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French secularism and the burka June 24, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Religion.
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 France is considering a ban on the burka, on the basis that the garment is a symbol of female submissiveness and male dominance, and is thus contrary to the French republican principles of women’s rights. To be honest, I am completely torn as to which side I would take regarding this issue. On the one hand, as a liberal, I am opposed to the idea of the government having a say in the personal choices of its people. But on the other hand, as a woman and as a feminist, I am totally and completely offended by the burka and the rationale behind its use. In this post I will attempt to explain my views, and perhaps come to a rational and consistent position.


Why I am against the ban

As I mentioned earlier, (and perhaps way too many times in this blog), I am a liberal when it comes to the limits of government control. This means that I believe that the government has no right to interfere in the personal choices and actions of its people, as long as those choices and actions cause no harm to others. In the case of the burka, I find it alarming that the government would deny women the right to choose how they wish to dress. To me this is no less atrocious and authoritarian than the governments of those Muslim countries which impose the burka or the veil on its female citizens. I don’t think it is wise for a civilized Western country sink to that level.


Why I am against the burka

Firstly, the notion of “the freedom to choose the burka” is problematic because how much of these women’s decisions are actually made freely without coercion? Is the choice to cover oneself up really free if that choice is being made by someone who has undergone a lifetime of indoctrination with the message that this is the only proper way for a woman to dress? If a man tells his wife, “you’re free to decide whether or not you want to wear the burka, but only immodest women and bad wives choose to expose themselves.” then that is no longer considered a choice; it’s considered social pressure and coercion.


Of course the argument could then be turned around to the western women. Isn’t our society pressuring us to wear makeup and short skirts too? While that may be true, the key difference lies in the degree of coercion. If I choose to go out without makeup, I am merely considered an anomaly amongst women. But if a woman pressured to don the burka chooses not to, she may be shunned by her family and community, often without sufficient education or resources to fall back on. In this way, it is no longer considered a free choice when the “choice” is between the burka and a woman’s means to existence.


Secondly, the reasons behind the burka are flawed and incredibly insulting. The main premise behind the burka is this: women should cover themselves up in order to protect themselves from unwanted advances and sexual assault from men. This premise is insulting to both men to women: it assumes that men are sexually aroused at the mere sight of female flesh, it assumes that men cannot control their sexual urges, and it assumes that female sexuality is a negative thing.


Take for example, the outrageous and offensive comments made by a Muslim cleric in Australia a couple of years ago, blaming women for getting gang raped because of how they dressed:

“The uncovered meat is the problem.”

The sheik then said: “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”

He said women were “weapons” used by “Satan” to control men.

Such is the rationale and mindset behind the coercing of women to cover themselves up, and the punishing and ostracizing of those who choose not to. It involves the abhorrent notion that women and their bodies are mere sex objects and should be covered up to prevent men (weaker beings with no self control or dignity) from temptation.


But as an educated woman, I know that it is not my obligation to dress in order to prevent men from being tempted. Educated, self-respecting men should know that it is their own responsibility to control their urges and actions. Men are not children, or worse, animals, who have no control over their desires and who require women to remove temptation away from them. Assuming that they are is insulting and simply untrue. Furthermore, the burka is also a symbol of the belief that female sexuality is a threat to men, or even society. At best, such a belief is simply unfounded paranoia. At worst, it is a manifestation of male dominance and the need to control women by limiting their freedoms, their intellect, their voice, and their sexuality.


Thirdly, the burka is alienating and dehumanizing. As a garment, it does an effective job of making its wearers both literally and figuratively invisible and indistinguishable to others. Unlike the hijab, which is commonly worn by Muslim women in Singapore and allows us to see their faces and facial expressions, the burka covers the woman’s entire face, only allowing a mesh screen for her to see through. This alienates the woman by preventing her from effectively communicating and engaging with the outside world. It also dehumanizes her because the rest of us can’t help but see her as a mound of cloth, rather than as an actual thinking, feeling human being.


Fourthly, arguing that the burka should be respected because it is justified as a religious practice is not good enough. I am against the burka for the same reason why I am against female genital mutilation, female illiteracy, the practice of sati, honor killings and other misogynistic practices which are often justified using religion. In this way I somewhat agree with the French government’s reasons for bringing up the issue:


“If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles, naturally parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions,” he said.


Religious justification is simply not enough. There should definitely be a limit to religious freedom, and that line should be drawn when religious practices encroach onto human rights, no matter how deeply entrenched such practices are in the religious community. In the case of France, where laïcité is a core principle in their constitution (because of historical problems the State had with the Catholic Church, outward displays of religion in France are now taboo), it is understandable why the French would want to ban something that threatens their hard fought secular values.


Fifth, the burka is not “freeing”. It is sometimes argued that women who expose flesh are not taken seriously by men because they are only valued for their looks, while a burka frees a woman by allowing her to be judged for who she is rather than what she looks like. Other than the fact that this is simply false (People will now judge the woman based on her overt and extreme expression of religion more than her intellect or her personality), the burka is in fact highly impractical and restricts many practical freedoms. For example, a burka clad woman would not (and should not) be allowed into a bank for security reasons, and would be ineligible for many jobs as face-to-face interactions are a prerequisite for engaging interpersonal interactions, professional or otherwise.


A conclusion?


Are the atrocities that are represented and perpetuated by the burka worth compromising my liberal values of non interference in personal choices? For now I don’t think I can resolve my own internal conflict. But ultimately, a burka ban would only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the true evils of misogyny, female oppression and victim-blaming.


Instead, I believe that education is key. Secular, unbiased education (as opposed to religious indoctrination) for women and girls opens up options and opportunities so that these marginalized women have the ability to make informed choices for themselves, so that they can truly be emancipated from such social and religious coercion.



1. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 25 Jun 2009 - June 25, 2009

[…] ed’sperience’s Blog: Sarkozy : ‘Difference Not Welcome in France’ – Laïcité: French secularism and the burka – Hard Hitting in the Lion City: Beautiful […]

2. Solo Bear - June 25, 2009

>>Secondly, the reasons behind the burka are flawed and incredibly insulting. The main premise behind the burka is this: women should cover themselves up in order to protect themselves from unwanted advances and sexual assault from men.

You are assuming that those women who put it on are doing it against their will. What if they do it out of their own free choice? There are many such women who put it on, when there is no societal pressure for them to do so. They can be found in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of Europe as well – where there is no law that says they must put it on.

From a feminist viewpoint, can it not be argued that Sarkozy’s view bordering along oppression of women’s right to choose what they should be allowed to wear?


3. laïcité - June 25, 2009

@solo bear

The problem with saying that this is women’s free choice is that their choices were not made in a vacuum. Those choices were made under the false and insulting premises that I mentioned: the assumtion that men do not have the ability to control themselves when it comes to sex, and that women should bear the responsibility for the actions of men.

For example, if I was told all my life that the only way to prevent myself from getting hit by a car was to stay at home, is it really my “free choice” if I chose never to leave the house? Similarly, if you’re told all your life that the only way to prevent yourself from getting raped is to cover every part of your body, is it really your “free choice” to wear a burka?

This is why I am ambivalent on the ban, but I strongly believe in secular education for these girls and women so that their choices are based on facts, and not based on male enforced paranoia.

4. Lee Chee Wai - June 26, 2009

I think the solution is to have the French government offer protection to women who choose NOT to wear the burka.

I’m an atheist, but like yourself I consider myself a liberal. Banning the burka infringes on the rights of conservative women who choose to wear it (like it or not, there will be hardcore conservative women like that). I would rather see the state declare it’s support for women who choose not to wear it in its legal framework. This will give long-term support for the fight to empower women’s rights in all communities and their fight against any intimidation resulting from cultural prejudices.

5. laïcité - June 26, 2009

@ Chee Wai

I agree, your idea is much less heavy handed and is more compatible with liberalism compared with an outright ban. But even if the ban were implemented, the French government cannot assume that the problem is automatically fixed. There still must be a support system in place for these women who would inevitably continue to face pressure from their communities.

6. Solo Bear - June 26, 2009


>>The problem with saying that this is women’s free choice is that their choices were not made in a vacuum. Those choices were made under the false and insulting premises that I mentioned:

Are you not pre-judging why the women put it on in the first place? You are assuming that the women put it on because they were forced to. How do you know?

The point here is this – Sarkozy is suggesting that the burqa be banned, hence, that takes away the woman’s choice. She has to take it off no matter what.

The issue for feminists to consider is this – what are you going to do about this law, which has been suggested by a man, that a woman has to take it off, hence, taking away the choice of the woman to dress as she pleases?

Can you address that point from a feminist’s view? Saying that the burqa oppresses does NOTHING to address the point that choice of a woman has been taken away from her.

Incidentally, I have also addressed your points in my blog about secularism.

7. laïcité - June 26, 2009

@ solo bear

First of all, I would like to point out that feminists are not a monolithic group. Some feminists would definitely agree with you. And I also somewhat agree that the burka ban may not be a wise option because it removes choices without ensuring that the women are given alternative choices, nor would the ban directly impact the perpetuation of misogyny in such communities.

But my main problem with your position, and I have somewhat adressed this in your own blog post, is that you keep emphasizing the right of women to dress as they please. But by doing this, you are not taking the burka in context.

At least in France, the burka is only worn by a very small minority of muslim women – ie those who belong to the fundamentalist variety of the religion. In fundamentalist Islam, these women were NEVER given the choice of what to wear in the first place. Not only were they taught all those lies that I already mentioned, there was also a lot of societal pressure from their husbands and families.

Now, if we were merely talking about a hypothetical neutral nameless garment, with no cultural or religious affiliations, then yes I agree that women should have the right to wear it. But in the case of the burka, we have to take it in context, and we cannot separate the misogynistic and fundamentalist connotatations from the garment itself. This is the main reason that I believe the French have against it.

I would just like to reiterate that I do not completely advocate the ban either. But I think that you cannot really play the “women’s free choice” card because of the context of the situation. In this case, to me at least, the ban really falls into a grey area, and if anything, could only be considered as the lesser of two evils.

8. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 26 - June 27, 2009

[…] in Burkas – ed’sperience’s Blog: Sarkozy : ‘Difference Not Welcome in France’ – Laïcité: French secularism and the burka – Hard Hitting in the Lion City: Beautiful […]

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