When did feminism become about telling women what they can and can’t wear?

France’s so-called ‘burka ban’ was hailed as a victory by both people from the left and the right. Despite not specifically mentioning the burka (and the niqab, the veil that leaves only the eyes visible), it was undisputed that this was the intention of the legislation, which outlaws faces being shielded in public. On the right, of course, Islamophobes and racists rejoiced that such a visible symbol of the evils of Islam had been legislatively eradicated from the streets of France. Right-wing groups have long called for the banning of the burka across Europe; the UK Independence Party, for example, described the burka as a “security threat”, as if the unclear status of your nose, mouth and ears is a sure sign of terrorist intent. It is hardly surprising that the ring-wing seeks to ban the burka; they are intent on creating a narrative in which Muslims as a social group are collectively responsible for every moral violation from animal cruelty to terrorism to the decline in the pub industry. But many on the left-wing have also called for a burka ban. Their argument: the burka is a sign of the oppression of women.

I can’t agree with the principals behind the burka. There is no explicit mention of the burka in the Qur’an, particularly the element of face coverage commonly associated with it, but there are passages that advocate modest dress. Perhaps the most widely cited is:

O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should draw over themselves their jilbab (outer garments) (when in public); this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not harassed. But God is indeed oft-forgiving, most merciful. (33:59)

Attempts to subjugate and criticism women based on their dress can be found everywhere in society, from the burka ban to the victim-blaming of rape victims because their clothes suggested they were asking for it. As a feminist, I find the notion that women should cover up to avoid sexual harassment difficult to justify. As the purveyors of sexual harassment against women, it is men who should be responsible for their own behaviour, instead of their behaviour being blamed on immodest dress. And my experience of cultures where women are required to cover themselves more fully is that these countries are where they receive the greatest amount of harassment, particularly in India. This is why, if I was a woman, I would not wear the burka. This is why, of course, women should not be forced to wear the burka. Women should not be forced to do anything against their will. But forcing women, by law, to take off their burkas violates this exact same principal. It is not for me to tell anyone what they can and can’t wear, whether or not we agree with it. Everyone should be entitled to make their own choices.

It’s fascinating that people feel a Muslim woman who wore the burka might be liberated by being forced not to wear it in public. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The reality for these women is that they feel it is a religious conviction of the deepest importance. Enacting legislation banning the burka has the same effect as a forced religious conversion; you might be physically able to prevent someone attending a church, but you certainly can’t force them to change their mind. Women who believe strongly that it is against their religion to go outside without their burqa won’t suddenly skip through the streets in a miniskirt, overjoyed to have been liberated by a parliament of mostly white men. Instead they will remain at home, out of sight, increasingly isolated and with no chance of integrating into the wider community. This is surely an ironic own goal of monumental proportions for these supposed ‘feminist’ legislators. Even worse, in the months following the ban, attacks and discrimination against Muslim women dramatically increased.

The burka ban represents the worst kind of cultural bigotry and small-mindedness. Politicians and a public in the grips of a moral panic over Muslims in Europe have lashed out at a defenceless minority group, Muslims women, who have done nothing to deserve it. There has been no attempt to actually discover why a woman might wear a burka, but propagated instead has been an almost totally unchallenged assumption that any woman wearing one – and it’s worth mentioning that only a tiny minority actually do – is an oppressed spouse being subjugated by an abusive husband. Like all ridiculous generalisations, the truth is far more complicated. A google search revealed a plethora of contrasting views, from women who considered that men treated them with more respect when they were covered to those who considered it a feminist statement that they were in control of their body and could make their own choices. Ultimately, it is the individual who should have the right to decide how to dress, not the state. It’s highly ironic that those telling women they shouldn’t be forced to dress in a certain way are the ones doing exactly that.

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