Defending the Burqa
Sep 18, 2011

Defending the Burqa

The Netherlands is the next country in the domino chain, following France and Belgium, in which it is likely they will ban the burqa in all public places. There are many arguments against such a ban that fall very much in line with typical liberal values, and there is a vocal opposition to the bans that argue along these lines.

However, far too often while defending the right to wear the burqa, people end up being highly critical of it at the same time. The idea of the burqa itself is criticized and seen to be some bad thing; it is merely the right to this bad thing that is to be defended. In so doing, one is contributing to the underlying meme - that the burqa is bad - which motivates the ban in the first place.

I have read and heard many descriptions from Muslim women in western society as to why they actually wear the burqa. As one might expect, it is varied, but it includes things like wearing it out of respect and love for Allah and His wishes, out of modesty and humility, and from a desire for one's mind, not one's body, to be presented to society. Far from the caricature of sexual repression forced on them by males, it can be and is proudly worn by intelligent, empowered women who have their own cultural and religious reasons for it. Likewise, it can also be worn for reasons far closer to the caricature, but the emphasis is on variety.

Take this Globe and Mail article as an example. The article raises many reasons why the ban might be bad from mentioning the rights issue, to the utilitarian calculation that only a very few women actually wear the burqa in the Netherlands and so it is hardly due such attention, to the comparison with other culturo-religious expressions. Great, these are all true. But consider the actual description of the burqa given:
Muslim women who choose (or are compelled) to wear such traditional costumes are sending a disturbing message. It is not a fashion statement, it’s an expression of a belief that women and men are not equal, and that neither can be trusted in each other’s view.
The use of "costume" and, in the title no less, "curtain" can hardly be said to be complementary terms. Would not "clothing" have sufficed? More importantly, the "disturbing message" given of why women wear the burqa shares little resemblance to the reasons I gave above and have heard women describe for themselves. It is belittling in the highest degree to recast what one person thinks of as humble deference for Allah as the western-centric narrative of being purely, simply, and without need for qualification, about sexual mistrust and differences.

Ultimately, if we are to care about freedom of expression, freedom of religion, acceptance and tolerance of others, multiculturalism, and similar liberal values we are compelled to defend the rights of Muslim women to dress as they see fit. It should not be written off as something that doesn't matter too much, doesn't affect too many people, and is something that makes us somewhat uncomfortable; it should be seen as a direct assault on these fundamental values and defended as such.

We are hindered, however, by those like the Globe and Mail op-ed which end up contributing to the denigration while they allege to be defending its right to occur. This doesn't mean it needs praise, or we should pretend to want it for ourselves, but it does mean we should take care not to unilaterally attack this cultural practice in the same breath as we aim to defend the right to engage in it. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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8 comments:

Adam said...

"The idea of the burqa itself is criticized and seen to be some bad thing; it is merely the right to this bad thing that is to be defended."

Exactly.

"In so doing, one is contributing to the underlying meme - that the burqa is bad - which motivates the ban in the first place."

So, we shouldn't make careful distinctions like the one above, because some people won't understand it, which may undermine the principle behind the distinction.

If some people *will* understand the distinction in a way that doesn't motivate them to support a ban, is that not sufficient reason for people who *do* understand the distinction to express it?

If the wisdom of expressing a certain meme is limited by its potential to be misunderstood or misapplied, then the same must be true of this post. Do you weigh the potential harm done by ideas that can be supported if your words are twisted, before you post your ideas? Can you walk us through the steps of that procedure?

Or is this crimestop you are proposing only applicable in the case of burqas?

bazie said...

My claim isn't that the standard representation, to which the G&M quote is an example, merely has the potential to be misunderstood and misapplied, it that the quote in and of itself is misrepresenting and misunderstanding the reasons people wear the burqa. Women wear the burqa for reasons quite separate from what was identified. Reasons, incidentally, that are very similar to that of the hijab which most don't have a problem with. It is simply a wrong narrative the repetition of which contributes to the larger negative anti-muslim sentiment that is so strong and latent in our society.

Adam said...

"far too often while defending the right to wear the burqa, people end up being highly critical of it at the same time"

"we should take care not to unilaterally attack this cultural practice in the same breath as we aim to defend the right to engage in it"

Your claim as I understand it is that people shouldn't do the above.

While it is of course fair game for you to criticize someone's criticism of the burqa, the greater issue here is the idea that people who oppose a ban on the burqa shouldn't criticize it.

It is in response to that idea that my comment was directed, not to the G&M quote.

bazie said...

The reason I don't think people should criticize the burqa in the way that the G&M (and so many others much more egregiously) do is because the espoused narratives are simply factually wrong and is itself part of a dangerous and narrow minded narrative. I am not arguing tactics. I am not saying "let us suppress mention of the true evils and badness of the burqa in order to optimally express our opinion about the right to wear it" or anything of this nature.

The base reason why this is an issue, in my view, is because of a potent and latent sense in society against Islam in general and various practices like this in specific. People are uncomfortable about them and each little piece - this is just one of them - contribute to a larger sense of islamophobia. I believe that fundamentally misrepresenting the burqa in this way is a part of that larger problem and I think that those of us on the left who might aim to embrace multiculturalism and be accepting of cultural differences should steer very clear from this.

Now my unconfirmed guess here is that you disagree with me and think the burqa actually genuinely IS deserving of strong condemnation. If that is the case, my disagreement with you is not the tactical one that you should suppress your belief on the burqa because it is tactically not helpful (although that is probably also true), but the more core disagreement about whether it is or is not deserving of the kind of criticism leveled towards it.

Adam said...

"the more core disagreement about whether it is or is not deserving of the kind of criticism leveled towards it."

I agree, this is the real issue. My disagreement is that there is no need to avoid criticizing something, just because you don't want to see it banned.

A potential consequence of a criticism's being made is not related to a its inherent validity, and is not sufficient reason to decide whether or not it should be made.

If a criticism is bad, you shouldn't avoid making it because it may entail bad consequences, you should avoid making it for the reasons it is bad.

bazie said...

"My disagreement is that there is no need to avoid criticizing something, just because you don't want to see it banned"

I may have been unclear, but I have tried to emphasize that I am not at all disagreeing with this. We should avoid criticizing it because the criticism is in and of itself wrong. If someone thinks the kind of criticism I identified is just factually true, then sure there is no need to hide it in the interest of promoting the ban, but I would strongly encourage people to reject the criticism on its own merits,

Anonymous said...

Covering your face has to do with Islam and much as burning witches has to do with Jesus. Covering your face is part of a culture- not a religion. Muslim women around the world don't cover their faces. Why? The Holy Koran doesn't say to. Women who claim they are covering their face because of their religion are on flimsy theological ground. They are also at odds with the modern culture they choose to live in. The are at odds for the same reason a person wearing a ski mask would be: they are not able to be identified. This has nothing to do with feminism, religion or cultural supremacy. It's common sense.

bazie said...

On the cultural point, yes I more or less agree. Sometimes the semantic distinctions between religion and culture become blurred. For example, if strict accordance with religious canon is the test of something being religious, most modern members of any of the major religions are very much at odds with canonical teachings and most religious people are on fairly flimsy theological ground - few would strictly follow the guidelines of leviticus for instance.

On the "not be able to be identified" point, I feel this is somewhat a red herring. In most realistic scenarios, someone wearing a burqa is perfectly able to operate in real life. They can present identifications, tell friends their name, have people learn their voice, dress and habits just like they do anybody else. There are few pragmatic things like perhaps making sure a female police officer or court bailiff is present at very official things but these circumstances are relatively rare. In practice, there is no fundamental problem of identification and indeed millions of burqa-clad women go about their lives having interactions with people not all that different from anybody else. Besides, they don't call the french ban the "ski mask ban" as if that is the problem and then as a side on the burqa is banned as well. No it is the burqa first and the ski mask second - and then Switzerland bans minarets as well because the key thing here isnt some inflated pragmatic issue of identification, it is quite explicitly an attempt to remove that cultural practice in and of itself.

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