France’s burqa ban: fighting oppression with oppression?

// 15 April 2011

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a close up photo of the veiled face of Kenza Drider, one of the women who protested against the ban in France

As you will know, France’s ban on the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public came into force on Monday, and was met with protests by some Muslim women. This issue has caused much debate among feminists, including here at The F-Word blog when the French legislation was in its early stages, back in 2008. The ban is supported by French group Ni Putes Ni Soumises, and other feminists have also expressed their approval. At Shiraz Socialist, Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy writes:

The strains of Islam that promote face veils do not believe in the concept of a woman’s right to choose and describe women as needing to be hidden to prove their “worth.” Salafism and Wahhabism preach that women will burn in hell if they are not covered from head to toe — whether they live in Saudi Arabia or France. There is no choice in such conditioning. That is not a message Muslims learn in our holy book, the Koran, nor is the face veil prescribed by the majority of Muslim scholars.

[…]

The best way to support Muslim women would be to oppose both the racist political right wing and the niqabs and burqas of the Muslim right wing. Women should not be sacrificed to either.

While I agree that the ideology behind covering women from head to toe is oppressive, I can’t agree that banning women from adhering to that ideology in public is the correct response. Personally, I think the ideology behind Western fashion’s high heels, push up bras and revealing clothing is pretty oppressive, being based on the concept of woman as an attractive object to be put on display, often requiring the sacrifice of the woman’s physical comfort and freedom, not to mention money and time. But I wouldn’t suggest banning high heels, because as long as women want to wear them – for whatever reason – all I would be doing is controlling their lives based on my personal beliefs, not theirs. That’s not liberation, and it’s not feminism.

I know. This isn’t a perfect analogy. I’d hazard a guess that almost all women who wear high heels would still go out in public without them if my ban came into force. For some French Muslim women, however, this ban may effectively confine them to the private sphere, due to the strength of the ideology behind the wearing of the niqab/burqa. They may believe in that ideology very strongly themselves – either because they were socialised/indoctrinated into doing so or through their own free choice – or they may have it forced upon them by family or community members, but for me this is beside the point. If one sees these women solely as victims of an oppressive, misogynist ideology (an assumption I am not in a position to make), preventing them from appearing in public in the only manner they are able to just adds another layer of oppression to their existence. Even if they are able/reluctantly willing to be seen without the niqab/burqa in public, where is the victory in forcing women to live their lives in a way they would not choose?

By all means attack the ideology, but let’s leave the women we’re claiming to save out of it.

Photo is of Kenza Drider, one of the French women who protested the ban on Monday. By siobh.ie, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Alan Blighe // Posted 15 April 2011 at 12:10 pm

I’ve been truly appalled at these developments in France and Belgium, and movements towards it in other European countries. I can’t see how anyone believes it to be a sensible option – these women are being victimised for wider political gain. Already there have been reports in the last few months of veiled women being attacked in public in France. Although I have strong reservations about the practice of veiling, to ban it seems like a step towards fascism.

Laura // Posted 16 April 2011 at 12:00 pm

Yes, I agree. It seems like in an attempt to stop Muslim women being told what to wear the French government is telling them what to wear. Banning the burqa is likely to give these women less options and less freedom of movement – not more.

Julie // Posted 16 April 2011 at 11:30 pm

Banning the niqab is about racism pure and simple. A woman should have the right to choose whether she wants to wear the niqab or not. In the west she should not be forced to remove it, in the east she should not be forced to wear it. The issue for me is like that with abortion, I believe in a woman’s right to choose. No woman should be forced to have a baby, no woman should be forced to have an abortion. The key word is ‘force.’ The law introduced by France is part of the frigtening growth of racism and islamophobia that is happening across Europe, from the Swiss ban on minarets, the proposed ban on the veil in Spain, to the attacks on roma and jewish people in Hungary. I believe that anyone who supports the ban on the niqab is lining up with the racists and the far right (even if they don’t see it that way and call themselves liberal feminists). In the west muslims are an oppressed minority, so the act of wearing a veil in the west occurs in a different political context to what it does in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course there will be a tiny number of women who face pressure from within their family to wear the veil but how does a ban on wearing the veil in public places help them? They are more likely to be pressured into staying at home. Whereas before the ban they would be able to walk around in public, participate in wider society, seek employment etc. It is gangs of racist thugs (with nazis at the centre of their organisation) like the English Defence League who have staged of 30-40 demonstrations in the UK in the past year who are the real threat, their actions in the UK massively dwarf anything that is done by ‘islamists.’ Far from muslims supposedly ‘taking over’ the country, they only make up about 3% of the population, and islamophobia is whipped up in the popular press. Furthermore mainstream politicians like to blame ‘multiculturalism’ and immigration for the growth of the BNP and racist attacks. They should instead blame the perpretators for racist violence and not the victims. The mainstream media likes to partially make excuses for the actions of racists, which in my view is deplorable. I believe the statements made by Cameron about multiculturalism and immigration is simply a cynical way of trying to divide working class people and divert their attention away from blaming the real causes of poverty which is the huge tax avoidance of the bankers and multinational companies.

Kristin // Posted 17 April 2011 at 1:30 pm

I don’t think any woman (and of course it’s women’s dress which is at issue EVERY time) should be forced to wear a burqa/niqab or forced not to wear one. But how and where did burqa wearing orginate? Nowhere in the Koran does it say women should be covered from head to toe, it simply states that both men and women should “dress modestly”.

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