Father Knows Best in Banning the Burqa?

Belgium stands to become the first nation to ban the wearing of the burqa and niqab — a head-to-toe covering and a facial scarf, respectively –at the end of this month.  From NPR:

[Liberal Party leader Daniel Bacquelaine] argues that banning the burqa… will benefit the women themselves, even though they’d be subject to a fine or jail time for covering their faces. Under discussion are penalties of up to seven days in jail or fines of up to 25 euros.

“To forbid the veil as a covering is to give [Muslim women] more freedom. I’m proud Belgium is the first country to do that,” Bacquelaine says.

In Canada, the Province of Quebec is proposing something similar.

It’s largely recognized that the burqa and niqab are often used to oppress and marginalize women, to isolate them from the world around them.  It’s potentially an act of control and ownership of a person which can erase them as individuals and disconnect them from the rest of society.  I get that, and don’t defend this level of control over women when it’s imposed(though I do recommend a little more time listening and a little less pontificating).  However, I can’t help but be devil’s advocate here.  I’m not convinced that passing this law is the best thing for women.

You know how introducing a new species always changes the entire ecosystem in ways that we never expected?  Something similar happens in cultures.  Every tradition is part of a larger collective framework.  What do you think is going to happen in families where women aren’t allowed to wear the face veil and robe in public?

They probably won’t be allowed to go out into public.  The traditions rooted in beliefs about modesty and possession aren’t going to change because someone wrote an ordinance about acceptable clothing.

We’re ignoring many aspects of this discussion, I know, partly because I don’t have the time and need to be brief.  I’m overlooking the security argument, for example, because it’s always seemed like a bad excuse — when we start considering the banning of worn toques and balaclavas in public places during Canadian winters along with it, then I’ll start seeing that argument as sincere.

But in general, I’m not impressed with the idea of protecting women by punishing the women who were oppressed in the first place with jail or fines, or by threatening to isolate them even more. Women who’ve lived this tradition all their lives are probably not going to feel all that liberated when they experience what to them might be the equivalent of being stripped, threatened, humiliated and condemned in a holding cell.  It takes real hubris to believe that Western society always knows best and can solve it by casually throwing a law at people without giving it any serious thought or effort.

When women who actually experienced this Islamic tradition look at the situation, discuss what is likely to happen and then advocate for the banning of the burqa and niqab, then I’ll support the idea. Instead, what I see is mostly this:

The most vehement reactions against face-veiling have come from women, who have projected their own fears, assumptions, and judgments onto attire worn by a minority within a minority. They think of the bad old days when the Catholic Church controlled women’s lives in Quebec. They pity the present-day lives of women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. “We will save you from your own foolishness and your own delusional beliefs, for your own good,” they seem to say. “We will bring you to liberation by force. You Muslim women really aren’t independent until you embrace our lifestyle choices.”

In the meantime, they would deny us access to language lessons, hospitals, courts, schools, and public transportation—all services that help immigrants assimilate.  But at the same time, they condemn the Saudi religious police for hounding women who don’t dress according to that government’s dictates.

And this:

Although touted as a step toward gender equality, Bill 94 [in Quebec], if approved, will perpetuate gender inequality by legislating control over women’s bodies and sanctioning discrimination against Muslim women who wear the niqab. Instead of singling out a minuscule percentage of the population, government resources would be better spent implementing poverty reduction and education programs to address real gender inequality in meaningful ways. Barring any woman from social services, employment, health, and education, as well as creating a climate of shame and fear around her is not an effective means to her empowerment. If Premier Charest’s government is truly committed to gender equality it should foster a safe and inclusive society that respects a woman’s right to make decisions for herself. Standing up for women’s rights is admirable. “Rescuing” women is paternalistic and insulting. Further marginalizing Muslim women who wear niqab and denying them access to social services, economic opportunities and civic participation is unacceptable.

Until there is a change in the insight offered by women affected by or close to this tradition, all I see is a bunch of white people presuming to know what is best for a group of non-white people and imposing our knee-jerk solution without any due thought to the consequences.  Yet we should all know how that turns out.

(Offered to sexgenderbody)

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  1. Complete agreement here. I don’t know WHAT they’re thinking, but the solution to oppression is not more oppression.

    Plus, there’s likely women who willingly wear the Burqa; why are they punishing them?

  2. i kind of thought wearing a burqua in public would be a good idea. the next time i come to calgary i am serious about purchasing one. its not that i want to be hidden from public view but to beable to blend in better withou it exposing my male features being a transgendered gurl. kind of like the catholic nuns habits of years ago. but maybe i am wrong on that account too. i might be just hiding what i really am. i agree with you that no law should be past to make muslim women be forced to do something their religion and heritage tells them not to do but i also am against the idea that muslim men force their woman to were the burquas in public. it should be the womans choice to dress as she wishes without reprecussions from government bodies or muslim men. i still might buy a burqua though, we will just have to see. geegee

    • dentedbluemercedes
    • April 26th, 2010

    Um, I don’t recommend the burqa as a means of blending. As a means of understanding the kinds of discrimination another group of people faces, it might be useful. But for “passing,” probably not.

    Besides, those moments when we don’t blend in, I still think it’s fair that people should be challenged with the knowledge that trans people exist, and challenge some of the notions they have. As difficult as that might be, sometimes.

    • Lisa A.
    • April 26th, 2010

    Hi, first comment here. Anyway, maybe I’m just stating the obvious, but I can’t help thinking these laws have less to do with “liberating” women than anti-Muslim sentiment. They would discourage Muslims from emigrating to these countries and may, in some cases, cause current citizens to move to other countries which are less hostile to their religion.

      • dentedbluemercedes
      • April 27th, 2010

      It’s probably the intent for some – that wouldn’t surprise me, but absolutely, that will be part of a long-term result.

      More than that, I think it’s reflective of an arrogance that views West-centric tradition as the normative narrative, and everyone else is supposed to “get with the program.” Which is why a law like this can win over moderates. They might not want to drive diverse peoples away, but there’s an expectation to assimilate.

      That’s one of the stunning differences I’ve noticed between Canada and the US *in intent,* in that the US touts the “melting pot” idea, which is a bit more conformist, and Canada is quicker to promote multiculturalism — although in everyday practice, they’re really not that much different, because of that westernormative thing.

    • Christine
    • May 1st, 2010

    The part about not being able to see the ramifications of how this will change the culture is pretty significant.

    In winnipeg we have a huge car theft problem. The gov’t insurance company decided that they would make immobilisers mandatory, even going so far as to pay for the installs themselves. Nice. It hasn’t affected the theft rate very much but has introduced a new phenomena to our city. Car jackings. In making it harder to steal cars, the thieves were forced to come up with a better method…and car jacking is way easier for them.

    So no one can predict how forcing women to remove their headdress will change the way that culture works. Perhaps it will end up enslaving women in other ways. I personally abhor the idea of them being worn, but it is up to the people to decide to not wear them. Not the government. Education and encouragement, maybe even support, but definitely not legislation banning them. And never never never fines or jail time. Get real.

    ………Christy

  3. I’m really torn about this one. I think you have made good arguments against there being any laws against certain forms of dress. I think you might well be right that women who would go out wearing some sort of face covering would, if prohibited from wearing such garments, stay home or be kept home. That can’t be good.

    I do wonder, however, why people with certain cultures want to move to Canada. I have some sympathy for the Dutch approach: this is what our culture is like, and if you don’t like it, perhaps this is not the place for you. That is less about forms of dress than about acceptance of things like equal marriage, and it would be aimed more widely.

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