The Burqa. A loosely fitting style of clothing used in some Islamic cultures to protect women from the prying eyes of unsavoury men, which, in some traditions and practices incorporates a full face veil. Or a prison, restricting a woman’s ability to dress as they wish and enjoy the same freedoms as men. A lot depends on perception.
In France, a bill banning them in public places has been passed in the national assembly. If it is passed by the senate in September and becomes law, anyone who wears one in public will be forced to pay a fine and attend French citizenship classes, and men who are caught forcing their wives to wear it will face a possible prison sentence. This has sent shockwaves through Europe, with Belgium and Spain voting soon on the issue and calls being made for similar legislation in England.
The French legislators cite two reasons for the ban. Number one, security. Number two, the rights of women. The first is easily dismissed. Even if the terror threat from Islamic extremists is as severe as it is painted in the media, the burqa is hardly a tool of terrorism. This is especially true given that the ban only applies to full face veils; loosely fitting clothing is still permitted. So unless there are hordes of terrorists hiding bombs under their chins, the ban has very little security value.
Women’s rights are an altogether more contentious issue. There is little debate about the potential negative implications of a veil for women. Of course it is demeaning, of course it is disempowering, of course it entrenches and expresses a lower position in the social hierarchy. But is making it illegal really the way to go about addressing the problem?
I would imagine that most people can accept that in some situations the bikini also has negative implications for women (I’m talking music videos and NUTS magazine, not swimming and sunbathing, where it is obviously useful). But would we see the government banning bikinis in public as a positive step forwards for women’s right? Or would that just look like the state telling women what they can and can’t wear, an aspect of Sharia law which so intensely annoys Western liberals?
The difference with a burqa, many argue, is that women don’t choose to wear them, they are forced to. In the absence of any real research on this, I’m going to assume the following. Some women choose to wear it, others accept it because of social pressure and a small minority are forced to. To turn the spotlight back on western culture, it would be hard to argue that there isn’t a degree of social pressure in our community. From Barbie dolls, to MTV, to celebrity diets, the collective message is clear: women have to be a certain shape and dress a certain way to be accepted. It may not be a law, or required by religion, but it does have the status of a social imperative. And in France, for a certain group of women who do not observe this imperative, it is about to become illegal not to.
And here is the ultimate irony of the new bill: to prevent Islamic women from being forced to dress in a certain way, the French government have decided to force them to dress in another way. If this really was progress for women’s rights, there should only be one group of people involved in deciding how women should dress. Women.
It is also important to remember that France, like most Western cultures, is not the paragon of gender equality it paints itself. Of the 557 MPs in the French national assembly who voted through the ban, only 18.9% were women (a lower percentage than countries such as Iraq and Pakistan). In addition to this, French women are paid, on average, 15% less than men for equal work, do two thirds of domestic chores and are under-represented in the public service and other positions of authority. It is also a country that sees a reported two million cases of battered women per year. In a population of just over 30 million women, that is one in fifteen.
To fight for women’s rights in France means addressing these issues. Banning the burqa is not going to help women break through the glass ceiling. It’s not going to bring them equal pay or make them less vulnerable to abuse.
The truth, in my view, is that the ban is rooted in an innate, unjustified sense of cultural superiority. This is demonstrated most strongly in the punishment of enforced citizenship classes, which expose an altogether more sinister side to the ban. Suddenly it becomes about enforced integration, squashing out undesirable aspects of an immigrant group’s culture. The law screams of far right hysteria (“if they want to come here they can learn to live like us!”) and is out of step with the secular, liberal image of modern France. Instead, the attitude is colonial and the means draconian.
This is not a victory for the rights of Muslim women, it is a culture clash, fuelled by an underlying current of Islamophobia; a thinly veiled attack on the way they choose to live their lives.