||[Sep. 16th, 2013|02:17 pm]
Ah yes, the one subject Steve is not allowed to write about on the internet. Well, it’s in the news again so let’s see if I can actually type this out this time without losing all my friends.
A few years ago, France banned the wearing of face-covering headgear in public, which included the burqa and niqab. This week, the UK Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne has called for a “debate” on whether to ban the veil / full burqa in classrooms and beyond in the UK. Dr Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, much more clearly called for the burqa to be banned in schools and colleges. She said it restricts communication in school, and that “We must not abandon our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society.”
In the Telegraph UK newspaper, Dan Hodges said:
“The debate about “The Veil”, is neither necessary, nor is it complex. In fact, it’s very, very simple. This is Britain. And in Britain you can wear what you want.”
And he’s right. (Except for those women who don’t get a choice about wearing one, of course, but as you’ll see they don’t feature much in this debate.) He also misses the point completely.
To understand why, you need to stop thinking about the burqa as an item of clothing, a harmless fashion choice. Instead see it as a set of slave chains with neon misogynist symbols stamped on them, and while some women in the UK may wear them by choice there are entire countries where the slavery is ongoing today. This changes what the law would be doing.
If women in the west are lucky enough to be able to choose to wear the burqa, that still leaves it as a *highly* offensive garment to people who believe in equality - and the wearing of it directly harms other women.
But let’s go back for a second. The wearing of the burqa, niqab or other full body and face covering did not come from religion, it came from governments. It’s a social rule, not a religious one. And even when the roots of it are cited as being religious, they are to prevent men being sexually overcome by women’s appearance, hair etc.
Exactly why does an eight year-old need to wear this to school? At what age do we want to teach "your child body is too dangerous/shameful and must be covered"?
Looking wider than the question of schools, this is the point at which I differ from a lot of my friends. I think the burqa is absolutely incompatible with any of the UK or EU’s equality or human rights laws, and I think it should be banned outright. I'm aware that's a strong view and action, and I hope people will keep reading to see why I hold it.
Liberals are currently split between those who say that you cannot help women in any way by dictating what they must wear, and those who see the very use of a burqa as reinforcement of a view that women are not and must not be the equals of men. Both groups genuinely want what is best for women, and are not Islam-bashing in their arguments, but neither are willing to be flexible.
There are two main ideas which are routinely put forward to justify the burqa. The first is that by not rocking the boat and letting women work away at the societal pressure while still appeasing the men who want to hide them, you make more progress than by banning things. Some groups claim progress is being made in this way in countries such as Saudi Arabia (others say not). Whether this is so is largely anecdotal, because no laws have changed and cultural norms will not change in the next ten years.
The second trope is that the wearing of the burqa is somehow liberating instead of oppressive for women. If you REALLY want to argue this, a) you are wrong, and b) women who don't have the choice will be happy to explain why at great length. This isn't me explaining as a man, or as myself, but repeating statements made by women (often through translators) and what has been observed over decades.
Erasing your presence to avoid provoking physical violence or sexual attack in public is not 'liberation', and societies which enforce the burqa/niqab all report sexualisation of the female body to an incredible degree in the obvious counter-productive way.
“@HumaImtiaz: I interviewed dozens of women who said they stopped wearing the burqa because men would think they're prostitutes.”
Feeling safe and invisible, feeling that it is a shield against violence and social recrimination are not reasons to allow it, but precisely why it must be banned to break that status quo. When you hide a person's face and body, you make it so that they will never need to be considered as individuals or 'people' in society. There is much less empathy for them as human beings. There can be no hope of even starting a dialogue about equality, votes, power, or needs. I have no doubt at all that women who wear it will say "But it makes me feel safe, I like being anonymous in public". That is not enough of a reason given the heavy harm which the clothing also inflicts.
This is without referring to WHY the burqa is enforced (women's bodies are dangerous/sexual/dirty, women must be contained/controlled for the safety of society etc) which is normalised every time one is seen, and also offensively implies that men are uncontrollable animals. If you think that the underlying religious or "decency" reasons as to why women's bodies should be covered somehow do NOT constitute acted-upon hate, or aren't comparable to one group seeing itself as inherently superior and deserving of rule over another due to physical differences (with the other inherently and sinfully inferior) I am happy to argue that as well.
If you're asking yourself how a clothing choice can possibly be incompatible with equality laws, then you still aren't regarding the burqa in real terms. Yes, I have spoken to women forced to wear it. Yes, in person (albeit in two cases with a translator). No, I have not spoken on internet forums to privileged women who get to choose whether they wear it, and I don't care about their opinions. There is too much at stake for those without a voice, who do not have the luxury of choice.
"You're being culturally insensitive!" or "You're making judgements from a modern western male perspective!"
Yes. I am. Look at precisely what you mean when you say "You're being culturally insensitive": you’re saying that I should either not judge, or not act to oppose, the norms of another culture. In this case you’re telling me I shouldn’t oppose the objectification, powerlessness and imprisonment of women. Well I always will. I don’t care if individuals “don’t feel oppressed” (some do. Talk to them instead.)
"But I want to wear this clothing as a sign of my piety and duty to my faith"
A movement which prizes obedience and requires you to cover your shameful body in order to be more devoted is not something I’m going to change my principles for. The clothes are not part of Islam, they were invented by governments. Yes, I disagree with those governments, because I am a feminist. (If you don't disagree with Saudi on the treatment of women, I don't want to know you.) This is not remotely about faith for me, it is about the treatment of human beings in a country with equality laws.
This is just like forcing women to wear bikinis / comply with western nudity preferences!
No it isn't. The women affected in France are still allowed to totally cover up with other clothing, but not the entire face. Doing that has a separate effect to how much of the body is revealed. It erases identity and presence, and therefore reduces the need to be considered as a human being.
Most of the feminist sphere is adamant that banning a woman from doing anything cannot lead to feminism. I believe the difference is in how we view the burqa/niqab: as pious clothing or as an item which does extreme direct harm. Don't talk to western women who get the choice. Talk to those in regimes where they don't. ...If you can, since they're rarely allowed a voice independent of their husband's.
The burqa is an act of mass oppression onto women, and the 'freedom' and security they feel when wearing it is nothing of the sort - it is a relief of escaping (often physical) retribution by complying with your oppressor's demands and erasing your personality. Of COURSE it makes the wearer feel safer. That's not a reason to excuse its use. Feeling safer when you're invisible among predators is not a healthy mental outcome, it's another prison.
Now in reality, banning this item this will just mean that those women currently pressured by their community into wearing one will likely be forced to stay permanently indoors instead (since the alternative would for their families to allow them to be seen in public.) This is a horrible outcome which should not be ignored. In France, women who have worn the niqab and burqa despite the ban have been attacked in public. No-one who is trying to bring women greater equality wants house arrest and even heavier oppression and denial of human rights of the women concerned. That doesn't mean that the law would be wrong in itself, it means that people who lock up other people against their will should be arrested (in any country with laws on freedom and basic human rights). The real-life consequences are just another reason that liberals who are genuinely trying to find the best way forward are fighting among themselves. I’m glad it’s not up to me to devise a law, but I know where my opinion lies on the issue of the burqa in general, and that’s what I’m trying to communicate here. This “debate” isn’t about clothing.
Dan Hodges: “To ensure women are free to choose how to dress we will write into law precisely how they can dress.”
No, Dan. To ensure women are free to live we will write into law that they must have faces, voices, and the right to be regarded as a person. We already have this in law. That’s why the burqa has no place in the UK: we already have laws against everything it does to women, and equality laws against the reasoning for it.
By banning the burqa you are saying that women are not anonymous sexualised objects to be controlled, but individuals who must be considered as human beings. It is the dictionary definition of Feminism and equality.