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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