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.
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?
When I ask my students what they think of this, they nod in agreement.
A young Pakistani man was accused of having an affair with a high-status woman. As punishment, a tribal council chose to gang rape his older sister. They kidnapped her, took turns raping her, and then forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers. Her next duty was clear. Sexually impure, she was expected to commit suicide.
But it’s not just Pakistan. Right here in America slavery was once “Southern culture.” So should Northerners complain? States rights, and all.
Or… must we be Nazis to can criticize them?
In each of these instances one group benefitted by hurting a less powerful group. The Pakistani men danced for joy as they gang raped the girl. After these rapes the men weren’t punished, the girls were. Plantation owners exploited slaves, who worked for free. Meanwhile, Nazis acquired the assets of the Jews.
And were women and men, black and white, Jew and Nazi equally powerful in creating these cultures?
Cultural relativism provides a useful perspective, unless someone is being exploited and hurt. I’m not a moral relativist.
Studies show that even very young children have a rudimentary sense of justice. It is based on whether one person is hurting another. Researchers showed babies a figure struggling to climb. One figure tried to help it and another tried to hinder it. Babies as young as six months old preferred the helper over the hinderer. Eight-month-olds preferred those who punished a hinderer over those who were nice to it.
When I take issue with matters like “honor killings” in which girls are murdered by their families to remove the stain of sexual impurity — which stems from being with a male without chaperone, having sex outside of marriage, or being raped, I’m sometimes told: You can’t judge one culture by another. You’re imposing Western values. You’ve simply internalized your own culture.
Or, non-Western patriarchal men warn women that they are rejecting their culture (one that weakens them). And everyone backs down.
Yet these women are harmed in the worst way by the murders. And did women have equal voice in creating a culture that punishes them more than men?
Meanwhile, Islamic feminists voice frustration with Western fears of offending.
I’m in sync with cultural relativism, unless someone is being hurt. But when it comes to communicating that message, it’s best to have a dialogue instead of a lecture. Surely we can learn something from them, too.
What might a burqa wearer and an anorexic have in common? Usually, not much. They can be at opposite poles. A student from Iran once told me that the loose clothing (not burqas) Iranian women wear can lead to weight gain. “You just don’t have to worry about your weight,” she said, “because you’re so covered up.”
But the two can overlap in surprising ways.
Some burqa wearers and some anorexics are responding to the same thing: difficult aspects of a culture that judges women by their appearance, and that sexually objectifies them.
But they are responding in very different ways.
Some anorexics conform to the cultural notion that beauty equals thinness, and embrace the view to extreme. Others are hoping to rid themselves of the curves that make them into sex objects, often because sexual abuse began when the curves appeared.
The burqa wearer may also have a strong reaction to beauty judgments and objectification, but she simply covers what could be judged or ogled. One woman who commented on a post on burqas told me, “I am a typical American woman who lives in Texas. I own a burqa. I have worn it out numerous times, mostly as a way to see how it feels to be out and about and not be seen as a face or body. Because I live in a culture that values youth and beauty and where people don’t hesitate to judge you by your appearance I have often wished that there was a neutralizing agent, like a burqa, that could help dissipate those judgments.”
At the same time, the burqa wearer and the anorexic are both disappearing. The burqa lets the wearer escape into a mesh of unshaped fabric.
And consider these words from a recovered anorexic:*
When I graduated from college crowned with academic honors, professors praised my potential. I wanted only to vanish.
It took me three months of hospitalization and two years of outpatient psychotherapy for me… (to accept) my right and my obligation to take up room with my figure, voice, and spirit.
A few days ago I watched the movie Penelope. Penelope, played by Christina Ricci, is cursed with a snout instead of a nose. Her parents hide her at home. She finally escapes but uses a scarf to cover her snout. The spell is broken when she finally comes to love herself as she is.
We live in an imperfect world. People objectify and make judgments.
But how would we learn and grow and gain inner strength, character and compassion if there were no need to strive to improve the world or to grow in self-acceptance?
*Abra Fortune Chernik. “The Body Politic.” Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbara Findland. 1995