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The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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The burka is more than a piece of clothing. As much as libertarians prefer to over-simplify the issue into “the government trying to control the attire of its citizens”, it isn’t as simplistic as that. The burka is a symbol of female oppression. The mere fact that the women of some religious sects are compelled to don it is telling enough: Why do women have to wear it and not men too? Why are they compelled to, and not given a choice? What kind of selective “truths” are they brought up to believe – that all men are potential rapists or that an uncovered woman deserves to be raped? Who enforces this rule to wear a burka – mullahs, religious police, the men who own her? What happens if she chooses not to wear it – killed, stoned, loss of her father’s “honor”? What kind of cultures force their women to wear burkas – those that impose a multitude of other rules to control the behavior of women, or those that let women have individual freedoms? Like it or not, the burka is so inextricably linked to all these connotations of sexism, misogyny and oppression that one can’t put it on without suggesting that one is either a victim of, or a proponent of these illiberal values.

Why do symbols matter? Ideally they shouldn’t, but in reality they do. Symbolism is the reason why there is a difference between burning a Koran and burning a dictionary, between stepping onto a national flag and a piece of cloth. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably be arrested if you walk down the streets of Israel in your Hitler halloween costume complete with swastika and fake moustache. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably get lynched if you walked the streets of New York wearing a KKK hood. People attach meanings to books, flags and articles of clothing. The burka symbolizes female oppression because of the reasoning behind it, the lies used to compel women to “choose” it, the threats and punishments used to enforce it, and the meanings of female ownership and honor that come with it.

The burka ban is full of symbolism too: it symbolizes that the French have zero tolerance for female oppression. I highly doubt that the small fine is going to convince conservative radical believers to change their mind about the burka, and arguably, there are many other better ways to encourage women to escape from this form of oppression such as providing an avenue for asylum and education. Instead, the value of the burka ban is in its message: that oppression and its symbols have no place in secular France, and if that one were to be insistent on keeping women enrobed in a shroud of subjugation, one is welcome to do so elsewhere.

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

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