10 January, 2010

Protecting women's rights - by removing their freedom of choice

I'm referring, of course, to France's 'progressive' proposition to fine Muslim women £700 for wearing the veil in public. The president of the ruling party claims that the new ruling is "intended to protect the ‘dignity’ and ‘security’ of women." It's a move for sexual equality, says Jean-François Copé, and nothing to do with religion (to which anyone with a modicum of intelligence will likely reply "Pull the other one!")

A nice thought, but let's look at what is really being suggested here. We make the assumption, first and foremost, that women do not choose to wear the veil. This is a very dangerous assumption, and is based primarily in ignorance and in the patronising Western idea that all Muslim women are victims of an oppressive patriarchal religion - as India Knight points out in her recent Times article, '....basically that they are all tragically mute victims of an especially monstrous patriarchy and are probably beaten or set fire to if they don’t cook supper nicely'.

Now there's an element of truth to this. Certainly some Muslim women do wear the veil because it is forced upon them; because their culture states it is what 'good' Muslim women do, or because their husbands demand it of them. And that's an unsavoury thought. But what I take umbrage with it the great white assumption that our way of life is somehow superior - that by 'freeing' a woman from the bonds of the Burqa and integrating her into our society we are somehow rescuing her, awakening her to a whole new world of feminine freedoms.

The problem is, that's largely a falsitude. Can we really talk about women's liberation from a country with the lowest rape conviction rape in Europe? When we penalise women in rape cases for utilising that "freedom of choice" and wearing a miniskirt? "She was asking for it" is still a valid criticism in our society. We are free to brand women 'sluts' and 'whores' when we consider them underdressed by our superior Western standards, or alternatively we objectify them - a woman in a tight pair of jeans is obviously asking to be leered at! Of course, the freedom to choose what we wear is only afforded to us if we fit the current 'body beautiful' - the fat woman who dares to bare is as public an enemy as the niqab-wearer. So much for freedom...
The Daily Mail, tellingly, is particularly critical and at times downright lecherous when women step out in public showing any amount of flesh. The Sun, Britain's most popular newspaper, is practically built on the "Phwoar" factor. How is any of this any less oppressive than feeling bound to the niqab? I don't doubt there are many women out there who long for the privacy and invisibility afforded by such a garment, if only to hide occasionally from the judgemental gaze of a society which rates us as bodies first, human beings second.

The biggest fallacy of all, though, is pretending that forcibly preventing women from exercising their free will (and let's not kid ourselves here that all burqa-clad women are forced into it - choice informed by religion is still choice) is somehow liberating. It is, at the end of the day, a garment like any other - no less oppressive than the push-up bra, which some women wear with gusto and others wear out of a sense of having to conform to the "maximum cleavage" type of cheap sexiness thrust upon us by 'Nuts' and 'Zoo'.

In an ideal world, Muslim women would truly have the freedom to really choose whether the veil brings them closer to Allah or serves as an obstacle to the outside world, and that's an aim worth working towards - our Muslim sisters ought to have the right to express their religion in whichever way they see fit. But taking the veil away from them means that France is no better than, say, Saudi Arabia. Oppression is oppression, whether you're forcing a woman to cover up, or forcing her to expose herself for no better reason than 'to be more like us'.


  1. "Oppression is oppression, whether you're forcing a woman to cover up, or forcing her to expose herself for no better reason than 'to be more like us'."

    Hear, hear.

  2. Love this post! Am loving your blog in general at the moment - keep up the good work :)

  3. Isn't this law somewhat hypocritical?

    Personally, I do think the burkha is an oppressive garment, whether the choice to wear it is freely made or not.

    But I don't agree with the legislation, because even if the choice to wear a Burkha, or any kind of covering, is something I can't wrap my head around, the state dictating what women can and can't wear is no less repressive and no different than religion doing the same.

  4. We feel that the Burqa is oppressive and from the point of view of a Western feminist there are a lot of good reasons why a woman shouldn't wear one. But for us to outright tell a woman not to wear it is to do a terrible disservice to her - firstly we cannot ever truly walk in her shoes because we don't understand her culture, her religion, and maybe she really has made the informed choice to wear it - I've met at least one Muslim feminist who has made this choice. But secondly, and more fundamentally, feminism is about a woman's right to choose, and while radical Islam is guilty at times of removing that right by forcing a woman into wearing the Burqa, we would be equally remiss in banning her from wearing it. Freedom to dress however you choose is, in my opinion, tantamount to a basic right in Western society, and it's terribly hypocritical to suggest that we ought to make an exception in this case just because we're afraid of what it symbolises.

  5. Oh, and thank you all for reading :) :) :)

  6. Monkeh, this is how I feel - by banning a garment, for whatever reason, is just as bad as enforcing the wearing of another. We'd be up in arms if we were all forced to wear short skirts and heels, so why should women who *want* to wear a burqua not be able to?

  7. I think there needs to be some clarification in the way that the word "veil" is being used in this post. I believe that the use of "veil" is a bit misleading. Wearing hijab is the scarf that is worn around one's head and the burqua is the complete face covering. From what I've understood this law is only in regards to the burqua, which can be seen as a security hazard. I am, personally, on the fence in regards to this issue. I have feelings that support and disagree with both issues after having resided in France for many years. While I am not arguing one point or another I would like to say that I feel saying "France out laws the veil" is much, much, much, different than saying "France out laws the burqua"

  8. Apologies, I'm a bit of a dictionary freak as was using veil in the sense of an item of clothing which falls over the face, as a burqa would. Appreciate that this might confuse the issue!

    France does, however, ban the wearing of hijab in schools, which is a step in that direction in my opinion.

  9. Ah yes, France's proscription of an item of clothing because it feels that it undermines its secular system (along with other items of religious clothing)... Correct me if i'm wrong, but isn't a secular system supposed to be protecting free religous/non-religious expression rather than taking it away? I personally can't be arsed with religion myself, but that doesn't mean we suddenly tell someone they can't practice. I do find it ironic that this is happening in France, the country where the St Bartholomew's day massacre happened.

  10. Just written a post on this (bit late, I know). It's a little more personal than the stuff I usually write, so would be interested to see what people think. http://violettacrisis.blogspot.com/2010/01/french-veil-ban-and-other-well-meaning.html


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