The ongoing quest of the French government to preserve their country’s “secular traditions” came to the fore once again Tuesday when the lower house of France’s parliament voted to ban women from wearing any face-covering veil, such as the infamous burqa or the less “extreme” niqab — a move obviously targeting French Muslim women, of which perhaps 1,900 wear a face-covering veil. France has the highest population of Muslims in Europe, comprising about 5 million of France’s population of 64 million people.

I’m sure you remember the “no hijabs in public schools” ban France passed in 2004 after almost a decade debating it, barring students from wearing a headscarf or any other piece of clothing that would indicate the religion of the student wearing it. To be fair, that does include Jewish yarmulkes and cross necklaces, however, the surrounding debate was particularly focused on the Muslim hijab. It just seems that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Western countries have been not-so-subtly putting their Islamophobia on display.

Of course, this is not to say that all Muslim women disagree with the banning of the burqa or niqab. Some Muslim feminists have spoken out in favor of the ban. I fully support the right of Muslim women to not be forced to wear face-covering veils. However, I think banning religious clothing at the governmental level is taking the issue in a scary direction. I believe in choices, and banning burqas and niqabs eliminates the ability of women who actually wear the veils of their own volition to continue to make the choice to wear them, however few the women may be that make that choice. The author of the Huffington Post article, Caryl Rivers, makes a lot of good points, but I really do believe that in order to truly gain equal rights for Muslim women in their culture it’s going to have to come from changing Muslim men’s “hearts and minds” and not changing Muslim women’s clothing.

In the Salon article linked above, Eqyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy states:

I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you — and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman’s right to choose to wear a burqa because it’s her natural right. But I often tell them that what they’re doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman’s right to do anything. We’re talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them. And yet there is basically one right that we are fighting for these women to have, and that is the right to cover their faces. To tell you the truth, I’m really outraged that people get into these huge fights and say that as a feminist you must support a women’s right to do this, because it’s basically the only kind of “right” that this ideology wants to give women. Otherwise they get nothing.

I agree with her on basically every point she makes, yet I can’t reconcile my feelings about government-enforced bans on religious clothing. I just don’t think that simply legally preventing women from wearing burqas, niqabs, or hijabs is going to cause transformative change in Islamic culture. This is a crude analogy, but it seems like banning black women from relaxing their hair. Yes, black women would be unable to cowtow to the oppressive beauty standards forced on us by Western culture, but would their minds be freed as well? Would black men suddenly stop desiring women with long, straight hair? With the banning of burqas and niqabs, are sexist, oppressive Muslim men and the governments they run suddenly going to stop treating women like second-class citizens? I don’t see that happening. Western governments using women’s rights as an excuse to ban Muslim religious garments just smells like Islamophobia couched in “progressive” rhetoric. Some leaders in the U.K. have actually voiced their concern over the “growing threat of Islamism“.

So what can we expect this ban on face-covering veils to do for Muslim women’s rights in France? Eltahawy had this to say:

What I hope it will do is that it will create a situation where a woman can say to a man, look, you know that I have to go out and work so that we can continue to live here, and I can’t go out with my face covered, even though you want me to, because that’s what the law says. I hope the law gives women this kind of out. I have no idea if that’s actually going to happen or not.

I can’t get behind legislation like this when the only benefit for women would be that you get to tell your husband that you’re required by law to not wear the veil, and the many benefits for the government and Islamophobic French people include not having to be visually reminded there’s Muslims in their communities and also stopping the spread of “Islamism”. I don’t trust the women’s rights angle at all from Western governments when it comes to Islam. We continue to ally with countries that do much more than just expect women to cover themselves head to toe when in public — we’re in bed with countries that beat and jail women who have been gang raped and impregnated because the rape constituted the woman committing adultery. I personally don’t think her lack of burqa helped at all in that situation.

So I’m not exactly joining the cheerleading squad because France decided its Islamophobia was good for women’s rights. Of course I don’t want Muslim women to be forced to cover themselves head to toe. But I firmly believe true change in the Islamic world will never come via simply outlawing certain types of clothing, and I question the veracity of France’s reasons for doing so. The fact that they’re mentioning things like “defining and protecting French values” sounds eerily familiar and to me, is more of a nationalist concern than a concern for women’s rights.

There needs to be substantive change in Muslim men’s attitudes towards Muslim women rather than superficial change mandated by a government that seeks to erase those parts of immigrant populations they find distasteful.

[This piece originally appeared on Feministe.]

13 thoughts on “Outlaw clothing: burqas, Islamophobia and women’s rights

  1. Excuse my while I recoil in visceral terror at the shenaniganery going on in the comments over there.

    It's a really wonderful post though, thank you for writing it.

  2. I've been thinking about this issue as well since reading about it on CNN (sorry) a few weeks ago. I agree completely with the points raised in your article, and you worded it much more articulately than I could have. IMHO, the long and short of it is that a GOVERNMENT banning an article of clothing is a problem. It's true that burqas are prima facia oppressive in many/most Muslim contexts, but it's also true that there are most likely Muslim women in France who would choose to wear one of their own volition for whatever reason and I don't think it's fair to deny them the right to do so (any more than it was fair to ban them in schools along with crosses, Stars of David, etc.). My understanding of my feminism is that a part of it is to work towards providing women with as much agency as possible, and I think that deciding whether or what religious articles to wear should be solely up to the discretion of the wearer. So, my basic opinion of the situation is that it's fucked up. And I ought to couch that with the clause that I really don't know shit about race relations or religious tensions in France and am definitely interested to learn more.

    • I recently bought a bunch of books on the Middle East from a used bookstore (books for $1! Yes please!) and am starting to delve into them. The history of Western fuckery over there is amazing.

  3. Tasha, thank you so much for putting that niqab link in! THAT is the kind of thing I was talking about in your other Feministe post.

    And thank you for the Stevie Wonder. *snif*

  4. The French law is an attempt to force immigrants to confirm to the culture of the country they've settled into. The method may be questionable, but the intent is understandable. There's always a tension between unity and multiculturalism in immigrant countries, and European countries have older, less flexible cultures than the U.S. and Canada, which are largely defined by their immigrant roots. When an immigrant culture is in conflict with the traditional culture of a country, then I tend to think that the immigrants should conform – and they usually do so without government interference. For example, most French muslims don't wear veils over their faces, and US servicewomen don't drive cars in Saudi Arabia.

    I wonder why people who aren't comfortable revealing their faces in public choose to move to France. Wouldn't they realize that it isn't a good fit for them, culturally? The French have always been proud of their culture and language, and it's not surprising that they want immigrants to adopt them.

  5. @DeeLeigh- I really question the historical accuracy of your comment. On the grounds of history, cultures have never been closed circuits (yes, even those old European ones). What I am getting at is the extent to which we leave unexamined the shaky (often arbitrary) boundaries and borders that nation states erect in order to exorcise perceived "outsiders" from their midst. Especially when these very outsiders have defined and contributed to the culture that wishes to force them out. I find this to be especially hysterial when we look at the imperialist past of France-who had no problem entering and settling wherever. Now they cry foul as the chickens come home to roost. I mean here in the states with all the bull crap about immigration no one dares to question the reasoning behind the border or question how lands have historically been appropriated.

    On another note- I have a huge problem with Mona Elthawhy that I'm becoming increasingly more vocal about. Mona has a habit of representing herself as "the" feminist voice on issues relating to Muslim women. This pisses me off for a number of reasons. First, I've talked to other African-American Muslim women (especially hijab wearing) who find it interesting that there is only one narrative about hijab/niquab circulating -a narrative that is dominated by South Asian or Arab women's experiences. Isn't it interesting that African-American women (who represent the largest population of Muslim Women here in the US) are almost never asked to speak on issues about gender or Islam? Wese must be too stoopid to know anything about ouse owne religion! Huh?

    Or maybe we're just not sexy enough or fulfilling Orientalist notions of deveiling or freedom that white mainstream culture loves so much. I am calling for South Asian and Arab women to acknowledge their priviledge and acknowledge their African, Caribbean and black sisters. I'm not dissing Mona Elthawhy for being uncovered (I support a woman's right to choose to cover or uncover her body as much as I want) but I cannot get behind her support of the state sanctioned controlling of women's bodies. And I definitely resent her acting like she IS the only Muslim feminist alive or that deveiling is somehow inherently supporting the cause of women.


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