Things I thought

Sunday 25 July 2010

Rather po-faced article about the Burqa

Liberal opinion has been thoroughly divided this week over France’s (as-yet-unratified) decision to ban the public wearing of the Burqa or Niqab (being a culturally insensitive bigot, I have absolutely no idea of the difference between the two).

The weight of controversy and debate surrounding the topic is proof that this is an emotive and highly complex issue, which I’ll attempt to address with my usual sense of gravitas and nuance.

Obviously we shouldn’t ban the Burqa. Don’t be so fucking ridiculous. The very fact we can have the debate is evidence of an odd sort of intolerance that we reserve exclusively for members of the Islamic faith, clothed up in faux-liberal window dressing about the freedom and emancipation of women.

Let’s start with the core assumption – that women who wear the Burqa, or at least the vast majority of them, are being forced to do so by men. Even those who oppose the ban seem to assume this is true. What exactly do we mean by this? Either, we’re implying that domestic violence is routinely employed in the Islamic community in order to enforce quasi-sharia law (in which case, the problem is much more serious than the Burqa and should be verbalized and addressed head on rather than by proxy), or we are stating that Muslim women are being “forced” by societal pressures into conforming to a stereotype that is anti-feminist. Just like they are in Western society.

It seems almost vapidly obvious to point this out, but women in Western society are not free to dress as they please without social and cultural repercussions. To some, the Burqa represents the exclusion of women from civil and public society, a visual representation of different if not necessarily diminished status, but it’s silly to argue that Western norms of dress don’t do exactly the same thing, presenting women primarily as sex objects to be valued according to their looks.

Now, the obvious argument is that Western women choose to dress in the way they do. They like it. They want the attention. Their choice to be highly sexualized in appearance is in no way based on representations within the media that imply a woman’s primary function in society is giving a men erections. No, these are freely made choices, plucked from the blissful autonomy of the cultural vacuum. Equally, women who choose not to dress like this are in no way looked down upon by other women or openly derided by misogynistic men.

Conversely, no woman chooses to wear the Burqa. This is because Muslim women can’t make choices or think for themselves. When we have finally given them the choice – which, oddly, we can only do by taking away their legal right to choose how to dress – they will, as one, emerge into the bright new dawn of cultural emancipation in mini-skirts, push-up bras and stilettos, as nature intended them to be seen.

I’m not trying to imply that I think the female sexual stereotype of far-right Islam is better than the female sexual stereotype of the supposedly liberal West. What I’m saying is that the only reason we have given ourselves license to discuss such a massively illiberal act of censorship is because we are condemning “foreign” misogyny. If you doubt that, ask yourself: can you really imagine us having a similar debate about banning porn?