A couple of folks have asked me about the French attempt to ban the wearing of the burqa or the niqab in public. (Google about for various discussions about the not-always-clear distinctions between the two.) What is important to note is that the burqa and the niqab, terms sometimes used interchangeably and in slightly different ways in various parts of the Islamic world, both involve concealing much if not all of the face. This is distinct from the notion of hijab, which normally refers only to the covering of the hair, and perhaps the concealing of arms and legs.
The French initiative (which has not been finalized) is motivated by concern for the rights of women. Though only a tiny fraction of Muslim women in France actually wear the burqa in public, they are highly visible symbols of a particular kind of conservative Islam, one that severely circumscribes women’s public role. It is no doubt true that women who wear the burqa do so on a spectrum of volition. Some are presumably forced to wear it; others — and the evidence for this is considerable — do so in opposition to their family’s expectations rather than in acquiescence. One person’s oppression, after all, is another’s vigorous assertion of independence and identity.
Reading coverage of the burqa story in the mainstream and feminist media, I’m struck by what a number of other feminists have also noted: the degree to which those who claim to be acting on behalf of women seem to be certain that they know what women are actually thinking. Concealment of the body that goes beyond a cultural norm is automatically read by some as oppressive, something no woman in her right mind could want for herself. It reminds me of the same damn argument I hear from some of my students about classmates who dress in more revealing clothing.
We’ve all seen it happen in the classroom on a hot day (of which we have a surfeit here in inland Southern California). A young woman walks into class a few minutes late. Perhaps she’s wearing a mini-skirt or very short shorts; perhaps she also has a low cut shirt or a tube top on. From at least some of her fellow students, she will be on the receiving end of both hostility and lust. Listening carefully, one can hear the sotto voce whispers, “Who does she think she is?” and “This is school, not a night club”, or even the simple, devastating, “What a slut.” In nearly twenty years of college teaching , I’ve witnessed this umpteen times. (More so at two-year schools, for reasons discussed in this post on clothing, class, and community colleges.)
When I ask young men and women why they think a female student might wear revealing clothing, most discount the possibility that she’s doing so for comfort or for her own pleasure. “She’s insecure”, they’ll insist. “She just wants attention.” Some get into advanced pop psychology: “She probably doesn’t have a good relationship with her Dad, so she needs male validation.” The notion that a girl could be expressing agency, courage, and genuine self-confidence is almost always dismissed. As those of us who teach gender and sexuality know, young people are all too often strangely puritanical in their insistence that a strong sense of self-worth can’t be congruent with sexual display. And they are certainly nearly universally presumptuous in their certainty about what their be-miniskirted classmate is “really thinking.”
The argument in favor of banning the burqa has never struck me as feminist. I’ve never for a moment bought the notion, advanced by some media-savvy social conservatives in all the Abrahamic religious traditions, that concealing a woman is a kind of feminist act. The notion that men can only respect as an equal a woman whose flesh is concealed is absurd; it sells men short and it does something even more decidedly unfeminist, which is make women entirely responsible for how men conduct themselves. The idea of mandating headscarves, or banning short skirts, troubles me. But the banning of the burqa bothers me equally.
One of the hallmarks of an illiberal, anti-feminist society is that it sees women’s bodies as threats. A society horrified by a display of self-confident sexuality is no better and no worse than one scandalized by the equally public display of deep piety. Religious feeling, like sexual feeling, is in some sense private — but it also is so much a part of us that it is unreasonable and bigoted to ask us to conceal it entirely when we come into the public square.
The French Enlightenment tradition is a fine if not untroubled one. (Rousseau makes me shudder, but Voltaire offers some comfort.) Certainly, the French grasped the rights of the individual before many of their neighbors, and they shed blood to guarantee those rights. And if there is one Enlightenment principle that I cling to, it is the notion that the right of the individual to trouble the conscience of the many ought to be damned near sacrosanct. On a public street, the right of a woman to walk unmolested and unchallenged in a burqa or a bikini is worth protecting. And when we see that woman, we do well not to rush to judgment about what particular constellation of religious and psychological influences led to her sartorial choices.