Far from a victory in the fight for women’s rights, France’s ban of the burqa, the head-to-toe covering worn by some Muslim women, is a red herring, a deflection, and a blow for free societies everywhere.
Let me first start by explaining that this article is not a defense of the burqa. To be honest, I have my own issues with the garment that echo what many other feminists have said about it. It is different from the hijab, or headscarf, because rather than expressing modesty, it creates a barrier between a woman and society by hiding her face. So, while the hijab may make sense to women who simply want to dress modestly, the burqa seems to go beyond that. In this context, it seems overkill to wear a burqa – yet many still do. And I am reminded of Voltaire (the famous Enlightenment thinker and ironically a Frenchman) who said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Which leads me to think about the importance of choice in free societies. Women across the globe have sacrificed their lives for the right to have choices. Today, after much sacrifice by the women who came before me, I have the right to vote. Yet I can choose not to vote. It is in choice that freedom is found, not in the shift from one dictate to another. Yet interestingly, France has recently chosen to spurn its Enlightenment roots and succumb to its xenophobic impulses.
In France, women who veil – and I say veil to encompass both women who wear burqa and women who merely wear hijab because in 2004, France banned hijab in public schools and government buildings under the same banner of feminism – have been taken from the presumed custody of their men only to be placed into the custody of their government.
Advocates of the law justify this by arguing that even if a Muslim woman thinks she has chosen to veil, she has not really made this choice. They argue that it is only because of pressure rooted in an oppressive religious doctrine that she has been made to think she wants to wear the veil. Poor, naïve Muslim woman who doesn’t know any better. Come, let the government show you the way by taking you in another direction. And so she is escorted away from one form of forced dress and into another, this time as well, under the guise of liberation.
But therein lays the irony; to ban something is, by definition, to oppress it. Let’s at least be honest about the framework: the consequence of the French veil bans is not to liberate women, but to oppress them in another direction.
In certain cases, oppression may not be such a bad thing. When we ban murder, for instance, we are oppressing people’s violent tendencies, and in so doing we are protecting the lives of others. Proponents of the veil bans may use this logic in their favor. They argue that we must ban the veil to protect women from their subjugation.
But this is indeed a slippery argument. I can argue with much reasoned conviction that the bikini is an oppressive garment. Sure, women of the West, you think you’re making a choice to wear a bikini, but there’s no real choice here. You may even think you are freer because you can wear it. But, in fact, you’re wearing the bikini because society tells you that you have to be sexy, naked and tan in order to be desirable. It can then be argued that when you wear your bikini you are reinforcing man’s sexual objectification of you.
So do we ban bikinis? Surely this is not the direction we want to take our free and liberal societies. Our pursuit of equality in this manner would only make us all equally constricted. Voltaire would tour jeté in his grave.
Those following this issue should consider carefully the implications of dictating to women what they can and cannot wear, period. Such a thing directly defies the pursuit of women’s liberation, and liberty in general. Women everywhere should resist such dictates anywhere, whether they come from Saudi Arabia, Iran, or France. The case for or against the burqa should be made where all of our other ideas are given consideration: in the public sphere, through education, awareness and dialogue.
Governments should not ban expressions of faith unless there is a compelling interest in doing so and there is no other real alternative. This is one of the foundations of a secular, free society. France may have very legitimate concerns about the oppression of its female population. But this begs the question: is banning garments the best solution? Why not invest more in programs and laws that promote gender equality? Rather than banning clothing, how about promoting education among affected communities? After all, statistically there is more a direct correlation between education and gender equality than there is with clothing. How about stricter enforcement of domestic violence laws? Or providing more protections to women who choose to remove their veils if they stand to face backlash, so that the choice of the woman is promoted?
Frankly, France’s recent veil ban completely misses the mark – perhaps because the country has become too consumed by its own intolerance. While all societies should be fostering more equality between men and women, vilifying a faith and banning religious garments – even if interpretive – is not the solution. The barometer of women’s liberation should not be based on the amount of clothing a woman wears, but on the choices and opportunities she has at her disposal.