Did Women Create Burqa Culture?

The upcoming French vote on the burqa ban has got me thinking. We hear talk of how women should keep their culture. But did women have equal power to create the burqa? And who benefits from this garment?

Meanwhile, some charge that rejecting the burqa comes from fear of the other, or ethnocentrism. I’m in sync with cultural relativism, so long as no one is being hurt. But buqas and “burqa cultures” don’t give women equal power. And women certainly did not have equal sway in creating the customs of these societies.

Think about the laws that exist in places where women are required to cover up in garments like burqas or niqabs (facemasks).

Is it likely that women decided that men could easily demand a divorce, but women could get one only with difficulty?

Is it likely that women created the notion that sharing a husband with other women might be nice?

Did women create the idea that an adulterous man be punished by burial up to his waist before being stoned, while a woman must be buried to her breasts – and the one who escapes, escapes the stoning?

In these cultures, when a woman is raped it is her fault. She obviously let some hair fall from her covering, or she allowed an ankle to show. Everyone knows that no man could resist such things. Did women decide that women, and not men, are responsible for men’s sexuality?

Did women originate the notion that after rape, the victim must be killed to restore the family honor?

Did women clamor for a burqa that limits their power and autonomy – keeping them from driving and getting jobs that are far from home? Did women design this garment that prevents small pleasures like seeing clearly or feeling the sun and the wind?

And who benefits?

Men benefit from easily obtaining a divorce, but not allowing their wives the same privilege. Men benefit from the sexual variety of having many wives, while women are left to share one man. Men benefit by more easily escaping a stoning. And men can rape with impunity since women fear reporting sexual assault, lest their families kill them. Men gain power when women are incapable of getting jobs and income. How much easier is it to beat women for the infraction of straying outside the home, or letting a wrist show, when they are black and blue blobs, and not human beings?

It is common to make accusations of ethnocentrism when one culture rejects the practices of another. Often the fears are valid.

But if a powerful group creates a culture that benefits themselves to the detriment of others, the critique is not about ethnocentrism. It is about human rights.

Georgia Platts

Also see:   Early Islam’s Feminist Air     
Don’t Reject Your Culture, Even When It Mutilates You
The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated
Cultural Relativism: Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?      
Why Are We More Offended By Racism Than Sexism?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 13, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Lindsay Sauln

    I, too, agree with this post. I find it distressing that people will sometimes use cultural relativism as a total cop out and in an effort to not offend anyone. Change can’t happen unless we (at the very least) step on some toes.

  2. hannah crockett

    This article relates a lot to your post, Must We Be Nazis To Criticize Them? Again, I am in complete agreement with everything you’ve said. It is clear that some Middle Eastern cultures have created their own way of life, particularly when it comes to the way they have chosen to treat women. We are told, from a young age, to not judge people who are different, or who believe in different things as we do. I follow that rule, but with one exception, and that is the same as yours: unless it involves inequality and oppression. While cultures differ (that is undeniable), the definitions of words like “oppression”, “abuse”, and “inequality” are universal–they mean the same thing no matter where in the world you are.
    The burqa culture has created an atmosphere for women that is far from our own in America, and while we can accept that fact, it is wrong to ignore the fact that people are being hurt. This is not a matter of cultural relativism, it is a matter of justice.

  3. The same dynamics are, and have been, at play in the US on many issues. Through whatever accidents of history, the founding “Fathers” were white, men, with families and relative wealth, who were largely Christian and likely all heterosexual. Over time, every one of those has become an issue as people of different characteristics have had to struggle to obtain their own “equal” rights as citizens. Many thanks to Jefferson and others wise enough to include that simple but fundamental principle with the defining document of our culture.

    Some specific proclamations about these self-selected groups (“men” and white”) were incorporated in the Constitution; but even if they weren’t, the vested interests and beliefs of succeeding leaders (who by definition were already included) led to self-gratifying “assumptions” about who were meant to be included within the “intent” of the original framers of the Constitution, and who were not.

    And as we see with gay marriage, the struggle between cultural assumptions defined by the included and full inclusion of “equal” rights goes on.

  4. What do women who argue for the burqa say to justify it, and what is their response to your questions?

    • It’s not just burqa-wearers who argue for it, it’s often Westerners who feel that complaints about it are just xenophobic. They also argue that it has religious protection.

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