25 Jun 2009

Daring To Show Your Face - The Burqa Becomes a Legal Issue

As a feminist, it's only a matter of time before your opinion on the burqa debate is canvassed. For those unfamiliar with why the issue is in the news currently, see this article for an explanation and a great deal of sensible comment on the matter. Somewhat predictably, the right-wing newspapers have seized upon the news of the possible French ban on the burqa to come out in force with headlines such as "BAN THE BURKHA - EVEN MUSLIMS DON'T WANT IT" (note deliberate Western spelling - The Daily Mail won't give an inch to those tea-towel wearing cave dwellers, dammit!). Perhaps less predictably, posters on feministing.com have come out in defence of the burqa, based upon the notion that any attempt to legislate on what women can and cannot wear is oppressive to female freedom. As someone who obviously champions the notion of unfettered female freedom, I find it hard to know how I feel about all this.

It's probably worth stating at this point, I don't like the burqa - or rather, the niqab, which is what you're more likely to see in the UK (I don't think anyone in the UK even wears the actual full burqa - where the face is totally covered apart from a mesh screen). I don't like seeing it, and I don't like what - to my mind - it represents. I find it hard to respect any religious custom which impinges on society, as I'm an atheist/sceptic who does not credit the basis of any major religion with any more verifiability than the existence of unicorns or leprechauns. The demand that an belief, action, tradition, form of dress, or diet should be automatically 'respected' simply because it is connected with religion, does not wash with me. I also find that many aspects of so-called 'multi culturalism' often seem to involve bending secular laws to please religious groups who would never extend the same courtesy in the opposite direction. Were I to demand that I be allowed to wear floor-length crushed-velvet purple robes to the office on account of my pagan religion, I expected I'd be met with short shrift. Yet, we accommodate the insistence that God is concerned with skirt length when it's connected to Islam. Perhaps I'd have a little more time for that notion if it originated in anything except, what seems to me, a desire to marginalise and erase women as much as possible. The Qu'ran doesn't say anything about head-to-toe black cloaks with only a slit for the eyes. It doesn't say anything about full face coverings where you can only breathe and speak through a square of mesh. It simply says both sexes should dress modestly - interpret that as you will. I'm afraid I can't see the fact that female dress has been interpreted so rigidly whilst male dress passes without comment as anything other than covert misogyny.

Those who jump to the defence of the burqa/niqab and women's right to wear it, cite notions of 'modesty' and the fact women freely choose to wear a garment they feel comfortable in. Before we even get into the knotty issue of what 'choice' really means within a religious community where men rule the roost, I reject the idea that any group has the monopoly on modesty. There are plenty of ways to cover up if you don't feel comfortable displaying your body. It's entirely possible to clothe yourself from the average high-street shop and show nothing but your hands and face. Where I run into problems is the notion that if you're not wearing a garment prescribed not even by the holy texts of your religion, but by the men who have interpreted it to suit them ever since, you're impure, unholy, an infidel etc etc etc. I also can't interpret the insistence that women cover their faces as anything but offensive. On a practical level, the face is a key tool to communication, socialising, and human contact that is necessary to every day life. It's also something you don't have the right to cover in many situations, for security reasons. Just as it's not OK to go into a shop in a motorcycle helmet, I don't see why the niqab should be extended any special courtesy in similar situations. I wouldn't communicate with someone wearing a full SAS balaclava - I'd ask them to take it off, because I'd find it disconcerting and irritating trying to converse with someone whose face is hidden to me. I was deeply glad when common sense prevailed and the teaching assistant who refused to remove her face covering at school lost her case for unfair dismissal (although it did piss me off that she was even awarded 'emotional damage'). I can't walk into a school in a mask and expect to be allowed to teach - therefore neither can anyone else, however they hide behind myths and legends to back up their customs.

But, I'd be lying if I said the niqab didn't piss me off for other reasons. As well as being key to social interaction, your face is part of your identity, expresses your personality, and allows you to communicate. The notion that this must be hidden, or 'saved' for your spouse, is something I just can't interpret as anything but an attempt to, quite literally, muffle women. If both spouses were obliged to save their bodies and faces only for each others' private viewing, I'd have an easier time interpreting the niqab/burqa as a respectable religious custom. As it is, the fact that the onus lies solely on women whilst men are obliged to do, erm, nothing with their faces or hair, speaks to me of nothing but oppressive control over women's autonomy. I can just about get on board with Sikhism, where both sexes cover their hair - at least the obligation is evenly placed there. But why should I respect a 'tradition' where the emphasis is entirely on the female, and the male sits back and twiddles his thumbs? This leads me on to what is probably most offensive about the burqa - the message it sends out. It places the burden of avoiding 'the male gaze' (and by association, the sexual violence that the male gaze 'inevitably' leads to) squarely on women's shoulders, whilst men are obliged to do nothing. Surely if men are such moronic neanderthals that the sight of uncovered hair or shoulders are so provocative to their clunky, undeveloped brains, the solution would be to blindfold men, or perhaps walk them around on leashes? But that'd be ridiculous, right? Well, I don't know that it's any more ridiculous than being expected to walk around in 45 degree heat wearing a heavy cloak made in the colour that absorbs the sun the most. Yet as soon as we hear that something has a religious basis, we quail to criticise it. How silly. My point is, anything that paints women as evil temptresses and men as leering morons is not conducive to a progressive society. Hence, accommodating the niqab or burqa burqa in the name of social progress seems about as sensible as reintroducing jousting matches, 'because it's a key part of our tradition'.

When the issue of Islamic female dress has invaded newspaper letters' pages, as it inevitably does every few months when there's a slow news day, there always seem to be those defending the garment on the basis that it's far more conducive to female integrity than the miniskirts, cleavage-bearing tops and high heels of the average British woman's wardrobe. It's a clever defence, but as any seasoned debater knows, pointing out the flaws in someone else's house doesn't make your own any tidier. And what those resorting to this argument fail to see, is that a woman in a niqab or burqa, and a woman falling drunk into the gutter with her thong on show and boobs falling out, are images that are two sides of the same coin. That coin being, the one that deems a woman to be nothing more than her physical attributes and sexual appeal. One side sees this as a liability, which should be stifled. The other sees this as a necessity, which must be flaunted at every opportunity. The point is, both approach reduces a woman to tits and ass - hence, both are unpalatable extremes. For what it's worth, I get as angry seeing women in t-shirts that say 'Porn star in training', or with the Playboy bunny symbol on, as I do seeing a fully veiled woman. And I see plenty of both round where I live.

This is what it boils down to, though. I can get as angry as I like when I see these horrible paeans to female sexual appeal - both those that attempt to stifle it, and those that want to proclaim it with a loudhailer - but ultimately I can't do anything about it. I don't have the right to dictate other people's clothes, otherwise a whole swathe of items would currently be banned from the British high street (starting with football shirts, jeans slung so low you can see people's bumcracks, and those awful gladiator sandals that are in fashion at the mo). Neither does any government which claims to preside over a free society. I understand that France prides itself on its secular modus operandi, and to this end I think it more than fair that religious symbols are prohibited in schools, public service and any other areas of public domain. After all, Turkey, a country whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, has banned head coverings from all public offices, schools and universities with comparatively little fuss. We definitely shouldn't quail to do at least the same in a secular state. But legislating on what the individual can and cannot wear? It's simply unworkable, and counter to any claims of freedom of expression that Western countries pride themselves on. The only legitimate grounds I can see for banning the niqab/burqa would be attempting to portray it as a symbol of hate (i.e. of women), much like a t-shirt with a swastika, burning cross or the N-word on it. However, I'm not sure how we could go about proving this, and I suspect that in attempting to do so, the government would be laying itself open for the likes of the Daily Mail and its followers to spew out unhelpful propaganda about how all Muslims are women-hating cave dwellers, and all Muslim women are oppressed victims. Which is not going to help any of us.

That reminds me, I also really don't buy the notion that, if there are women who are coerced into wearing the niqab/burqa, banning it is going to do anything to alleviate their oppressive domestic situation. If my husband beats me into wearing a wide-brimmed cricket hat every day, banning cricket hats is not going to stop the beatings. In this sense, people have invested too much meaning in the burqa, deeming it a symbol of everything that is wrong with religions or cultures that oppress women. Perhaps it is - but it's also just a garment, and removing the right to wear that garment isn't going to do a damn thing to liberate women who live in fear of violence or coercion every day.

In conclusion then, to paraphrase a well-known saying - I may disagree with what you're wearing, but I'll fight to the death for your right to wear it.

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