal traditions that they have not been brought up in themselves.

In answer to your question, I think that *any* feminist should be able to criticise *any* practice he/she sees as patriarchal, regardless of whether this practice has explicitly been a part of their upbringing, or not. ‘Muslim feminists in the West’ are of course part of this ‘schema’.

Sam Rico // Posted 29 June 2009 at 5:46 am

@Zohra

ok sorry for the misunderstanding.

in terms of what i am saying, i think that the way you put it is incredibly unfair. you make it sound like i am patronizing some people with completely free and informed beliefs. however, these women have been socialised into what they wear since childhood, and even if they do not wish to they face extreme social pressures. would you argue that the 6th bride of a mormon is making a free choice, and noone should interfere because she knows best? how about girls who say that they hate feminists? free and informed? in fact, the same socialisation which makes women wear the burqa often makes them hate feminists too. do you argue that this should be the case, and that we should do nothing to change their minds? if so, then i struggle to see how you are a feminist at all.

in terms of the reality of what France should do, i actually disagree with those who argue that the burqa should just be banned outright, because i dont think this helps anyone, aside from some right-wingers who will have less to grumble about. for the women especially, i recognise that it is likely to make life worse at present. instead, i believe that we should slowly and carefully try to change attitudes towards religion in general. forcing things only makes people hold irrational and damaging beliefs more strongly.

finally, human rights acts & conventions are usually based on liberal principles- they are as much a product of their times & environment as everything else. the way in which they often protect religion as they are is, in my opinion, misled. i dont think we have a right to wrench religion from people, but progress does require secularization.

p.s. i dont really care about being called islamaphobic, islam is a religion, not an innate feature of a person, and yes, i dislike islam, along with ALL other religions.

p.p.s. sorry for any mistakes or oversights in this comment, i have been awake for about 60 hours straight.

Sam Rico // Posted 29 June 2009 at 5:49 am

p.p.p.s.

just read Amy Claire’s comments, she pretty much said anything else i might be wanting to say. i agree with everything i have read that she said.

Joana Andrade // Posted 29 June 2009 at 10:57 am

Just as a Gedankenexperiment so that everyone can evaluate what is really in question here. What would you say if instead of muslim women and burkas we were dealing with catholics that wanted to wear a cillice in public?

Cathy // Posted 29 June 2009 at 12:28 pm

I too have often wondered why so many Muslim men (in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries) don’t cover themselves up, in fact just wear “Western” dress.

But then I think I know the answer really.

Rose // Posted 29 June 2009 at 12:50 pm

i think the point being made here is that we must be allowed to critique the burqa – as an object not as its owner – through the same framework we critique ‘choices’ such as breast implants or a playboy keyring. we must realise that there are some ‘choices’ a woman makes for herself which are empowering and choices a woman makes still ‘for herself’ but which happen nontheless because of an outside influence or pressure, and we must be able to question the existence of that pressure.

besides, i find it hard to believe we’d all be arguing against a decision to ban breast implants in a school because, hey, its a womans choice and stop policing our bodies! no, we’d all say, fair enough, school uniform is school uniform, and anyway, aren’t breast implants a form of violence against women hidden behind the appearance of a ‘choice’… nobody’s really worrying about offending or leaping in to defend the ‘choice’ of WASP girls who want to be cut open on an operating table, even if defending them might even be the right thing to do. on the point, we seem to have all agreed that (mostly) outside of specific personal attacks, its absolutely okay to make a forthright critique of the whole culture, and, deep down, to judge women with breast implants differently from those without. this, no one struggles with, because cultural sensitivity issues don’t ever have to come creeping into it and putting everyone on edge.

but the big difference between girls going to school with surgically mutilated bodies or covered head to toe is of course religion/cultural sensitivity, which brings me to my point that this has so much more to do with your individual attitude to public expression of religious faith or affiliation than it has anything to do with establishing the ‘feminist stance’, because every feminist will feel differently about religion anyway, and thats the real issue here. all i can say is that the burqa is to me in the same category as the breast implant, and if i am judgemental about these things, fine, but i would judge the white woman in the burqa the same as the non-white woman with the burqa, and maybe if we could all imagine for a moment that uh, just maybe, a white person might wear a burqa maybe we could get back to the business of the day, which is critiquing all forms of social pressure on girls to behave differently and with less freedom than boys….

zohra moosa // Posted 29 June 2009 at 1:12 pm

Hi Sam Rico

a) I do indeed think you are patronizing some people – and believe you have done it again in this comment. For example you position ‘these women’ as having been socialized etc as if 1) there are women who aren’t socialized in the world and they are ‘free and informed’ while these women are not 2) everyone you’re talking about is part of a homogeneous group who have been through the exact same experience that’s brought them to the point of donning the burqa – even though Jessica has pointed out that the info is suggesting they do it to make a political point. Your claim that they’ve been socialized ‘since childhood’ to, presumably, wear the burqa is just that – a claim. We don’t have the info to know this (or if you do, you haven’t pointed to it, but I’d be keen to read it, so do send on). Personally, I’m interested in hearing why women wear it, how they articulate their politics around it, etc.

b) If I felt we shouldn’t change people’s minds on things I would neither be blogging on this site or engaging in this conversation with you.

c) You may struggle to see how I am a feminist at all, but that is your challenge, not mine.

d) ‘progress does require secularization’ – leaving aside the fact that you haven’t made clear what you mean by ‘progress’, I’d highlight the fact that secularism is not the same thing as being anti-religion. Also, secularism plays out differently in different contexts (France’s secularism is entirely different from India’s, for instance).

e) If what you are actually saying is that you do not have a problem with *being* Islamophobic (rather than just being called it), we may have a larger problem on our hands. Please can you clarify.

Louise Livesey // Posted 29 June 2009 at 1:54 pm

Wow, I really thought Western feminism was beginning to get past demeaning other cultures for not being Western (yes I show an eternal optimism). I am writing as a white, atheist, western feminist who is pretty concerned that this discussion went from discussing Sarkozy attacking women’s rights to religious expression (and note he isn’t banning male equivalent modesty attire) in France to demanding that Islam justify itself. Wow that’s some hubris there.

And so many red herrings are being thrown out – like it’s about hygiene in healthcare settings – how many of France’s public servants are working in healthcare settings? How many directly with patients where hygiene would be a direct concern? 1%? Less?

All religions tend towards diversity of practice – compare an Irish Catholic Christian to a US evangelical to a Carribean syncretic christian and you’ll see a world of difference. So, as zohra said, there is little point trying to unpick religion and culture here except to say the Qu’ran asks for modesty for men and women and that has been interpreted differently in different forms of Islam in different places on the globe.

The issue is here, for me reading this “debate” fresh (I hadn’t followed it until today) is how much racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiment there is here. And how much there is a desire to stamp out voices of Muslim women by white, non-Muslim women. Now I’m no big fan of religion but if I have to accept it exists (and I do) then I defend any woman’s right to choose and engage with religion as she sees fit.

So much here has been based on personal prejudice – statements like “we must ban 5 year olds from wearing the hijab” for example (and it’s just one from many I could have chosen). Why? Does it do them any harm? If your argument is because it’s not demanded by the Qu’ran, well then many parts of Christianity aren’t demanded by the Bible, do we ban then too? If your argument is because they can’t freely choose it at that age, well do we ban infants from being baptised ‘cos they can’t consent either? If your argument is because it hinders their development as autonomous beings I’d recommend we tackle outright and hidden sexism through the commodification and sexualisation of childhood, which is a much bigger problem, than pick on a group just because they ain’t white and are perceived to be non-Western (although we’re talking about women in France here, let’s not forget that). If your argument comes down to “well because I don’t like it” maybe we need to rethink the grounds of this debate – there’s plenty I don’t like and some of it I’d fight for legislation about but I wouldn’t start with someone else’s right to make choices.

The first thing we need to realise here is that modernity/the Englightenment in the West has sold us a notion of “progress” which is a damaging as anything that has happened elsewhere. Progress relies on imposing homogeniety and discounting other forms of development. It’s intimately tied to capitalism and the inherent exploitation therein and it positions women as lesser/confined to the private realm/inferior to men etc. Rather than declaring Islam “backward” (and I have a raft of useful articles about how modernity must construct Others as backward to remain hegemonic) perhaps we need to work on unpicking our own socialisation and our own oppressions and helping Muslim feminists when they ask for it and in the forms they ask for it rather than imposing a similarly detrimental model of Western modernity which exploits all things including women (see Vandana Shiva’s work for example).

In short, I think many of us need to examine our own prejudices here and realise how we are contributing to essentialist, racist and oppressive discourses and practices.

Trisha // Posted 29 June 2009 at 2:03 pm

Zohra, I struggle to see you as a feminist. But as you point out to the commenter in question, that is my challenge and not yours. You seem to reach for your gun, so to speak, at the mere mention of the word “secular” and write hostile stuff to anyone who is in favour of that and hoping their right NOT to have to wear a burqa will ever be taken away from them.

If a woman wants to wear a burqa that is of course her right. No way should the wearing of burqas be banned. But I think you should bear in mind that many of Muslim women are in fact pressured to wear the burqa whether they want to or not – they can’t “articulate their politics around it” because as women they’re not allowed to articulate their politics! Try walking on the street in some Muslim countries without a burqa and see what happens to you! To refuse to acknowledge this is just disingenuous.

No, I really don’t know why you blog on a feminist site.

Amy Clare // Posted 29 June 2009 at 2:06 pm

Just as an addendum:

I saw a trailer last night on C4 for a programme which will be on next Sunday, about Muslim faith schools.

In it, a little girl of about seven, who is wearing a headscarf, says: “I wear the hijab and I go to paradise. I don’t want hellfire.”

Now, even if this were a truly unique situation, and no other women or girls have the same rationale for religious dress as this girl (however unlikely that might be), is it morally acceptable for this school to be telling young girls that there is such a thing as ‘hellfire’ and informing them that wearing the hijab is a way to avoid it?

@Joana:

I think very many Catholics probably *are* wearing a cillice in public – as it’s commonly worn underneath clothes, it’s very difficult to tell. Ruth Kelly used to wear one, so I’m told.

I do find it to be an oppressive garment, although the religious reasons for it are different from the religious reasons for the burqa. It is worn supposedly to constantly remind the wearer of the pain and sacrifice of Jesus, and any gender can wear it. The burqa by contrast is specifically for females, and is concerned with sexual morality and ‘modesty’.

Mo // Posted 29 June 2009 at 2:23 pm

Louise Livesey, I think your post is extremely patronising, not to say offensive. I don’t see that anyone here is demeaning other cultures because they’re not Western. That is a ridiculous comment to make. The original question here was whether or not Sarkozy would be right to ban the burqa in France, and as far as I can gather (please correct me if I’m wrong) there is not one person commenting here who has said it should be, they’re defending the right of women (men don’t come into this, of course, do they, there’s no question about what they should or shouldn’t wear!) to wear burqas should they choose. How is that racist or Islamophobic?! You’re just insulting people.

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 June 2009 at 2:39 pm

I absolutely agree with what zohra and Louise have said.

I also think we need to ask why a discussion about whether France should ban women from wearing the burqa has turning into a discussion about the merits of the burqa and religion in general.

This thread is not about the merits of the burqa or why women wear the burqa or whether Islam ‘and other religions too’ are bad for women, it’s about France’s president saying that women wearing the burqa are “not welcome” in the country and it should actually be banned.

Yes it is a feminist issue for the state to ban women from wearing whatever they want to. It’s a clear case of patriarchal impositions on women’s behaviour and body, aimed at a tiny minority of already marginalised women. Even if it never gets passed the inquiry stage. And Sarkozy is co-opting our language to do it, in the name of women’s rights.

you make it sound like i am patronizing some people with completely free and informed beliefs. however, these women have been socialised into what they wear since childhood, and even if they do not wish to they face extreme social pressures.

Everyone has been socialised into what they wear, and a myriad of other things. Guess what, my mum was a feminist – I’ve been ‘socialised’ into feminism, does that mean I am incapable of deciding as an adult that I’m also a feminist, or that I have no agency whatsoever to form my own politics? I think it would be obvious to you, Sam, why that would be a patronising assertion.

It looks to me like you’re putting words in zohra’s mouth – there’s nothing she’s written which suggests that she thinks that the burqa, mormon polygamy or anything else should be left unanalysed. She has simply made some extremely patient requests that people check their generalised assumptions and statements.

zohra moosa // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:01 pm

Hi Trisha

Can you point out

a) where I’ve ‘reached for my gun’ at the word secular? I’ve actually stated that France’s secular tradition is what is interesting about how this debate is/could unfold over there and in fact have asked people to engage with that – I’m actually asking us to consider this from a French secular position.

b) where I have been hostile?

Your idea that women cannot articulate their politics because you see them as pressured is interesting – since there are women who wear the burqa who do in fact articular their politics about it.

I have actually walked around in Muslim countries without wearing a burqa, and here I am ready to talk about it. If you have too, shall we discuss?

I’m unclear: what is it you think I’m ‘refusing to acknowledge’?

If you don’t know why I blog on a feminist site, you could just ask me.

Jessica // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:01 pm

Louise, you say:

“And so many red herrings are being thrown out – like it’s about hygiene in healthcare settings – how many of France’s public servants are working in healthcare settings? How many directly with patients where hygiene would be a direct concern? 1%? Less?”

I think it’s clear the problem isn’t the number of women who could potentially ask to work in hospitals wearing the sitar (and anyway in France they couldn’t, period), but more about the state wanting to avoid legislating on a case-by-case basis, which would force French authorities to create specific rights as opposed to universal rights – something France is historically opposed to (and like I said, arguing that “well, it’s just wrong” is problematic since it discards cultural differences and suggests a very Anglo-centric approach).

So yes, details matter even when we talk about 1% of the women concerned, because one case can set a legal precedent: if, say, a woman wearing the burqa sues the state-operated Post Office after a refusal to pick up a parcel because identification is needed, and she felt she couldn’t comply. It sounds extremely petty, but in my opinion practicalities will be what make or break the debate in parliament.

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:09 pm

You seem to reach for your gun, so to speak, at the mere mention of the word “secular” and write hostile stuff to anyone who is in favour of that and hoping their right NOT to have to wear a burqa will ever be taken away from them.

I can’t even tell you how in awe I am of zohra for responding so calmly to all the comments here. If it had been me moderating this thread I’d have not been able to be so patient.

The notion that she’s “reaching for her guns” in responding, mostly just by asking commenters questions about what they’ve said, is ridiculous.

But I think you should bear in mind that many of Muslim women are in fact pressured to wear the burqa whether they want to or not – they can’t “articulate their politics around it” because as women they’re not allowed to articulate their politics! Try walking on the street in some Muslim countries without a burqa and see what happens to you! To refuse to acknowledge this is just disingenuous.

Yet this is clearly not true, given that there are many critiques of the burqa written by women while they were living under such authoritarian regimes, even if it was not possible for them to publish that critique at the time while in that country. Have your voice supressed is not the same thing as having no voice.

Lucy Joy // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:16 pm

@ Zohra – I’m really shocked that you seem to be accusing someone who does not respect organised religion of being driven by an underlying hatred or prejudice. I find it immensely offensive. I don’t respect organised religions for many reasons, many of which have already been mentioned here. I feel that all organised religions by nature of their existence represent certain delusions, superiorities and bigotries that i don’t subscribe to and they also encourage conformity on a scale I am not comfortable with. Certain non-religious aspects of society also do this – I am well aware that western culture is lacking in many ways and not half as progressive or feminist as many people suggest it is. However, I will not apologise for being anti-religion and the insinuation that i am somehow prejudice and bigoted because of it is unreasonable and inaccurate. To me, Sam Rico’s comments have not indicated that she (or he…I don’t know!) are predjudice against women who practice certain religious traditions and I think it’s out of line that you suggest they are. Sam Rico says s/he dislikes Islam – I assume that’s what s/he means when s/he uses the term ‘Islamophobe’. Like s/he states, s/he is talking about the religion itself not necessarily the people who practice it. I thought that was apparent. There really is nothing *wrong* with being anti-religion. It is a valid viewpoint and is not synonymous with any particular negative trait or belief.

@ Joana – the reaction would be exactly the same! Not exactly sure what you’re trying to get at but a number of reasonable posts have asserted that to ban the wearing of the burqa would be yet another obtuse and unnecessary interefence in women’s right to dress themselves. However, it is clear that the burqa is a garment used often with the intention of subduing women and symbolically demonstrating male superiority over them. It is terribly offensive to suggest that readers’ reactions would be different if the religion in question was Catholicism (by which I suppose you mean a *white* religion) and the item of clothing, a cilice, which, unlike the burqa, is actually intended to cause pain and therefore, I would say, a hell of a lot worse!

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:24 pm

Incidentally, this is a great post about this up at Muslimah Media Watch, and it’s even funny.

This:

First, choice is always socially contextual. Even if I might “choose” what I want to wear every day (and for me personally, that choice has yet to include a burqa), there’s a reason I don’t walk around outside in my pyjamas, or attend classes wearing fancy dresses. We don’t ever make choices that are entirely independent of social expectations. So when I see people express the idea that women are oppressed by their crazy Muslim communities that make them believe that they want to wear a burqa, and that because this “choice” is made in order to conform to social expectations, we should ignore it, because it’s not a free choice, it just makes me wonder: what choice is ever independent of the expectations that are imposed on us by our societies? And how can we decide which “choices” are legitimate and free, and worthy of being respected?

….

So, when these women make the “choice” to wear the burqa, they are not necessarily choosing between imprisonment and freedom, or between subservience and empowerment; they may be making this choice between multiple forms of imprisonment (symbolic or otherwise), or multiple options that still place them in subservient positions, or they may even be making this choice in a context where the burqa represents the positive side of those dichotomies. The point is that the arguments about “choice” simplify the discussion, and ignores the ways that women may claim agency even in situations where their possible “choices” might be restricted.

Laura // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:35 pm

The idea that Muslim women cannot choose to wear religious dress because they’ve been socialised into it seems to me to deny women the ability to fight against socialisation and patriarchy, which shows very little faith in women, in my opinion. We’ve had plenty of discussions on here about beauty standards and a number of women have articulated how they have analysed their use of make-up or heels, for example, and continue to choose to do so for a whole variety of reasons. This doesn’t mean they are brainwashed. Others have been able to overcome cultural pressure and socialisation and reject practices such as shaving or wearing clothes that make them uncomfortable. Muslim women can do this too.

But whether women choose or do not choose to wear the burqa is beside the point, because policing women’s clothing and appearance – no matter what the intention – removes power from women’s hands, meaning that those who wish to challenge this aspect of their faith are unable to do so on their own terms, and those who wish to wear the burqa or similar are denied their right to present themselves as they wish to be seen.

I think most of us here would agree that there is pressure on non-muslim UK women to display a lot of flesh in order to ‘dress up’ or look ‘nice’, but I doubt that any of us would even entertain the idea that there should be a government-led investigation into the possible banning of low-cut tops and mini-skirts. It seems, then, that people’s prejudice against religious people is coming into play here.

And, yes, religion oppresses many of us, but trying to oppress them right back in an area that doesn’t actually affect those of us who aren’t religious is just childish.

As for zohra not being a feminist because she critiques and challenges other people’s opinions, well, I guess that rules out pretty much every feminist I can think of, so she’s in good company :-)

Trisha // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:43 pm

Zohra and Jess, well done on being so patient, I applaud you. I am being patient now as well, so I will reiterate the points I made that you chose to disregard, for whatever reason:

1. I said that “many” (not all) Muslim women are pressured to wear the burqa. I also said that in “some” (not all) Muslim countries women cannot go out without wearing a burqa. Not all. Some.

Why do you have a problem acknowledging this?

Zohra, I do think your tone towards some posters here is hostile. I could give a list of specific instances, because you seem to like that kind of thing, but I’m afraid I’m not as patient as yourself and Jess. Ditto the secularism thing. I won’t ask you, as you suggest, why you post on a feminist site. I just lost interest.

Jess, I’d suggest you don’t be too much “in awe” of anybody. Most of us can see what happens when a lot of people get awed by something or someone. And it ain’t usually good.

zohra moosa // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:45 pm

Hi Lucy Joy

I’m really shocked that you seem to be accusing someone who does not respect organised religion of being driven by an underlying hatred or prejudice.

I’ve not made that accusation. I’ve asked how we can, collectively, have this conversation in a way that resists being Islamophobic. Sam Rico’s response was that ze doesn’t mind being ‘called Islamophobic’ – though I did not call hir that – because ze felt certain opinions of hirs were justified. I then asked hir to clarify further, because a defence of Islamophobia on this site is problematic.

Incidentally, I’m not even sure you and I use the same definition of Islamophobia, which will obviously complicate the conversation. We could use wikipedia’s for ease of reference? In which case there are comments on this thread that I would classify as being Islamophobic (which does not make people ‘bad’. We are schooled to be Islamophobic in this country, so to have internalized this is not surprising).

Certain non-religious aspects of society also do this – I am well aware that western culture is lacking in many ways and not half as progressive or feminist as many people suggest it is.

This sentence suggests that you feel that ‘western culture’ is non-religious, is that what you meant?

There really is nothing *wrong* with being anti-religion.

Please see my first comment on this post – where I’ve already explained that my issue with invoking anti-religion on this post is about its relevancy, not its acceptability as a political/ideological position in its own right.

Kristel // Posted 29 June 2009 at 3:59 pm

I completely agree with Lucy Joy’s post. I think Louise Livesey’s post is quite offensive, by the way. I don’t notice anyone here demeaning other cultures because they’re not Western. And who here has said they think the burqa should be banned…?!

I personally do not like any organised religion. That doesn’t mean I would deny anyone else’s choice and freedom to practice their religious faith. I respect their choice and hope they would respect mine. I don’t believe the burqa should be banned, I think that would be crazy.

Jess McCabe // Posted 29 June 2009 at 4:06 pm

@Trisha It’s interesting that you think zohra is the one being hostile, but you’re the one who’s accused her of not being a feminist and saying you have “lost interest” in her perspective.

I’ve not seen zohra say that no women ever anywhere are forced to wear a burqa.

Denise // Posted 29 June 2009 at 4:13 pm

If I was an MRA I’d be chortling away at all this furore. If someone wants to wear a burqa for whatever reason, let her bloody well get on with it. I’ve just been reading about how the sexist bastards at Wimbledon have only been putting who they regard as the best looking (in their opinion) female players on the show courts. That is outrageous. I don’t see anything on the Fword about that! Sexism in sport, good feature, I’m looking forward to it.

Sam Rico // Posted 29 June 2009 at 8:31 pm

ok, sorry if what i am about to say has already been said, i am really tight on time for blogging. so, i am going to respond to the 5-point comment which zohra made in response to me:

a) i believe that the vast majority of women (and men, for that matter) have been socialized in ways which are less than ideal, not just muslim women, as you seem to suggest (though i dont know why). however, just because other people are also wrong, that doesnt make them right. thats an absolutely ridiculous idea, i dont think i should have to clarify, but if i must, start by looking at the numerous, vastly different political, philosphical and religious views around the world. there are obviously many, many such views which are wrong. just because i dont agree with fascism, for example, doesnt mean we have to agree with neo-liberalism. and are you seriously suggesting that the majority of those who wear the burqa are adulthood converts to islam? if not, then there is no denying that they have been socialized into religious beliefs since childhood.

b) so, you do believe in changing my mind. but, as it seems to me that you find it impossible to grasp the concept that what people believe is anything other than a completely free choice, how is it that you believe that i am wrong? am i misinformed? stupid? what, so how do you explain my thoughts and ideas, or those in the examples which i gave you and you so carefully avoided?

c) no, no, if you are not a feminist, that is your problem. the real question is whether or not your views are consistent with feminism, and in my opinion that means with social justice in general. and if i am right, they are not. and to again clarify, that is your problem, especially as you seem to like to identify as a feminist.

d) point taken, by secularization i simply meant that religion should have its influence decreased, and eventually eliminated from all aspects of life, not just politics (though this should be in tandem with other, wider social change). sorry for the mixup. hope that i have clarified what i mean.

e) i have seen above that there has been some problems with the definition of islamaphobic. i generally regard phobias as irrational fears/ hatreds, so actually i would prefer not to be called ‘phobic’. however, i do dislike islam, so if that is as far as your definition goes, so be it. BUT, as i said earlier, i dislike all religion pretty much equally, so making me out to be some extreme muslim (& races associated with islam) hater is wrong. i dont hate misled people, only those who mislead them, and the misleading idelogies themselves.

zohra moosa // Posted 29 June 2009 at 10:51 pm

Hi Sam Rico

Thanks for coming back to reply.

I’ll follow the five points again as helps me follow the conversation:

a) my response to you on this point was about being patronizing to Muslim women and how they come to their decisions, that’s what we were discussing on this part of the conversation. What I am arguing is that Muslim women have agency, even when their choices are constrained, and it’s helpful to find out *from them* why they don burqas (and there will be different explanations from woman to woman). I am not arguing that most Muslim women are not ‘socialized into religious beliefs since childhood’, I am arguing that Jessica made the point that Muslim women were wearing the burqa in France for political reasons, not religious ones.

b) I believe what I’ve said above. I’m not sure what you mean by your last question, do you want to explain? I didn’t ‘carefully avoid’ your examples; I engaged with what I thought were the pertinent aspects of the conversation. If you prioritized other bits, fair enough.

c) can you explain which of my views are not consistent with feminism or social justice in your opinion? You mentioned that you struggled to see how I can be a feminist – which is why I said it was your challenge. I wasn’t trying to fight about it. I meant that quite literally: if you are struggling, then that is a challenge. I am not struggling with my feminism, so do not have any challenges with this.

d) thanks for explaining. We are, then, operating with different definitions of secularism. My background is political science, and my understanding of secularity comes from this. I am not familiar with your definition of secularization, where does it come from? I support the idea of secular states not at all because they would ‘eventually eliminate religion from all aspects of life’, but because I think fairness and equity between religious peoples and also between religious and non-religious peoples is best supported when there is a division between state and church.

e) I haven’t made you out to be ‘some extreme muslim… hater’. As I explained in my response to Lucy Joy, you invoked Islamophobia in reference to yourself and your comments first; I responded after that to ask you to clarify what you meant.

Sam Rico // Posted 29 June 2009 at 11:27 pm

hi again zohra, thanks for following the 5 point format again, it does indeed make it easier, and i am pretty short on time:

a) ok, some muslim women may wear the burqa because of political reasons, by as islam itself is untrue (like all other religions), they are still misled. like all people whose political beliefs are derived from religion. and thats those who do choose, i hope you do accept that there are many who are forced, albait to different degrees. as someone in an earlier post pointed out, in many countries, saying that it is a free choice is pretty much out of the question. i hope you do accept that this is the case. and i dont know about you, but i know plenty of muslim women in my personal life, but apart from these, i dont know how you can survey each and every one of them. so we will have to go by what we know about the religious practises and customs of islam. and what we know about them (along with many other religions), is that they are often coercive, restrictive, isolating to those who reject them, and completely irrational. there are many ways which people can be socialized into misguided beliefs, religious or otherwise. if you really think that i am patronizing muslim women, then you must think that i think the whole of the 3rd world are stupid, because they cant work out when they are being exploited. as a socialist-feminist, this is obviously not the case. lack of education & restrictive socialization are no fault of the subject individual.

b) ok, well i think you should take a look at the other examples. and the rest of what i meant can basicly be summarized as follows: if i am wrong, how do you explain it without being ‘patronizing’ to me. is it because i have been socialized into misguided beliefs (in which case you accept that this can be the case, & could be for women who wear the burqa, hypothetically); am i biologically predisposed somehow to hold my beliefs?; etc. because other than socialization, i dont really see how you think people come to believe what they do. and if you accept that it is due to socialization, then you must accept that they could have been socialized into what they believe, rightly or wrongly.

c) i believe quite simply that if you do not believe that socialization plays a crucial part in the forming of a person’s identity, ideas, beliefs, etc, that everything is down to personal choice, and that if you say someone is wrong then you are limiting their choice and ‘patronizing’ them; you are going down a road to which the only logical conclusion is absolute neo-liberalism- not equitable with social justice in any form.

d) well, it seems we are, but while i pragmatically support political secularization, i accept that secularization is not the correct definition for what i am describing. sorry again for the mixup.

e) ok fair enough, well i hope i have cleared up what i mean about that.

Louise Livesey // Posted 30 June 2009 at 9:09 am

@Kristel – in what way was I offensive? Can you say a little bit more about why you think this?

zohra moosa // Posted 30 June 2009 at 9:47 am

Hi again Sam Rico

Marathon conversation!

Ok, seems like, to me, there’s only really one outstanding substantive issue – because a, b and c are all about it: you believe that I have said that socialization does not play a part in ‘choice’. I do not know where you arrived at that conclusion, since what I said was this:

you position ‘these women’ as having been socialized etc as if 1) there are women who aren’t socialized in the world and they are ‘free and informed’ while these women are not

where I have clearly intimated that I believe all women in the world are socialized.

My argument is about agency in relation to ‘choice’ and the approach we take to Muslim women in France wearing the burqa. It is a very situated intervention I have made. I have not said no Muslim anywhere in the world is ever oppressed.

You seem to be saying religion is structurally oppressive therefore anyone operating from within it is oppressed, end of. I would argue that there are multiple structural oppressions at work in any woman’s life and that religion is not always the most detrimental/primary. In some cases, a religious community can be a source of agency against other oppressions, especially when one is living as a minority woman. I have found your approach patronizing because you have said things like ‘these women are misguided’ (or maybe just ‘misled’?) when you do not know the reality of their lives or why they are donning the burqa; you feel their politics are misled. I would argue that you do not know enough about them (their politics that is).

Louise Livesey // Posted 30 June 2009 at 9:55 am

Louise Livesey, I think your post is extremely patronising, not to say offensive.

Please explain in what ways you think the post demonstrates either patronage or offensiveness.

I don’t see that anyone here is demeaning other cultures because they’re not Western.

I do. For example the emphasis on facial visibility as a marker of trustworthiness is inherently Western and therefore “It sounds like it would be a difficult task, to employ someone whose face you never saw” is demeaning because it inherently denies the possibility that this may not be the case despite people proferring evidence to the contrary (the same also applies to SMs comments about medical professional-patient trust and I would ask you to note the implicit racism in assuming a woman wearing a burqa would be a nurse rather than a doctor, radiologist, physiotherapist etc). Why should we fetishise facial visibility in this way? Sabre has already raised this point in saying this isn’t (from any side) about Muslim women but about western discomfort and the power to impose their will. Similarly “I’m not sure I would be happy seeing *public servants* wearing one. In schools, in hospitals, as social workers? I would oppose it.” relies purely on the author’s assertion (which Jessica does acknowledge) and ignores that fact that this happens in some countries already without any major ructions. But the idea that a “public servant” is a special case of existence confuses me – there is a danger that we’re ending up drawing on the same discourses that were used, successfully, for a long time to keep women out of public service only now we’re redeploying them against certain sorts of women – ones who have a different faith (Islamophobia) or who are designated as “racially” different (racism). Either way it’s a demeaning viewpoint. And for a third example how about this “Personally, however,I view the burqa as an oppressive item of clothing and it pisses me off when I see men in western attire (say, shorts and t-shirts) who are coupled with women who wear burqas.” which is implicitly lauding the decision to adopt Western attire (for example would Lucy Joy also feel pissed off or happy if the attendant man was wearing a Shavani or kurta pajama?). It may just be bad expression but it tells us more about the writer than the debate.

Meanwhile there have been some really interesting questions posed which have been ignored – like Frances post early in the debate where she really clearly articulates some of my concerns about Sarkozy’s manouevres and Sabre’s points about what this debate is really about.

That is a ridiculous comment to make.

No it isn’t as I have demonstrated above and could continue to demonstrate through many other examples from the thread. By focussing on the earlier posts I’ve actually chosen the least bad examples. Additionally personal insult it not really a good debating device – the comment was not ridiculous unless what you actually mean (going from the definitions of ridiculous) is that you wish to subject it to ridicule – if that’s the case then I’d ask why you would seek to do that?

The original question here was whether or not Sarkozy would be right to ban the burqa in France, and as far as I can gather (please correct me if I’m wrong) there is not one person commenting here who has said it should be, they’re defending the right of women (men don’t come into this, of course, do they, there’s no question about what they should or shouldn’t wear!) to wear burqas should they choose.

What about the posts saying it’s inappropriate for public servants? Is that some notion that they can choose to wear the burqa but shouldn’t dream of combining that with public service? How is that a defence of their rights if it’s predicated on a segregated system?

Sarkozy’s proposed actions wouldn’t “free” “oppressed” women from the burqa – it would just deny adult women (and mostly women of colour), who have made a decision a white man dislikes jobs, in public service and thus render them even more invisible in the “mainstream” world.

> How is that racist or Islamophobic?!

I believe I have demonstrated that already but if you want me to give more examples I’m happy to.

> You’re just insulting people.

Please evidence how you feel I’ve insulted people. Naming white privilege and it’s attendant racisms isn’t insulting people, it’s naming power structures. The first response to claim “hurt” from this is often used to mask an unwillingness to critically engage with our own positional privilege – you know it really hurts to say “I have white privilege and am thus involved, everyday, in the oppression of others” but it’s also the only way to begin to unpick out social location and the power that has.

I stand by my view that many of the comments here demonstrate both a orientalisation and essentialisation of the Muslim woman and racism and Islamophobia.

Amy Clare // Posted 30 June 2009 at 10:33 am

If you haven’t read it already, this post is on Feministing, written by a Muslim woman. It concerns those Muslim women who don’t wear, and are critical of, the burqa:

http://community.feministing.com/2009/06/what-about-the-muslim-women-wh.html#more

I have to add also, that I’m disappointed to read posts on this thread which have implied that being critical of a perceived patriarchal practice, and/or being critical of religions (including Islam), equals racism. No-one has actually used that word, but accusing posters of attacking Muslim women because they “ain’t white” implies it.

Criticising ideas does not mean hating individuals. Are feminists man-haters for criticising patriarchy?

maggie // Posted 30 June 2009 at 12:01 pm

There was also an article on women’s hour about the proposed legislation in France to ban the burqa. The introduction to the article is especially good and it has two women, one who wears a burqa, in discourse. Worth checking out.

I agree with Amy Clare’s post. Criticism is not equal to hatred.

What does ‘priviledged white’ even mean? Coming from a Northern Irish Catholic background I really oppose the notion that I don’t understand what it’s like to face discrimination in terms of religion (my name sounds Irish catholic, and I wore a catholic school uniform), even when I no longer practised that religion. Living in GB I found religion didn’t matter but in some intances being Irish did.

I forgot to mention, I’m white and have a comfortable, middle class background.

Legible Susan // Posted 30 June 2009 at 12:39 pm

Wow, there’s a lot of posts here talking about Muslim women as if they were all the same, and denying their agency. I’m surprised Zohra and Louise can be so polite.

Weren’t we supposed to be talking about the possibility of a ban? There are lots of things on the high street I’d be happy not to see there (Ann Summers, please take your dummies with suggestive slogans out of the front window), but banning them is not the way to go (in any case, but also laws capable of doing that are always used mostly against oppressed groups).

Kristel // Posted 30 June 2009 at 12:46 pm

Louise Livesey, I consider I made it quite clear in my post how I thought you were offensive.

You and Zohra both seem to have the idea that any criticism of religion (even when the poster has made it clear they mean ALL organised religions) implies racism and “Islamophobia”. That is what you are accusing various posters of, and that is offensive. And even if someone does demand that Islam (or any other organised religion) justify itself, what is wrong with that? All religions make completely unproven claims by which they want to control people’s lives, especially women’s lives. What is wrong with challenging and criticising that?

Someone (way above!) gave several examples of ways in which organised religion of various denominations has held back progress. Why can you not admit that secularism, i.e. the separation of church and state which occurred in some Western societies, thereby allowing more freedom of inquiry (without which none of us would be posting here, or doing so at great personal risk) was and is actually a good thing? It looks as if you’re putting the rights of people with religious belief over the rights of people who don’t want anything to do with religion.

You also seem to completely ignore the fact that a lot of Muslim women are themselves critical of the burqa and don’t want to wear it. I would call that deeply patronizing.

I’m not going to apologize for disliking and, yes, fearing religion and not wanting to be controlled by it. If you think I’m being racist or Islamophobic by doing that, so be it.

Cara // Posted 30 June 2009 at 1:02 pm

Not wading into this. I would like to emphasise though that:

*I am not proposing anyone should not be free to follow a religion

*I have nothing against individuals who do so. Criticising specific misogynist practices of a religion is not singling out that religion (as long as said feminist would also criticise fundamentalist anti-choice Christians, orthodox Jews, and so on). It is certainly not criticising the individuals who follow that religion.

*I recognise that religion does some good things – and indeed, it’s often not the religious teachings that are the problem, it is the way they are interpreted by *people* – which is often to promote the social norms they would like to see…but of course which varies depending on the surrounding culture (hence why Islam in say Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are very different, as of course is the Vicar of Dibely style trendy Christianity from African, Carribean or fundamentalist US versions…)

Overall though, in general, and of course it is a generalisation, religion does more harm than good.

Jen – I didn’t write that for the alliteration, not being a Sun journalist, and yes, I do realise that this is only an inquiry, not being a complete idiot, thanks.

Louise is right about the face being hidden though. In many cultures, even if the niqab is not required, men and women who don’t know each other do not make eye contact (it would be seen as a sign of sexual interest or aggression). The importance of eye contact is definitely a cultural construct. There is no inherent need to see the face, to connect with someone.

Of course, there may be security issues in some circumstances, e.g. work – where I work we have to wear a pass with a photo on it – but there are probably ways to work around that (e.g. female security guards could check them).

Reading an account of a nurse working in Saudi at the moment, which is quite interesting, and certainly combats the ‘poor oppressed things’ view. Obviously they had ways around it, since clearly it is not practical to work in healthcare when wearing a niqab. The patients and colleagues just got used to the fact that female workers didn’t cover their heads. And this was in Saudi.

I was going to mention the post on Feministing that Amy Clare mentioned, too. Assuming Muslim women are a monolith either way is a pretty stupid assumption. Some want to wear hijab, some don’t (and there are degrees – from full burqua and niqab to just modest, i.e. baggy, clothing). As I said, any proposal to legislate about the burqua is counter-productive. I just tihnk there is a happy medium between saying that any practice of non-Western cultures is beyond criticism, and utter ignorant colonialist condemnation of cultures one knows nothing about.

Chrissie // Posted 30 June 2009 at 1:12 pm

Church and state has not been completely separated in western society. Religions still get tax breaks from governments, there are state-funded religious schools, and laws which forbid people to insult their particular deity.

Still, a huge improvement on times when theologians would have serious lengthy discussions on how you could measure the length of angels wings!

Louise Livesey // Posted 30 June 2009 at 3:53 pm

I consider I made it quite clear in my post how I thought you were offensive.

Unfortunately I don’t think you were as clear as you think, hence the reason I asked the question. I think you go on to say that it’s offensive to say something is racist or Islamophobic – I patently have to disagree. Is naming sexism as sexism equally offensive? Please. For maggie who requested it and anyone else who wants to explore what it means to have white privilege I’d recommend Peggy Macintosh’s Unpacking the napsack of white privilege as a good starting point and then recommend Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Introducing Critical Race Theory as accessible and useful.

You and Zohra both seem to have the idea that any criticism of religion (even when the poster has made it clear they mean ALL organised religions) implies racism and “Islamophobia”. That is what you are accusing various posters of, and that is offensive.

Where did I say that I don’t believe in criticising religion? I am a staunch atheist and have plenty of personal views on religion. However that is not the point of this discussion – but you do prove my point here that white feminist voices have hijacked this (and other similar posts in the past) to ask that Islam (or religion more generally if you wish) justify their existence. Now as much as it might be flattering to the site to think that dieties or priests may visit the site and might want to contribute – that wasn’t the point of this post. The post did not say “hey everyone have a pop at Islam or religion generally”. Hijacking the debate is inherently disrespectful and hijacking a debate which could have been used to hear marginalised voices only reinforces racist (yes there is that word again) domination of speech and space.

In addition whilst I am highly critical of religion and faith, my critique of religion does not present itself through a lens of criticising women who choose to have faith. I may not agree with them but I’ll defend their right to make their own choices.

The church and state is not separate in any Western country including those who laud it like the US and (to a lesser extent) the UK. Plus Montesquieu’s argument about separation of church and state was to prevent influence of either on the other including state on the freedom to worship – i.e. Sarkozy’s measures would fail Montesquieu’s challenge because it’s the state intervening in church. Moreover the idea that the Enlightenment/modernity (to which you are tacitly appealing) is automatically better for women is unsupportable – modernity has structured gendered roles to oppress women and that is the basis of feminisms challenge to contemporary UK societies.

You also seem to completely ignore the fact that a lot of Muslim women are themselves critical of the burqa and don’t want to wear it. I would call that deeply patronizing.

Where do I ignore that? Where is that pertinent to any of the argument’s I’ve put forward – I haven’t advocated making the burqa compulsory nor have I advocated that anyone “should” wear it have I? So how is this fact (which I don’t dispute) relevant at all to what I have said?

Joana // Posted 30 June 2009 at 5:08 pm

I’ll just explain why did I write my former post: as I went down the thread I came to realize that it was very difficult to dissociate it from the commentators’ opinions and feelings on such topics as Islam/islamophobia and (for lack of a better term) Imperialism. I merely suggested that we considered a similar situation : women adopting an extreme religious practice that is regarded as not acceptable by the majority.

Sam Rico // Posted 30 June 2009 at 5:27 pm

hi again zohra,

well i have obviously made clear that i also think all people have been socialized, so if you do believe that, no argument there. where we do have a problem is that you still seem to think that socialization into religion is somehow positive and right.

i know about living as a minority in society, so i dont think you can accuse me of being ignorant as to this experience. however, i think that where people are religious, it is one of the most detrimental types of social control, as it controls all of their actions, right down to their thoughts, and ALWAYS for the wrong reasons. and yes, that is the end of it, religion has no real justification, so it has no justification at all.

people across the left have often tried to use religion for good. i am no stranger to this, i know that movements from the zapatistas to the civil rights movement were often based in religion. but, i still contend that religion is not the right answer, as it is based on nothing but unsubstantiated claims, and there are always elements within religions which can and often do lead to oppression later on (or even at the time). simply put, if you are using religion to fight against oppression, you have yet to realise that there are genuine reasons for doing so, which do not have to have a basis in some made-up and easily exploitable diety. an extreme example of this is Jim Jones, who had admirable ideas and apparent goals from the beginning right up to near the tragic end.

also, you seem to be digging for some sort of personal experience on my behalf in terms of learning why muslim women wear the burqa. i dont think personal experience can be a basis for most research and knowledge, and thinking that it is, in my opinion, leads us to the right of the political spectrum, where age is regarded as wisdom, etc. if you must know, however, i live in central london, and went to school with plenty of muslim girls (& boys), some who do and some who do not wear the hijab (only a few wearing the burqa), and many are still very close friends of mine, and yes, my relationships with them support my views. i am not one to shy away from in depth conversations and debates on religion and politics in person, so yes, i have discussed these issues with them.

in relation to the above, i dont really get why you ask us to speak to muslim women to see why they wear the burqa. i mean we pretty much know the stance that they take- it is a protest against the dominance of western culture, western norms and values, sexualization of society etc. whoever we ask, it will be some variation of this. i mean, would you demand that before we criticise any political ideology we go around asking all of its members why they support it, even though we know what the ideology is, and what it represents? because i find that idea frankly quite absurd, and if you really believe this i fail to see how we would ever get anywhere in terms of making progress.

finally, in general, i dont think that using one oppressive thing to fight another oppressive thing is ever right. it might be pragmatically easier, but even when it is clear cut which is more oppressive (which in this situation, it is not), it only leads to problems and more oppression.

Juliet // Posted 30 June 2009 at 5:57 pm

Louise, I got the impression Kristel said “any criticism of religion” (to quote her words) was apparently deemed racist or islamophobic by you and Zohra…?

Are you saying she hijacked the debate and/or wasn’t respectful? How? She’s said she doesn’t believe in banning the burqa. And if she doesn’t like any religion, that’s her right surely?

Do you think you might be overreacting a bit? I can understand it must be difficult for you and Zohra to properly read and respond to all the posts here, especially when you’ve got other stuff to do.

I pointed out that Saira Khan, a British Muslim woman, had written an article in the Daily Mail criticising the burqa. No one here seems to be interested in the viewpoints of Muslim women who are critical of the burqa.

Jehenna // Posted 1 July 2009 at 6:57 am

@Sam Rico

Do I understand you correctly that you are saying all women are socialised, but that socialisation done through religion is somehow worse than all the others because religion is wrong, and made up?

Do you understand how unbelievably arrogant it is to position yourself as the authority on all things ‘real’ and tell people that their faith is based on something false and invented?

Would you consider this appropriate behaviour to talk to people about other kinds of belief, such as belief in patriarchy, or believe in racism?

How would you feel if a religious person dismissed your lack of faith in the same way, and refused to engage with your thinking or ideas on the grounds that your belief was erroneous and made up?

I don’t think it is possible to debate these issues when people are simply dismissing other people’s views out of hand on the basis that they are either religious or atheist. I think only through an acceptance that both beliefs (belief in a God or a belief in the absence of a God) are equally valid can we engage in a meaningful discussion.

@ Juliet

Actually I think there is considerable interest in the views of muslim women both for an against the burqa. But it seems to me that much of the debate focusses on whether or not a woman should have the right to choose.

We may not agree with the reasons for wearing it, we may not understand them. We may believe that it is important and protects modesty. But isn’t the underlying issue whether or not a government has the right to legislate on what women wear, and does that represent a genuine interest in the rights of women, or further kyriarchal/patriarchal control of women’s expression?

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