“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.
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.
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?