Whether they wear burqas or bikinis, we need to trust women

An earlier version of this post appeared in February 2010, when the French were first considering the ban on the burqa that went into place today.

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 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.

34 thoughts on “Whether they wear burqas or bikinis, we need to trust women

  1. I usually agree with you, Hugo, but on this issue I diverge. I do not care about the bikinis or tube tops, but I do think the Burkas should be banned.

    I see the issue with the Burka is that it conflicts with the need democracy has for people to express themselves authentically and not to hide. If a woman wants to wear something that says she believes in Allah/ subscribes to Islam but that does not prevent her participating and taking responsibility in democracy, I have no problem with this. Or if she wants to something that symbolizes her oppression but still allows her to talk/participate/take responsibility, this is fine too.

    I think a lot of this derives from the interest the state has in preventing the child abuse/neglect that occurs when parents are not visible as people.

    Just as we don’t allow people to do some of the things in the Bible, such as enslave people, or, in some parts of the country, beat children, because of this conflict between religion and the need to protect children, we shouldn’t allow Burka-wearing in public – or men to force women to wear Burkas through physical, economic or political coercion of women.

  2. JMO, some of the research shows that women wearing full niqab are sometimes second and third-generation immigrants whose mothers wore less concealing garments. This is a political statement they’re making. Equating the burqa with oppression is like equating a miniskirt with sexual availability — it’s staggeringly presumptuous.

  3. It totally raises my hackles when people make a “feminist” argument against things like SlutWalk that says if you’re making yourself more ogleable, you’re losing your dignity, and men are gaining something over you. Nudity can be a great tool for people to express themselves, sexually or not. If it arouses some guys who don’t get your point, who really cares? When can anyone expect that their statement will be universally understood?

  4. I am sorry but I don’t see it as presumptous.

    We expect immigrants to take citizenship classes. How is it any different to expect women to be actual people and not shrouded shadows in the public economy.

    There is such thing as drawing status – and even resources – from playing a victim and not learning to be an adult and take responsibility for yourself (whether in public life or with your children).

    And this is counter to everything egalitarian feminism – or even modern democracy – stands for.

  5. I saw a pretty hilarious cartoon once that illustrates the assumptions that people have about a woman in a full niqab. Four women are playing beach volleyball. Three are wearing bikinis and one is wearing a niqab. A man at the sidelines comments “How did she decide to wear that? Is it some kind of political statement?” To which a second man answers “No, she recently had some skin cancer removed.”

  6. JMO, how on earth is it egalitarian feminism to impose a dress code on women? We don’t liberate women by taking away their freedom of expression, except in some strange Orwellian universe.

  7. It’s not imposing a dress code. It’s quite the opposite. They can wear whatever they want; they just can’t block everything about them so that they are completely indistinguishable from another woman – or man – wearing the same thing. We don’t let men walk around shrouding their identities either.

    People do have a right to privacy, but not to non-existence, especially if they are doing anything with children or if they are dealing in the public economy.

  8. JMO, we let men wear beards that cover their faces. We let motorcyclists wear helmets that shroud their heads even when walking down the street. It is not a crime in California to wear a mask on the street. You can wear a burqa too.

    When it comes to teaching children in a school, absolutely, require the face to be shown. Dress codes in businesses are fine. Asking a woman to reveal her face for a driver’s license photo? Fine. But this French ban means she can’t wear it on the sidewalk while walking down the street. In public spaces where she doesn’t wish to interact with others.

    We don’t own other’s bodies. I don’t get to see what others wish to keep private — whether its boobs or eyes.

  9. If you accept Hugo’s premise that the women in France who’re wearing burqas are doing so in a truly voluntary way, the rest of the argument pretty much has to follow, I think.

    Of course, that premise is the kind of thing that usually only comes out of the south end of a north facing bull. If you recognise that the situation is either forcing women not to wear burqas, or leaving them to be forced to wear burqas, the answer is very different.

    But there can’t really be much dialogue here, since it’s just disagreement over facts. All you can do is try to measure the facts.

  10. Isn’t one man’s beard usually distinguishable from another’s? And a motorcycle helmet has a function, and we don’t let people wear them around when they don’t need them for that function. If you wore that into a store, people would ask you take it off, no?

    Just like superhero costumes or Darth Vader costumes that boys wear that cover their faces and whole bodies, this type of anonymity reflects a pathology and an anti-democratic hostility toward other people. It’s OK in children playing around but we wouldn’t let them wear a spiderman costume to school every day that hid their face and body.

    When you watch some type of crime drama, it’s always the criminals that are completely shrouded. The police – military, etc. may be in uniforms but they still show some type of individuality and accountability as agents/actors in the world.

  11. Holy moly. “How is it any different to expect women to be actual people and not shrouded shadows in the public economy.” Way to equate a woman’s clothes and appearance with her personhood, based (of course) on your relative comfort level with a woman’s chosen form of dress. You feel free to take the woman completely out of the equation and judge her personhood based on how she looks. No, that’s not sexist or ethnocentric at aaall. Just because you’re not comfortable with her covering you think she ceases to exist? Even a child who’s grasped the concept of object permanence knows there’s a person under the cloth.

  12. Put another way, Hugo, and trying to riff on the title of your post here: “Just as women’s blind trust in men is wrong, men’s blind trust in women is as well.”

  13. Unless we’re also going to outlaw women cooking, because in some instances this behavior might be coerced (by societal expectations, a tyrannical husband, whatever), we do need to stop with this type of legislation. I don’t think it helps women much to have the state controlling their personal choices, rather than family members. That’s not how I would define liberation, anyway.

    If there’s a gender-based wage gap in France, and I’ll bet there is, perhaps the French government could tackle that, hmmm?

  14. Just as we allow anyone who wants to walk around with swastikas tatooed over every visible inch of their bodies, we must allow anyone who wants to walk around with a burqa. Of course, I will shun interaction with and publicly declare that I do NOT support and DO find repellent and disgusting anyone who chooses to make a public and visibly aggressive point of embracing a symbol of the degradation and oppression of any particular subgroup of humanity–but I am allowed to do so by the same rules. Free speech…and attire! for all. Even douchebags. :) that’s my motto.

  15. Ultimately it’s about not concealing your face, because that’s what criminals do. Burqas, if accepted, will certainly be used by criminals to avoid recognition by law enforcement (and thus, arrest).

    Burqas are the equivalent of people wearing ski masks or full-face motorcycle masks (with tinted window) while interacting with people who operate commercial venues.

    If I want to show modesty, I can go around with a turtleneck and sweat pants, wearing sneakers and a headscarf. Comfy, concealing my hair and most of my body – just not my face.

    I’d also think there is a limit to ‘good taste’ concerning skirt length (or lack thereof) and cleavage, in most day jobs. That limit is pretty high to me (probably higher than 95% of people’s), but it exists. Just like most people don’t want to see the plumber’s ass crack when he’s standing (sort of inevitable when he’s under your sink).

  16. Lu says in response to my post:

    “Way to equate a woman’s clothes and appearance with her personhood, based (of course) on your relative comfort level with a woman’s chosen form of dress. You feel free to take the woman completely out of the equation and judge her personhood based on how she looks.”

    No – I am judging this by her ascribed meaning to the wearing of a Burka as far as I understand it – not mine. Her culture says women have no individual identity in public life and the Burka is both a symbolic and quite literal manifestation of this. She, and her culture, are the ones who are denying her personhood in public life, not I.

  17. It’s not imposing a dress code.

    Yes, it is. You’ve identified an article of clothing you deem unacceptable, and you’re arguing for banning it. You’re welcome to argue it’s justified in this particular case, but don’t deny what you’re doing. Own it, convince me the benefits are worth the costs (At present, I don’t agree, but I’m probably more persuadable than HS), but don’t lie to yourself or me about what your arguing for.

  18. I am judging this by her ascribed meaning to the wearing of a Burka as far as I understand it – not mine.

    The key words here being “as I understand it”.

  19. djw

    Yes, all I have is my own hearing of the words of women who do this, and of people who promote the Burka, as to what it means.

    But when THEY say that it means women have no identity this is in direct conflict with a Western society’s holding women accountable for their behavior. Women – or men for that matter – cannot make themselves into irresponsible objects. This is not a choice we allow in Western society.

    For any of us to override their interpretation of what this means is narcissism – and tremendously foolish narcissism at that.

    (“I didn’t hit my child; Allah made me do it;” or “I couldn’t take care of my child; Allah wouldn’t let me;” “I didn’t steal the bread; Allah made me do it”)

  20. No one has said this yet, but I think it need to be said.
    France like the US bases a great deal of its public security on the ability to ascertain the identities of people in question. From store camera to witness testimony detailed identification is often vital to any form of justice. I’m not just talking about the criminal side, I am talking about the witness side too. Lets say police find out that their was a witness in a blue burqa for a crime that happened. The screen the area and find 9 women in blue burqas and ask one to come forward. Lets assume the witness was in the crowd, but not wanting to get involved decides to bail(Bystander effect/The police will figure it out on their own anyway right?). This is only one example, but its made to help expand the thinking on this topic people past cops and robbers.
    Hugo points out that men can wear masks and walk down the street in some places in the US. I however take a very different view of that “freedom”. The psychology of a person willing to were that clothing often differs from the standard citizen and though it does not imply crime can help predict it. As an African America I can tell you that just wearing a hoodie and walking down a street got me followed by the police(first time in a hoodie and first time followed)and I decided to go with ear muffs from then on. Red cars and bikers are on different watch lists as well I assure you. That “freedom”, is currently used to “type” individuals. Beards are just silly and their is a reason they are sill beards in mug shots and its because men don’t grow then to hide their identities as that would mean they would cut them to help conceal ID after a crime and most don’t.
    Burqas have strong religious and social meaning attached to them that causes them to act as poor preemptive ID. That combined with a much larger scale of people willing to wear them creates a different situation.
    Personally, I am not for a full ban, but I believe arguments can be made against burqas without any misogyny. The school, bank and post office list worked fine for me and I would have left it at that unless it became major public safety issue.

  21. Hmmm. In the years that I dressed modestly according to Jewish law, I never felt oppressed by it because I had chosen to do it. (My family really doesn’t care, and I don’t live with them.) I ran a community for a while on Live Journal dedicated to modest styles of dress.

    One thing that I noticed, though, when I dressed in this fashion is that men under patriarchy in much of the Western World feel entitled to look at women’s bodies and feel entitled to the effort women put into being decorative to please them.

    Women who say that they feel liberated by tzniut (Jewish modesty) or hijab/niqab/burka don’t in my experience mean that we think men don’t respect us when they can see our bodies; what we mean is that there’s a lot of cultural pressure to display more skin than men are expected to display (but not too much!) and display it in a sexually pleasing manner. Think about the fact that men in corporate environments are expected to wear long pants, long sleeves and jackets; women wear jackets, with short (not covering the entire leg) skirts and sheer stockings and heels, and an open blouse instead of a shirt with a tie. And are expected to wear makeup! Even female executives and lawyers are still expected to be ‘on display’ to a degree that their male counterparts are not. It IS liberating to refuse to meet these expectations, whether you do it by wearing a burka, a long skirt and long-sleeved blouse (as a Jewish woman) or whether you do it by wearing the frills of Japanese lolita and mori and otome style, which are also clothes that women wear to please each other and themselves, unlike the bodycon or gyaru styles more mainstream Japanese girls wear to be sexy. I get some of the same reactions from men in lolita that I got in traditional Jewish styles. The very frilly dresses worn with socks and headdresses and Mary Janes and without much makeup are not as ‘sexy’ as the clothes they think I should be wearing and are clearly chosen to please me, not them.

  22. Is there a great problem in France with be-burqaed women committing crimes and getting away with them? Or with various malefactors dressing in burqas to conceal their identities while breaking the law? If not, what are French lawmakers actually responding to here?

  23. Thank you, Hugo, for a well-reasoned response to this awful law. What you said about the variety of motivations for wearing the burqa makes sense. (“Some of the research shows that women wearing full niqab are sometimes second and third-generation immigrants whose mothers wore less concealing garments. This is a political statement they’re making.”) I was curious- what is the research you have found on this subject? I would love to read it.

  24. I don’t support the ban on the niqab/burqa at all. I am not a practitioner of any religion, but I love wearing the niqab. My body is not for the consumption of others in any capacity which I do not choose. I rather enjoy that only a few people close to me know what I look like in a miniskirt. It isn’t like these women wear them in their own homes- more often than not, even the most devout wear Prada and heels under their otherwise covering clothing.

    I understand uncovering my face in appropriate places, like a bank or a gas station (where poorly-paid station clerks constantly worry about robberies). It’s simple courtesy to alleviate the (sometimes legitimate) fears of others. This is not an issue for me. However, in a Macys, on the streets, grocery shopping, I prefer to have my face covered. There is a large enough Muslim population here to where I fit in. The majority wear the hijab, but the niqab is recognised well-enough to where no one guesses twice about what I’m wearing.

    I started wearing the niqab to get away from my (non-Muslim) first husband, who tried to kill me for perceived infractions and disobeying him. He stalked me after I left, but had a much harder time doing so when I didn’t look like myself. It saved me in the end. It gave me freedoms that I didn’t have without the niqab.

    Is there a risk that a criminal would cover his/her face in public and evade prosecution? Possibly. Is there a risk that someones’ very devout family would force their children to wear something culturally appropriate? Yes, but no greater than the risk of a Christian parent forcing their children into indoctrination camps like Vacation Bible School, as I was- and the Christians were the ones who taught me that women were worthless, the creators of evil on earth. Yet, we are demonizing these women for… wearing clothing? Expressing faith in their religion? At least they are wearing shrouds instead of poisoning their daughters, all while reciting Biblical verses about how nothing you eat and drink will harm you if God loves you enough!

    I apologise if this is rambling, but oy. Some of the comments. ::shakes head:: The niqab is not evil. The women who wear them are not necessarily oppressed. People who restrict freedoms without well-thought out rationales are.

  25. I can’t believe what no one is talking about is whether a legislative ban will actually have liberating consequences for the women who ARE forced to wear burqas… Do you really think that in a controlling and honour based environment, those who are imposing this upon said woman will just say, oh ok then, well I guess that’s just fine, go out without a burqa? I think it is entirely likely that they might just force her not to go out at all, particularly as this might well be seen as an act of resistance to outsiders (particularly Westerners) oppressing their culture.

  26. “this might well be seen as an act of resistance to outsiders (particularly Westerners) oppressing their culture.”
    “Of course we must all respect differences, but we do not want… a society where communities coexist side by side” – Sarkozy
    I don’t agree with it either, but as the analogy goes, Sarkozy
    and followers consider Europe to be like a house. They want to decided what goes on in their house by reenforcing the original culture. You may not think of it this way, but what people wear is just as big a part of a culture as what they do not wear.
    Multiculturalism has always been at odds in Europe even given proof it does not necessarily lead to increased violence. They are also carrying the fear of having the current dominate culture repressed by the growing numbers of Muslims.
    “Do you really think that in a controlling and honour based environment, those who are imposing this upon said woman will just say, oh ok then, well I guess that’s just fine, go out without a burqa?”
    This is my speculation, but what they they think probably has more to do with what they want. It may be that they think Muslims will have to integrate in order to deal with the bans.
    My take on this whole thing? It comes down to a cultural war and Women’s rights have become tangled in the middle of it.

  27. “The very frilly dresses worn with socks and headdresses and Mary Janes and without much makeup are not as ‘sexy’ as the clothes they think I should be wearing and are clearly chosen to please me, not them.”

    I can’t for the life of me find Mary Janes in size 8 adult. Heck, I don’t even know where to find kid-sized ones (not that it would be of any use). And I’m not shelling 150$ + shipping to get shoes from Japan I can’t even try before paying.

    I’ll pay 250$ for the dress, but not for the shoes. Got any tips to finding affordable adult-sized Mary Janes…or something at least pretty close to it?

    I only have 2 dresses right now. Pretty good looking ones. But no headdress to go with.

    Rarely wear them because I can get misgendered because of it – and while I could scoff at it, being trans makes it sting more. I don’t get misgendered otherwisely, even in jeans and a t-shirt (and no make-up)…but people think lolita is a costume, and I got A-cups.

  28. ‘My take on this whole thing? It comes down to a cultural war and Women’s rights have become tangled in the middle of it.’

    I completely agree – I guess my point is that, everyone here is arguing about whether a burqa can ever be seen as empowering, which in legislative terms isn’t very useful. If the point of the law is, as some allege, to prevent oppression to women, then it is unlikely to be very useful and will probably make things worse.

    But, you are right. It isn’t about women’s rights at all. It’s a cultural war against the visible signs of Islam. Women’s rights are just a moral cover for that.

  29. The “visible signs of Christianity” have been similarly attacked, and well, France is majority Christian, like much of the West. Same for Quebec province – the majority French-speaking province of Canada, that is majority Catholic – we still attack visible signs of it.

    It’s being very pro-secularity, regardless of the religion it would diminish.

    Now we can be influenced by traditions stemming from religious practices, that are no longer considered religious, but ‘normal’ – but then they’re not considered religious at all either, nor mandatory for practicing a certain faith. Circumcision is going this way in the US (no longer being mandatory/routine for being a US citizen, or Jewish).

    Circumcision as a routine practice, or defended on tradition/religious etc grounds will not fly nowadays. Regardless of which religion or tradition.

  30. Schala, the popularity of Mary Janes-style shoes ebbs and flows. I haven’t been able to find any in a year or two, but I bought a new pair in womens’ 9 perhaps three years ago. I believe they were from Steve Madden. I paid maybe… $20? $25? I never pay much more for shoes unless they are boots that I intend to wear for years.

    I’m also with Helen. This law does nothing to protect women who are being forced by their families to wear the burqa (which isn’t even it’s proper term; the Saudi Arabian burqa is a gorgeous facial jewellery made of shining paper or other materials, which represents a falcon’s beak). Those women will either be carted off by their families to other countries, by choice or force, or will be forced to stay home and be further subjected to random whims of cruelty. At least on a street, I am sure someone who sees a woman being beaten will step in. I would. But in a house? Who would know?

    This law isn’t about protecting women. It’s about destroying peaceful freedom of expression, regardless of religious involvement. We are not talking about people going around with signs saying that God hates anyone, or people who stand in traffic to prove that God is watching out for them (or just to beg for a meal from passers-by, as is common here). We are talking about women walking around in clothing that isn’t inappropriately exposing any society-disapproved body parts. Such a problem it is.

  31. “This law isn’t about protecting women.”

    At the base, it’s not meant to be about protecting women.

    “We are talking about women walking around in clothing that isn’t inappropriately exposing any society-disapproved body parts.”

    Like the face?

    I don’t know. I don’t use moisturizers and don’t routinely wash my face (certainly not every morning) or have soap to do it (I’ll use whatever I got). I very rarely use make-up, and don’t feel forced to put any on. Shaving causes certain parts to be more rough than others…though thankfully, not much need be done.

    and yet, I don’t think it’s “better” to hide my face than just leave it be

    Hide your hair in any manner you wish. Hide your feet, your arms, your torso, your waist, your legs and even your hands. That’s still doable. All of that.

  32. What concerns me the most with this issue is that people have so many views and strong opinions about something which they know very little about. I bet the majority of people (especially those who oppose burqas) have never even talked to a person who wears a burqa or a hijab. How can you speak for someone, especially when you haven’t heard how they feel and think? I think people who call themselves “feminists” need to take a long, hard look at their own privilege as a white person. If you really want equality for everyone, how is imposing a dress code for particular women really equality? I can only imagine how enraged western women would be if a dress code was imposed on them saying that women have to wear bikinis at all times. And then to have other women say “well this is liberating now, all those clothes were covering up their identities”. Nobody likes being spoken for. Feminists out of all people should be the first to understand that, as we have, and continue to be, under a society that has men speaking FOR women a lot of the time. What I believe is happening here, is a weird combination of “feminism” with white supremacy and racism.

  33. “I can only imagine how enraged western women would be if a dress code was imposed on them saying that women have to wear bikinis at all times.”

    Or that forbid a certain kind of bikini. Which is a better analogy.

    I’m much more enraged at Texas schools who prevent long hair on boys out of some sense that it will be “distracting” (while it’s always in co-ed schools, with girls, who mostly have long hair).

    Those reasonings never stand to scrutiny, mainly because they never apply to girls or women. Same as for grooming standards in some companies that have dresscodes, the Canadian and US army, male prisons vs female prisons.

    Because it has no reason at all (except maybe to preserve kyriarchy).

    The security reason is the only valid one for the burqa ban to me. Not to save women, or to be anti-Islam. Men would also be banned from wearing a burqa, so it’s not a double-standard (remember: clothing has no sex, we give it meaning, but it has none at the base).

  34. Pingback: Of Burqas and Robotic Butterflies: Minimum standards for covering & revealing « Of and From

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