Of sartorial choices and oppression

// 3 May 2010

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The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down.

It appears that a woman’s sartorial choices have confirmed the highest place in the pyramid of oppression in the eyes of the Belgian and French powers that be; high above xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, and sexism. Removing the offending piece of cloth worn by over 200 women is tantamount to restoring not only female dignity but the fragile values of an entire nation.

The discomfort about the burqa in particular can be felt on both sides of the ban. Those who are quick to say that, “I do not support the ban but…” have the made the same over-emphasis on a piece of cloth but little attention to the continuum of oppression that the majority of Muslim women face in Europe. If anything, the superficial concerns levelled against the way Muslim women wear have almost always been made by those who are neither Muslim nor wear the hijab, much less the burqa.

The unanimous decision to ban the full-face veil in Belgium speaks volumes of the symbolic unity against visible Islam in a country where Muslims make up only 3 percent of the population. It is also a patronising push towards a kind of women’s liberation that is measured against what European women wear. But before we even consider that the burqa is self-effacing in its most literal form, should we think about how punitive such a ban will be on a woman who might wear it under duress or otherwise? Before we make judgements and decisions about the sartorial choices that certain groups of women make, have we spared the time to ask these women themselves if they are complicit in their own oppression?

The heavy-handed penalty against the niqab and burqa is just another way to punish women without having to address the systemic racism and Islamophobia plaguing right-leaning countries like Belgium and France. This ban is not an emancipatory cause to celebrate or one that is steeped in so-called European values. It is not about emancipation if the law can decide that you are free. It is not about European values if Muslims make a sizeable number of Europeans in the continent. One should remember that many do not claim that the wearing of the hijab to such extremes is a religious obligation but rather an anachronistic cultural practice or simply a protective cloak from the male gaze. However, the hubris of the Belgian and French brand of secularism is such that in the case of Muslim women, those distinctions do not matter.

Comments From You

luise // Posted 4 May 2010 at 9:26 am

i am a muslim woman and i am so fed up with people who know nothing about my religion make jjudgments about it. i do not wear the hijab because i am forced to, i do it for me and no one else, i am so offended by this article especially the part that says “Removing the offending piece of cloth worn by over 200 women is tantamount to restoring not only female dignity but the fragile values of an entire nation” how dare you call it offencive

Kristin // Posted 4 May 2010 at 10:12 am

Excellent first post, Alicia.

I agree that this stupid and insulting ban is not about anything other than just punishing Muslim women instead of choosing to address the terrible problems of racism and Islamophobia. I don’t think Muslim women the world over should be either forced to wear the burqa or banned from wearing it.

The continual focus on women’s dress (not only the burqa, but in general) is very disturbing.

kinelfire // Posted 4 May 2010 at 10:54 am

Hopefully, France and Belgium are equally quick to ban cross necklaces, fish symbol stickers, etc….

I can’t help but wonder what women who choose to wear the veil are supposed to do now. Stay indoors and away from all men? Or change their fundamental beliefs just so they can, say, buy a loaf of bread?

coldharbour // Posted 4 May 2010 at 12:09 pm

“The heavy-handed penalty against the niqab and burqa is just another way to punish women without having to address the systemic racism and Islamophobia plaguing right-leaning countries like Belgium and France.”

Not to mention the recent minaret ban in Switzerland recently. It seems to be the perfect propaganda tool for the right in some respects; they can pass off racist and xenophobic legislation by covering it in a veil(no pun intended) of liberalism and supposed anti-sexism. It’s funny how the right-wing media suddenly become interested in feminism when theres a opportunity to stigmatize and stereotype minorities.

Alicia Izharuddin // Posted 4 May 2010 at 2:20 pm

luise,

I am a Muslim woman, too, and I respect whatever a Muslim woman wishes to wear. And I think I know quite a bit about my religion. However, I think you misunderstand me, I said “offending” piece of cloth rather than “offensive” piece f cloth. Wearing the burqa or niqab offends the law in Belgium, rather than is offensive in itself. I’m sorry if I did not made that clear enough in the article.

Pat // Posted 4 May 2010 at 3:58 pm

Why don’t Muslim men wear the veil?

Lynne Miles // Posted 4 May 2010 at 3:59 pm

Really great first post, Alicia, thanks. I think this line says it all:

Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down.

Lynne Miles // Posted 4 May 2010 at 4:17 pm

PS – I think you were perfectly clear on “the offending piece of cloth” …

Toni // Posted 4 May 2010 at 4:22 pm

I don’t agree with a ban on the burqa/full face veil in Belgium or anywhere. I also don’t agree with how any woman (Muslim or not) who goes to some (not all) Muslim countries would have to wear it whether she wanted to or not, and end up fined or in jail, or both, if she refused. This is just as bad.

Wearing it shouldn’t be enforced or banned anywhere. It should be up to the woman concerned to decide for herself. Which it is in some cases, but by no means all.

P.S. I’ve just read in The Times that a Muslim woman in Italy has been fined about 500 euros for wearing a full face veil in public. This fine would apparently apply to anyone who covered their face in public so they weren’t easily recognisable, but of course it’s working against only Muslim women.

Elly quietriot_girl // Posted 4 May 2010 at 4:53 pm

Thanks for writing this article. There has been such silence on the issue in the mainstream media; I am glad to see it covered on the F word.

FeminaErecta // Posted 4 May 2010 at 5:01 pm

I always thought that it was part of being a Muslim that you dressed modestly, regardless of sex, and the burqa was a tradition in some countries, but not all. Like you wouldn’t wear clothing that emphasised your shape, like a corset, and wouldn’t wear vests etc. Is that right?

I don’t understand why you would want to ban an item of clothing that offends no one apart from people who are scared bigots, when clothing with sexualised slogans on them is all the rage, unless you are only seeing this as a symbol of women’s oppresion. In that case, why not spend your time energy and money in cracking down on men who oppress women in the home and banning on-street harrassment, not women who want to follow their cultural traditions?

Rose // Posted 4 May 2010 at 5:26 pm

But there is a cultural differculty in understanding here.

I was 15 before I heard anything about Muslim women covering there faces in public. And frankly, it seemed bizarre – there was nothing in my experience that made sense of it.

If someone kept their arms covered on hot days, or wore big sunglasses in winter, it meant they were either hiding self-harm or signs of abuse.

If someone wanted to hide their face, they were disguising their identity – therefore probably up to no good. If people always wore their hair down over their face, hiding behind it, it was generally thought that they were depressed/had low self-esteem.

The subject was once brought up in a school assembly, briefly, when we were told that, where if a man walked in on a western woman naked, the first thing she’d do would be to cover her ‘privates’, but that there were cultures in the world where the woman would be quicker to cover her face and leave the rest on show!

In retrospect – I’m guessing they’d missed the point!

Clearly, this is something different…. but I still can’t say that I actually understand whats going on. I don’t think that terming it ‘modesty’ is really helpful, as I grew up considering modesty of be in actions (such as good-sportsmanship, and not shouting your ‘virtues’).

It really irratates me that people start claiming it’s all about Islamaphobia, when actually alot of people from more traditionally English backgrounds have a reaction of concern for Muslim women.

We don’t hate Muslim women, we just don’t understand why they cover their faces, an action which had negative associations for us, and we want to know if it’s totally their choice, and if their is a problem causing it, (which may be based on patriarchical religion, or just concerns about walking down the street ‘on view’).

Laura // Posted 4 May 2010 at 8:55 pm

The French are actually proposing to fine women EUR150 for wearing a face-covering veil in public – or force them to do community service – and punish anyone who forces a woman to wear a full veil with a EUR15,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment. The proposition will be debated in July. All this under the guise of women’s emancipation, you understand. I agree with your analysis, Alicia. Controlling and punishing women for our appearance is always oppressive, whether its forcing us to cover up or forcing us to expose ourselves.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 4 May 2010 at 10:51 pm

Kinelfire: If I recall correctly, France does ban cross necklaces. Don’t know about Belgium though.

Jeff // Posted 5 May 2010 at 12:22 am

I find it interesting that the article claims feminist groups support the ban:

“It is strongly supported by the feminist group, Ni putes Ni Soumises, which works for women’s rights in the heavily male-dominated, racially-mixed French suburbs. They view it as an important declaration that certain Western values, including female equality, are not consistent with the more extreme forms of Islam.”

I would have thought that restrictions on freedom would be the very opposite of feminist values.

Feminist Review // Posted 5 May 2010 at 3:18 am

Excellent post, Alicia! My understanding is that this ban’s justification–aside from paternalistic, feminist-oriented claims of the veil being oppressive to women (um, what about heels? no one is banning heels.)–is “national security”, that the ban is likened to the ban on not wearing masks or other articles that obscure the entire face. From my perspective this remains an Islamophobic law regardless, but I wonder if you think there is some credence gained if ‘national security’ is the primary motivation, not ‘feminism’.

coldharbour // Posted 5 May 2010 at 6:32 pm

@Pat

Why do you think it is your business what anyone else wears?

Lynne Miles // Posted 6 May 2010 at 4:09 pm

Just a quick mod note: Alicia has asked me to take over modding whilst she’s away for a day or two. I’m not going to publish further discussion along the lines of some posted talking about Muslim women wearing the veil and (a) whether it’s inherently oppressive or (b) whether women are forced into it.

Partly because we’ve touched on it now and it’s a subject that’s been debated many places at length before, but mostly because I think it’s derailing from the central point of the post which is about the State’s right or otherwise to ban an item of clothing, to force women to reveal parts of their body against their will, and the social, political and economic implications of that.

Also would direct people to this interesting post also by Alicia on the question of Western women challenging the veil, ‘Questioning the Veil, Questioning the Questioner’ over at Muslimah Media Watch

http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2009/10/questioning-the-veil-questioning-the-questioner/

Thanks!

coldharbour // Posted 7 May 2010 at 9:19 pm

I always remember this when I was researching the history of ethnic cleansing in the Highlands. This is nothing new in European culture.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dress_Act_1746

A key component of colonial governance is to forcibly assimilate the subjugated population by proscribing the indigenous dress, language and culture. The simple logic is that if you take whatever is different about a population away you can socially engineer ethno-national homogenization. This is was especially perfected by the Soviets(*) and the Maoists but there are other instances in the history of colonialism though not usually as comprehensive or successful . The obsession to Europeanize muslim held colonies was also a key feature of the colonial apparatus in North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia; European attitudes to migrant Muslim communities in Europe presently is the natural inevitable extension of this.

(*)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQsceZ9skQI

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