Of burqas, mini-skirts, and whopping presumption

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.

Before I go any further, let me recommend this short and sensible response from Jill at Feministe. Another good post is here, at Muslimah Media Watch.

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.

20 thoughts on “Of burqas, mini-skirts, and whopping presumption

  1. Well put. And really, once you look a bit harder at the details of the actual politics surrounding these kind of measures in France only make the whole thing worse. If I might share an example with you and your readers, from a book I’ve been reading:

    “When (the Stasi Commission) looked for a discrete Muslim sign, which could be tolerated in schools like the Christian Cross of the Star of David, it came up with ‘Fatima’s hands.’ The choice could not have been more inept. Fatima’s hands are not religious signs but a kind of talisman traditionally called khomsa and worn by older Magrebi women. the khomsa was renamed ‘Fatima’s hand’ by the French colonists, presumably because ‘Fatima’ was the homogenizing, depersonalizing, and racist name given indiscriminately to Algerian women. No doubt young French Muslims rejoiced at being officially allowed to wear what at best was a meaningless and non-Islamic sign, and at worst reminded them of colonial paternalism.”

    –Cecile Laborde, Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 133-134.

  2. “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.”

    Well, that is how we’re brought up to think. It takes time to work through your societal baggage and figure things out. If you’ve been told all your life that displaying your body is selling yourself short and that nobody will respect you if you show too much skin, is it really so strange when that gets mapped onto other people?

  3. That’s a great quote, DJW, thank you — wince-inducing indeed. And Froth, you’re right, of course. This isn’t just a young person’s failing, but a societal one, and one to which otherwise sensible people are prone.

  4. You have now kind of put into perspective my unease with that interviewer the other week who had all the cleavage. If every prospective employer, and the minions thereof, dressed like that, I suppose I’d be used to it.

  5. Granted, feminist blog and all that, but I wonder to what extent that this proposition is more firmly based upon (and perhaps is defensible under?) the French tradition of laïcité, secularism, and equal citizenship without religious distinctions as much as being an ostensible effort to protect the rights of women. I would see and expect the former to be more the reason the French have, and the latter sounds more like a post hoc additional justification (that, as is pointed out, gets into very muddy waters about presumption).

  6. Being female and showing off flesh may get you into trouble, but try doing it when you’re male.

    Especially now when no man under 40 would be caught dead in shorts that are less than knee length.

    Yes, I do remember Hugo’s posting about going running without a shirt on, but–in class? I suspect that the notion that a boy could be expressing agency, courage, and genuine self-confidence would be almost always dismissed.

  7. I think Tom is probably right. The French tend to have a more or less official and collective sense of what it is to be a citizen of the Republic and are unappologetic about it. In that context, it is not necessary to posit misogynistic motives.

    The muslim reality in France is also profoundly different than in the New World. A certain strain of cultural jingoism is accentuated by the threat this poses to the hegemony of the Gallic folk. On the whole, the French tend to ascribe more agency to woman than in large parts of America.

    Women are expected to be sexual creatures and there is much less slut-shaming. A woman who choses a freespirited and unmarried lifestyle or chooses to take lovers later in life is certainly not condemned and one might suggest that such autonomy is celebrated.

    The sense of personal autonomy extends to men, perhaps in a more entitled way — e.g., the notorious indiscretions that a French wife is expected to tolerate with a certain equanimity. Of course, no one expects that she is not also able to be autonomously sexual too if she chooses.

  8. Randomizer, you write onthe whole, the French tend to ascribe more agency to woman than in large parts of America…Women are expected to be sexual creatures…

    And therein lies the problem — you can’t believe in women’s agency and then presume to dictate what form that agency will take. They don’t believe in it, not really, not when it deviates from what is officially prescribed.

  9. My point being that French expectations are more in line with the lived reality of most women.

    This contrasted to expectations in some parts of North America that a woman’s sexual agency is negated or alienated — Daddy owns her purity until her husband makes an honest women of her.

    ‘course this is a story that only really persists, it seems to me, on the reactionary side of the ongoing culture war in the U.S.

  10. Especially now when no man under 40 would be caught dead in shorts that are less than knee length.

    Huh? I frequently wear shorts in the summer that don’t go to the knee, and I’ve got a ways to go until I’m 40. I’m not particulary attractive or trying to show off, they’re just comfortable in the heat. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’m not particularly fashion-conscious, but a think a lot fewer people get these memos than your realize.

  11. Well, I’m 42, but I’ve been known to spend much of the day in running shorts — and did so before hitting middle age. Heck, I’ve even taught in workout gear, though that was a while ago!

  12. The notion that a girl could be expressing agency, courage, and genuine self-confidence is almost always dismissed.

    Hugo, it’s very odd to hear this from you. We live in a culture where young women putting themselves on sexual display to please men is considered to be one of their natural functions. We also live in a culture that has norms of dress – you would not wear running shorts and a tank top to a court appearance, and you probably wouldn’t attend church in humorous-print boxer shorts and slippers. That has nothing to do with shame of the body. So you’re not really being honest with your students when you ask them why a young woman would wear an outfit that is out of place for a classroom, and then scolding them for making guesses that you don’t like.

  13. Not scolding them — warning them not to jump automatically to one conclusion. Women make sartorial and sexual decisions for a variety of reasons, and we need to neither dismiss nor oversell their agency. And my scolding is limited to the expressions of pity or slut-shaming; the pop psyschologizing is simply an invitation to think again.

  14. I suspect people won’t like this, but I hate the kind of veiling that covers women’s faces. Not because I think the women are oppressed, but because they represent a serious security risk: we live in a culture in which facial recognition of the individual is key to our justice system. I am asked to pull down the hood of my rain coat when I am at the shops, and there is a very good reason why security guards do this, they need to prevent crime, and in our society, we do that with facial recognition.

    The tradition for covering faces amongst muslim women (and it is a tradition, not a strictly religious practice – there is nothing about this in the Quoran) began in countries in which women are not allowed out alone, any masked woman is with a man, and is therefore identifiable. We live under an entirerly different system.

    Who knows who is under all that veiling? These costumes are a shoplifter’s dream, and that’s just the ‘nicer’ scale of crime that is facilitated by masking the face and body shape.

  15. The Burqa and Niqab, and a dare say the Hijab is nothing but a way to force women into submission. In many countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia women are murdered and raped as punishment for not being covered up.

    In Belgium and in France the ban on Burqas and Niqabs are not only supported by Liberals and Conservatives but are highly supported by womens rights and femenist organizations.

    But even to get beyond the equality issues for women it is a security issue. With Islamic terrorism including women terrorist the forbidding of wearing a garment that hides the identity of the person being it a woman or a man is needed.

    so be it womens equality or security the ban on the Burqa and Nigab is needed and should not only the norm in Europe but also in America.

  16. Matey and Adam make good points about the safety and security issues, especially given terrorism and today’s political climate. Quite frankly it is my first association–terrorism when I see this type of dress and I’m certain some people will not like my honesty about it.

    Western culture has very different norms of dress and adoption of some of those more traditional norms, tends to signal acceptance and assimilation. That isn’t to say that people cannot tolerate differences in culture or to empathize either, but in the context of the current political climate it’s wise to consider the implications.

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