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The Battle of the Burqa September 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Gender, politics.
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It has become fashionable in recent years to argue that for many Muslim women, wearing the Chador or Burqa is liberating. Feminist icon Naomi Wolf, recounting a visit to the Muslim world, wrote a couple years ago:

The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home. […]

Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to – and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.” This may not be expressed in a traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognisably Western feminist set of feelings.

It is easy to grasp why some Muslim women feel this way. To no longer feel the need to display oneself in a way that is pleasing to men is undoubtedly a relief.

However, it is a bit of a stretch to argue that such clothing is liberating, not oppressive. The need to cover themselves is itself a product of the repressive patriarchy from which they desire to escape.

Via the National Post,

But what exactly does it symbolize? Many say it stands for piety. No, that’s wrong, says Marnia Lazreg, an Algerian-born professor of sociology at the City University of New York. Piety has little to do with it; the Koran doesn’t even mention the veil. In truth, the veil stands for political ideology and male power.

It also establishes the wearer’s extreme distance from the rest of us. We recognize people by seeing their faces and we acknowledge their humanity by reading what their faces tell us. Without that information humans cannot come alive to each other. A woman wearing a mask is a woman declining to be human. Unable to look anyone in the eyes, lacking peripheral vision, her hearing muffled, she becomes an abstraction. Encouraging a woman to wear the burka is like offering her a portable isolation cell. (h/t to Butterflies and Wheels)

Lazreg, author of Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women, is right. A system of belief that forces women to hide themselves is barbarous and inhumane. Women who embrace the custom are making the best of a bad situation; they ought not be criticized for their decision. But feminists who praise it as liberating in the name of cultural tolerance are loosing sight of the conditions that give rise to the custom.

In France, President Sarkozy has called for banning the burqa.

In a speech at the Palace of Versailles, Mr Sarkozy said that the head-to-toe Islamic garment for women was not a symbol of religion but a sign of subservience for women.

“The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience,” he told members of both parliamentary houses gathered for his speech.

He added: “It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

But this strikes me as wrong-headed as well. Women who choose to wear it are doing so for personal reasons. The burqa may be a symbol of repression, but it is a violation of their personal liberty to ignore those reasons and force woman to become symbols in a culture war they do not wish to fight.

We can oppose the burqa while granting the strategic role it plays in making a woman’s life livable.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Nina Rosenstand - September 28, 2009

I heard the argument that “Muslim women prefer their burqas” already way back in the last century when I thought I was going to major in Anthropology, and already then I found it to be problematic—partly because most anthropologists (at least in those days) were all-too willing to adopt an ethical relativist ethic and assume that each culture develops in ways that are optimal for that culture. Ask most people from a restrictive culture if they approve of the rules, and given that they’re looking at an alternative of social stigma or worse, they will indeed say (and even believe) that they approve. That is not evidence of approval—at best of voluntary compliance. Genuine voluntary consent is a different matter, which our Western culture should be openminded enough to accept, as you point out (with some limitations reflecting the needs of our culture, such as picture IDs, etc.).
Another thing: I don’t understand why so few men have spoken out in outrage that the general philosophy of the propriety of the Veil (in any culture that adopts it, or related versions of it, such as we saw in the Victorian era) is not only demeaning to women who must consider themselves as temptresses per se—a perpetual Other—but also to men, who according to this view of human nature apparently are uncontrollable beasts…

2. Dwight Furrow - September 29, 2009

” I don’t understand why so few men have spoken out in outrage that the general philosophy of the propriety of the Veil…is not only demeaning to women… but also to men, who according to this view of human nature apparently are uncontrollable beasts…

That is good question. I suspect it is because they consider being an uncontrollable beast a virtue.

3. Nonny - January 7, 2010

Um, this statement:

“A system of belief that forces women to hide themselves is barbarous and inhumane.”

could be applied to our culture as well. After all, most women wear shirts (or cover their breasts) at all times. There are absolutely feminists that will argue this is repressive. However, the general consensus of American women is how uncomfortable they would be going topless — and if given the option, would not.

So, is wearing shirts/bras/bikini tops barbarous and inhumane? I don’t think so. It’s a cultural thing. It’s just how we operate. I like wearing a shirt.

Get off your ethnocentric horse, buddy.

4. jaio - August 23, 2010

I don’t see why we have to accept this middle aged burqa in our society when in Saudi Arabia an so on, they don’t accept our way to be dressed.

5. Day 7 (20 March 2011) « Ljubljana Body Intervention - March 20, 2011

[…] The Battle of the Burqa September 24, 2009 […]

6. forrest noble - April 5, 2011

Back in the days of the Shaw of Iran, western dress was permitted and many young women then chose not to wear the arcane Burqa but instead chose western wear. Today upon the revival of fundamentalism it is the law that women wear scarves on their head in public according to the letter of the law of the Koran which also requires general “conservative” dress, but does not require the Burqa. This same requirement/ tradition of scarves has long existed when women are inside Catholic churches all over the world.

In Egypt most women wear scarves on their heads but many also wear western clothing mostly without “showing” too much.

In Turkey which is almost entirely a Muslim country, a number of women wear scarves but maybe more do not. It is against the law in Turkey to wear the Burqa or other religious signs in public such as the Crescent Moon of Islam, the cross of Christianity, or the star of David, or any other religious symbols or openly praying in public (prayer rug etc.). The crime is punishable by a ticket and fine which costs maybe the equivalent of $50.00 U.S. Don’t know what they do about multiple offenders :), citizens or not. The government of Turkey has one of the strongest and most clearly stated separation of church and state in the world.

So wearing the Burqa varies from country to country. And maybe no countries require that all women must wear one, particularly one the covers the face excepting for the eyes.

It must be noted that religious fundamentalism is not exclusive to Muslim countries. Such religious revivalism has brought back in some cases literal translations of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and other religious scriptures which has turned back and stifled modern civilization, in my opinion, and women’s rights in many countries by creating laws without a clear separation of church and state, that have accordingly “retrogressed” even democratic countries, including the U.S. to some extent in my opinion.

7. linux vps - August 5, 2013

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