Looking at my BBC newsfeed, a headline caught my eye: “French Minister Urges Burka Ban.” The issue of the veil is probably something that every woman, no matter who she is or where she lives, has been confronted w/, whether b/c she chooses to wear one, has friends and/or colleagues who do, or simply b/c of what she sees on her TV screen and the pages of magazines.
In this article, France’s Urban Regeneration Minister states that banning the burka will be a big step forward for women’s rights. In a burka, women are almost literally swept under the rug, and the argument goes that this further marginalizes what is an already marginalized group in most Muslim communities. Furthermore, the burka symbolizes fundamentalist tendencies, which France would love to quash.
There has been backlash, of course, much of it coming from women who insist they WANT to wear a burka; that indeed, it is their RIGHT to do so. And honestly, they have a point.
One of the most popular justifications for the veil is a bit of “pro-woman” sophistry that runs something like: The veil helps a woman protect her modesty and allows her to prevent men from seeing her simply as a sex object; she can move more freely, only subject to the eyes of people she deems fit.
This argument is wholly specious, but dangerously believable, and should be excoriated in serious discourse.
Come now, Dragon, some of you are saying. Who hasn’t woken up at least once and wished that, instead of showering and primping herself into a presentable state, she could simply throw on a hijab and saunter out the door? I know I have! Gentlefriends, I have too. Often I have wished that the veil wasn’t such a political garment, and that it was a more acceptable accessory for a white girl in smalltown Missouri. I am not arguing against dressing modestly, nor am I saying that the veil couldn’t help in achieving those aims.
The problem here is twofold: lack of choice for women, and lack of empathy among men. If men are going to view women as sex objects, a veil is not going to stop them. I had the privilege of meeting author Lawrence (Larry) Wright, who had spent some time in Saudi Arabia. He related an anecdote to me: he and his male (Arabian) friend were at a mall. They espied three women, completely shrouded in black abayas.
“Check them out,” said Larry’s friend, as the women sailed past them on the escalators. “Aren’t they hot?”
On a more personal note, I have experienced this phenomenon myself. I had a meeting downtown, so I had taken the street car to Canal St., and had to walk a few blocks to the building. It was a cold day (for New Orleans), and so I was wearing a below-the-knee skirt, black tights, and a black cardigan (buttoned up). My neck and chin were swaddled in a scarf, and I was wearing sunglasses. It was probably one of the least provocative outfits imaginable. Yet I STILL got catcalls from guys I passed on the street.
Men have a CHOICE to make in their perceptions of women. They can respect them, or not. They can view them as human beings, or simply walking vaginas. The argument that the veil is a useful tool to protect women from prying eyes completely removes men from the equation. It shifts ALL the responsibility onto the woman, so that she has no one but herself to blame if she is harassed for not being “modest” enough.
Also, in many instances, women go veiled only under duress, coming under pressure from their families and communities. A friend of mine recently wrote to me about a conversation he had had w/ a Muslim friend, a v. devout woman who made the decision to stop wearing a hijab. This caused an uproar in the Muslim association she had taken an active role in, and people e-mailed in comments accusing her of being “corrupted.” Men lamented that now they wouldn’t be able to marry her (“yeah, like marriage is only a one party decision, right?,” my friend wrote). Moreover, “people were starting to judge her solely on the fact that she wore hijab. If it was ever meant to equalize women, it has certainly failed in this society–as the e-mails…showed, men only saw her as a “good Muslim” when she wore hijab, but once she took it off she was CLEARLY a different person. ‘I’m just as religious without my hijab as I am with it. People don’t understand: it’s just a piece of cloth–it’s not your faith.'”
Bottom line: women should be able to wear w/e they want, whenever they want, and men need to learn to fucking deal w/ it. That means, if they want to wear a burka, they can wear a burka. If they want to wear a midriff top and a sparkly mini-skirt, SO BE IT. I may not agree w/ your fashion choices (thigh-high boots? Really?), but I will defend unto death your right to make them!
So do I think that France should ban the burka? No. What I think they SHOULD do is focus more on community outreach, on getting Muslim youth (especially girls) out of the HLM’s and into the larger society. France needs to make the country more friendly to a Muslim woman, no matter what she is wearing, insteading of stigmatizing her and demonizing her religion (which will only serve as a rallying point for the fundamentalists anyway). They need to give women a safe place, a forum where they can be heard and have the wherewithal to stand up for and assert themselves. Many women are helpless. They are penniless, and utterly dependent on their husbands’ support. Often, their grasp of French is not terribly good. Why would they endanger themselves and risk ostracization for a government that seems callous and incomprehensible? A ban on the burka isn’t going to make it go away. No one can force enlightenment, and the truth is, only these women and their families can make the burka disappear by embracing more modern ideas of equality and gender relations.