The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated

“Burqa bans” are arising throughout Europe, with France voting their approval this past Tuesday. But many are concerned that the prohibitions limit the individual rights of Muslims.

It’s complicated.

First, the garment itself limits individual rights – women’s. Second, to what extent is the burqa wearer exercising actual choice? Finally, is a ban the best way to go?

Let’s start with the question of women’s choice.

When a society’s way of seeing becomes our own – even when it harms us – the belief is “internalized.” My interest in this phenomenon was sparked by my upbringing. In the early years of the feminist movement women from my church were bused to various conventions to vote down things like equal pay for equal work. I spent afternoons listening to women in my church talk about keeping battered women’s shelters from opening. They were against women receiving priesthood authority, and they were for male leadership in the home.

I didn’t understand why they worked so hard to disempower themselves, their daughters, and other women. But people don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture. It’s simply what you do.  So choice disappears.

The same phenomenon arises in other settings. Saudi women say they don’t want to vote or drive. Many 19th Century American women didn’t want the vote, either. In North Africa women defend the genital mutilations that kill and cripple them.

Burqas limit women’s autonomy and power. Yet some women voluntarily don them, keeping with their culture.

Burqas – or niqabs (face coverings) – prevent wearers from gaining driver’s licenses when they are strictly worn, since identity can’t be confirmed via picture ID. When a city or village lacks public transportation it is hard to get around without a car. That makes it tough to get a job.

Even with transportation it’s not easy finding work in a facemask. The mask seems dehumanizing and eerie, as does the subjugation it represents.

But ethnocentrism is thought weightier than sexism. “Isms” that affect men seem more important than those that affect women – even when women are harmed, as when a female German judge denied a Muslim woman’s appeal for divorce, claiming that being beaten was part of her culture. 

Did women have equal power to create the cultures that harm them?

Some women do resist, but feel pressured, as one of my Muslim students told me when we discussed the matter of covering.

But bans may not be the best way to deal with burqas or niqabs. Bans can backfire since people cling more tightly to their groups when they feel persecuted. As restrictions go into effect more women might actually embrace the burqas that limit them.

A better way may lie in creating conversation so that different cultures can consider a variety of perspectives. I am sure that Westerners and Muslims can learn from each other and our different ways of seeing.

Georgia Platts

Also see: Early Islam’s Feminist Air    Did Women Create Burqa Culture?   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 16, 2010, in feminism, gender, men, race/ethnicity, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Being someone who grew up and still lives in a Muslim household, when the news of the ban first came out it was pure outrage throughout my family and Muslim community. The whole “stops terrorism” does not justify banning something that is not only part of ones culture but someone’s religion. Muslim women choose to wear a burqa to stay pure. They would prefer to only be seen by their husbands or family members and remain pure and innocent to the public. That’s a choice they have a right to make and it outweighs any of society’s “reasons” as to why they it should be banned. I have yet to met someone who wears a burqa and is being forced to, including my mother.

    • I’ve had a number of Muslim students who have come and talked to me after class, or spoken up in class, or written papers about their experience with this.

      Some of them chose to wear hijab. Some were pressured into it. And others were socialized into it.

      Here’s something that one of my students wrote about — and I posted — on that first point, choosing: On Burqas and Being Subordinate

      I realize that it’s difficult to understand how socialization works — that 3rd option — which is what I was talking about in this post. When people are socialized, their society ends up in their own heads, And they go with the flow. (Or in fact, if outsiders dislike what you were doing, It can make a person even more determined to do it.)

      Many peoples are socialized to do things that they wouldn’t choose to do on their own. Karl Marx referred to it as “False consciousness.” You also see it when a man can’t imagine taking a job he might enjoy that is associated with women’s work. Or, among the Hindus “untouchables” accept the stigma society places on them because they believe they deserve it. Or, an American “Uncle Tom” is a black person who works in the interests of whites. If it is due to socialization: He or she does it without realizing it — White society is in his or her head and feels natural and normal.

      I grew up in a society in which many women I knew and grew up with did things that limited them in some way. And I never understood it until I started studying how socialization works.

      Maybe these posts will help to understand how the process works:

      Why Do Women Fight Their Own Interests?
      Feminist Click Moment: You’re Against Battered Women’s Shelters?!
      Are Women Brainwashed Into Polygamy?

  2. This is a tricky one, Here is a true honest male perspective on the issue :

    If you look at Jews say in a city like new york obviously you can’t tell most of them apart from the rest of the white society and the reason is simple, Judaism is a faith and not a race. However there is a large population of Jews that you can easily notify – the Hasidic Jews.

    And how do you notice them ? well that’s an easy one : by their appearance and I don’t mean their genes (in terms of race they come at all sizes all colors and all shapes). When I talk about their appearance I mean the mix of dark suits with those big fedora hats – this look is the Jewish look people had known for quite some time, but any educated person might ask himself – wait this isn’t biblical wears in fact this is a very European style of clothing. Indeed it is !! they had wore it to separate them from the rest keeping their culture and community “safe” from outside influences. They gave those clothes almost ritual like meaning but with it comes strength and power – the power of the community its not only a repressing power but also a power that can boost the individual and strengthen him.

    Those people that dress like that will have easier time to find meals in a charity places that run by jews for jews and so on …

    Same with the Burqa, well almost but not exactly. While traditional wear like the Hijab is still welcome even in the France the Burqa has a completely different situation. The reasons the Government gave for the ban are not the most regarded to women’s rights and security. But if you ask the people who were behind the idea – the men who were behind it – they had something else in mind as well. The government does force a specific codes of dress – no nudity and no partial nudity that might offend others – with this law almost everyone accepts and even those they don’t are mostly reject the definition of partial nudity and don’t ask for full nudity. The Burqa acts the other extreme not only for unsocializing person wearing it which is the claim of feminists but also the people around this person, unlike most unique clothing this clothing is specified for a specific gender, Females, and this as your Iranian student taught you causes side effects on the other side which harms it.

    As an Egalitarian the Burqa represents the step back, it harms males by creating a fetish which drives them to objectify women and leads eventually to more sexual assaults and demeaning behavior vs women. Muslims in France are shouting that the west can’t judge them for their culture but at the same time they are feeling quite relaxed about judging female westerners and their wear … treating them as sluts or women with no dignity.

    The Burqa should be banned even if it might have some women from Islam to go extreme because eventually France is not a religious country and nor it should be and the majority of it citizens shouldn’t be subjected to an ideal that preserve repression of both males and females.

      • I just encountered your blog a few days ago. Since then I had tried to catch up on various posts you did including this one, I have been dealing with this subjects for quite some time and I did find your point of view very intriguing and fresh in some aspects.

        I actually have been looking for quite sometime to find a person with your rather wide interest in the subject of social sexuality. I would love to chat with you, if possible schedule a time I have build up a large puzzle over the last view years which still got quite a lot of pieces missing – I believe if I could exchange some thoughts with you we might find better ways to refine our research.

        The nature of my thoughts is obviously very reveling that why I suggest to chat.
        Thank you for your quick response,

      • I’m glad you’ve discovered my blog and I’m flattered that you would like to chat. But I don’t want to pick favorites and I can’t chat with everyone in person, so I would be happy to chat on my blog.

  3. I agree, it is complicated. There has been a debate as to whether “western ideals” are being pushed upon Muslim women when asking them to stop wearing the burqa or niqab. What if some Muslim women prefer to wear the coverings? Does anyone question the garb or practices of Orthodox women of other faiths? I think the largest driving force behind these bans is the belief that “the West” and Islam are at war. Setting up the bans makes a statement that Islam is the enemy, even to its own women. More importantly, these bans provide a way to control how Muslim women are allowed to behave–women being controlled once again.
    And I believe that Grace’s comment is spot on. The French government may be setting up the ban because of immigration politics versus any real concern over the treatment of Muslim women.

    • No doubt many women WANT to wear a burqa. But I also grew up with a lot of women in my church who WANTED to stop equality for women.

      I don’t know how much the burqa is a bad thing in and of itself. Except that women who wear it can’t feel the sun or the wind. It’s restricting. And burqa cultures are generally aimed at limiting women, whether in clothing or whether they can work, drive or vote, and being blamed for sexual assault (a bit of ankle was shown, and no man can resist that).

      My concern is when women learn to want things that limit them.

  4. hannah crockett

    I found this very interesting, and I agree, it is complicated.
    First of all, I find very unfortunate the ideal of internalization (in this particular case). It’s a shame when there is such an obviously wrong and hurtful standard that is being perpetuated throughout a society. When something like the idea to cover women up from head to toe is known throughout society as something widely accepted and revered, people, even the women, begin to accept it as okay. These women are blinded by society and their values, so bad that they can’t even see that the very things that they are accepting are the same things that are limiting and oppressing them. Society has crippled minorities (and in particular cultures a female is a minority) to think that the way the world views them is correct. In many cases they aren’t correct. It isn’t correct to FORCE a woman to cover her body, in order to make men feel more comfortable. It isn’t correct to prohibit women from doing all of the same things that men do. However, in many cultures these ideals are so deeply embedded that women begin to abide, both in fear of being outcasted, and in fear of even worse.
    Is it right, though, to ban the burqua? That is hard to say. While I would like to jump up and say yes right away, I stop myself, for I know that, while I personally see it as wrong, I can not speak for the women of that culture. I would love to see all women unprohibited and free, but I don’t think it’s neccessarily right for us to decide things for these women anymore. While I find it curious, I’m sure there are Muslim women who enjoy the burqua. Because of this, if we were to ban the burqua, we would be doing just what we’re doing when we force them to wear one: treating a woman as a being who is incapable of making her own choices.

  5. While the degree to which women are oppressed in many cultures saddens me greatly, I am more bothered by the idea of legislating women’s clothing choices. I grew up in an era where cultural norms dictated that women wore only dresses in certain public and business settings. There were those who actually proposed rules and even laws to prevent women from wearing trousers in certain venues. Telling women what to wear seems no less paternalistic to me when it is the state doing the telling rather than one’s culture. I do understand and support the need for exposing the face at least at times for ID in the interest of state security.

  6. What I can’t get over is how the French appear to be escaping the media frenzy and all the fringe element rants, demonstrations and demonizing that would have SURELY been directed towards the U.S. if they had made such a decision. ESPECIALLY in today’s political climate. Where are all those people who were shouting about freedom of religion, biogtry and hatred??? (pertaining to the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan, and the wack job that wanted to burn the Quran)


    But the larger issue may be about WHY the French banned the burqa, and I think there is an issue much larger than the feminist one at stake.

    To quote one source, ” France’s government has insisted that assimilation is the only path for immigrants and minorities, and last year it launched a grand nationwide debate on what it means to be French. The country has had difficulty integrating generations of immigrants and their children, as witnessed by weeks of rioting by youths, many of them minorities, in troubled neighborhoods in 2005.”

    Here, then, seems to be the attempt to completely homogenize a society. “Assimilation is the only path”. THAT’s the scary part to me. “What it means to be French”.

    Who will be deciding this? And what criteria will be used? What will happen to those that don’t fit the criteria? It doesn’t sound very ‘inclusive’ to me…

    Just saying.

  7. You’re right…it is complicated. Do the laws banning burqas limit the freedom of muslim women to choose what they want? Or do they protect soiecty’s interests? Are there culture’s beliefs more important than society’s laws? Indeed, do these laws lead to more terrorism because they give weight to the Islamist view that the West seeks to persecute them.

    I particularly liked your comment. “But people don’t tend to question the taken-for-granted notions of their culture. It’s simply what you do. So choice disappears.”, and to your examples that that principle has arisen so many times in our own past history. And of course, there are always defenders of the status quo who make it very hard for change to occur. It becomes clear that the process of evolving our (local, national, and global) cultures and laws inherently is a long and slow process, filled with many perceptions, vested interests, and past histories.

    • I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this:

      Do the laws banning burqas limit the freedom of Muslim women to choose what they want? Or do they protect soiecty’s interests? Are there culture’s beliefs more important than society’s laws? Indeed, do these laws lead to more terrorism because they give weight to the Islamist view that the West seeks to persecute them.

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