Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Because it's all about boys and their bits, so it doesn't really matter which side you're on

In recent weeks there has developed on Australian political blog Larvatus Prodeo a fairly predictable Thread of Doom about calls from that well-known feminist and progressive champion of women's rights Senator Cory Bernardi to ban the wearing of the burqa in Australia, in a piece in which he argues that of course it's not really about women at all.

As is so often the case with issues around women and Islam, if you're any kind of progressive then you're looking at an interior car crash every time you try to think about burqas. There are four problems and none of them can be solved without exacerbating the other three, to wit:

1) Women (and indeed men) should be legally free to wear whatever they want, and to make that decision for themselves.

2) Cultural difference should be respected and should not be suppressed.

3) Women who have internalised oppressive rules should not be further oppressed by the well-meaning people trying to liberate them.

4) It's important not to join the anti-Islamic howlers for blood in the name of a cause that matters to you, namely the rights and freedoms of women. (Just as it's important not to join the anti-Jewish howlers for blood in the name of another cause that matters to you, namely the non-oppression of Palestinians.)

Most of the commenters on that LP thread are all too aware of this rectangle of tensions, and conclude that they dislike the burqa but they dislike the idea of banning it more. Not surprisingly, all but the most intrepid of women commenters there, of whom there were in the first place relatively few, dropped out of this discussion along the way or never joined it in the first place, and as with an earlier Thread of Doom about breasts, even the most reasonable of male LP regulars have become a little sullen and resistant in the face of arguments put by actual women, including at least one female commenter who herself wears a veil.

Not that there has not been back-channel and IRL muttering among said women. There has.

The idea of the burqa, as of the less absolutist 'loose coat', skirt and/or headscarf, is that the sight of a woman's body and hair inflames men's passions. For some reason, this is supposed to be the woman's responsibility.

Now: how different is this from the talks (standard, nay universal, wisdom for the time and place) I got from my late and much-loved Ma circa 1967 about how boys had terrible trouble controlling their sexual urges and therefore it was my responsibility to make sure no untoward hanky-panky took place? Or the still-all-too-common judgement that if a young woman was wearing that skirt then it was her own fault if she got raped?

Answer: not very.

Close on the heels of this extraordinary bit of urgent police work last week in the Indonesian province of Aceh, supplying all-concealing skirts to 20,000 women to replace their evil man-inflaming trousers on the spot (while the religious police watch, presumably), because of course that's the most urgent thing that needs to be done in Aceh, we have a mass resignation from Al Jazeera in Qatar on the basis of religious insistence that female news anchors should cover up more and present themselves more 'modestly', presumably for the reasons outlined above.

Now: how different is this from the groundswell of discussion a year or two back among Australian commercial television stations that female newsreaders and 'current affairs' presenters should be appointed according to their level of fuckability, because, you know, the ratings stats are, like, people, and people are men, and men like to be titillated?

Answer: not very.


seepi said...


I don't like the idea of mandating what people wear.

but I'd ban the burka.

persiflage said...

I think there IS a difference between forcing women to cover up, and the various other forms of legal discrimination against women and the denial of their rights in countries where the religious leaders are in control, and the age old tendency to blame the women for their appearance instead of requiring men to take responsibility for their own action. There are many families where the man insists on the woman covering up, without applying to similar standards to himself, and I can't see how this is not an infringement of female rights and freedoms.
While I agree there is a conflict between individual freedom and any legal banning on the wearing of a face -covering veil in public, I have come to think such a ban can be justified, and that we should demonstrate that different rules and standards apply here. But I certainly do not think women should be arrested or hassled, not that there should be on the spot fines. There are more intelligent solutions available. I'd be tempted to fine the man, though.
There are legal limitations on individual freedoms in western countries, and courts have held that many, although not all, are justified. Finding the balance is often difficult but should always be attempted, without resorting to abuse on either side.

Red Horse said...

People need to stop telling women what to wear. Any parliament, via legislation, certainly needs to stop (or not start) telling women what to wear.

I also believe a husband should not be able to tell his wife what to wear. But those husbands who do currently insist their wives (and daughters) wear a burqa, against her own preference, won't stop wanting her covered up. They may just prevent her from going out at all.

The key is communication and education, not legislation. The issue is much more complex than a simple burqa on/off argument.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Persiflage -- of course there are differences, but I was just making the point that what the various oppressions have in common is a deeply ingrained cultural belief that women are responsible for men's sexual behaviour, and are to be blamed for it.

Red Horse (and others), I may be wrong but reading around this topic is giving me a distinct impression that quite a lot of the very small number of burqa-wearing women in Australia are doing so by choice, and that some of them are Australian-born women who are converts to Islam.

Casey said...

I was suspicious of the whole conversation. I think there is quite an anxiety about Islam itself and wonder what is going on when you get the Western Patriarchy suddenly concerned about the rights of women. Lost in all of that, as you imply, is the ways in which western patriarchy holds fast to misogyny and sexism, all the while, newly concerned about the burqa. Some of the women on that thread brought that up. But no, all of a sudden the west is the last bastion of freedom for women in these discussions.

And by setting it up in those terms, in politicising the burqa, you also get a radicalised response on those same terms and suddenly you have a bunch of men, and they were and are men at their most vociferous, going each other across the figure of the veiled woman. A figure who is ignored. Or who remains silent no doubt out of disgust.

There is nothing worse for these folks who are fighting for the rights of women to be told the woman actually wants to wear it. Then they just resilence her and say, "she is indoctrinated or bullied or beaten into it". There are a million ways of shutting women up. You just position them as victims for starters.

As Fanon said of France, the coloniser was actually bent on unveiling Algeria itself. So my question is, what is this western 'freedom' discourse bent on unveiling exactly?

There are so many Others to be found in the folds of the burqa but, you know, liberte and all that. Let's remain uncritical about what the terms of the debate are really about. And let's target the voiceless - and if she speaks, let's silence her again Then, in the name of freedom and with altogether another target in mind, let's take away her rights.

Red Horse said...

My reading impressions tally with yours, Kerryn. It seems to me that many women who wear a burqa choose to do so. I was discussing this issue with a teenage girl and used the following example.

Imagine you and I went to live and work in a remote village in a tropical jungle. The women there customarily live day to day with their breasts bare. No-one bats an eyelid and we're fine with it too. Then they start to laugh at and torment us for wearing clothes all the time, including bras and t-shirts. It's hot, we're uncomfortable, we don't look like everyone else. Am I going to stop wearing my bra? Maybe. Am I going to stop wearing a top? No way! My husband has no veto over what I wear, but would he be keen for me to go topless in public? I doubt it. For his daughter to do so? Nope. It's my choice to keep wearing a bra and t-shirt in the heat, so clearly I am contributing to my own opression...aren't I?

Lucy Sussex said...

Read Jennifer Steil's THE WOMAN WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, about editing a newspaper in Yemen. It is frank and eye-opening about living in a society in which women are invisible behind black veils in public. Thus women are fetishized, and controlled.

I offer no solution except the thought that maybe the men should wear it too.

Marvin the Martian said...

I agree, it runs counter to the ethics of a "free" Western-style society to ban certain clothing, but regardless of whether it's oppressive to women, banning the burqa is a good idea. (A.) It's a security issue, because the burqa is used by terrorists to smuggle fugitives and it's used in suicide bombings, most recently in the Taliban attack on the big peace jurga a few days ago, which used at least two burqa-clad bombers. (B.) It's a mark of self-segregation and refusal to assimilate into said free society, which inflames political tensions, as seen in France and other European countries. Essentially, the burqa is equivalent to "gang colors," and it's associated with groups who would like nothing better than to destroy free societies.

If a woman wants to wear a burqa, she can do it at home. To wear it in public is to thumb her nose at the free society she allegedly inhabits. To complain that she's being "oppressed" by the free society which bans it is both paradoxical and amusing, but ultimately irrelevant. If it's that important to her, she should emigrate to a country where she is required to wear it, without all that troublesome freedom stuff. Then she can feel good about it. ;-)

Frances said...

Cat Steven's funded primary school in the UK was shown on telly last year, with little Islamic girls swathed and cloaked in these restricting garments.

If indeed the justification of such as the burqa is that "the sight of a woman's body and hair inflames men's passions," and, if this then necessitates little girls dressing in such, then it surely carries the disgusting suggestion that little girls can also inflame men's passions, and that they need to hide their bodies to protect men against lust for their immature bodies.

I think that we need to look at societies with a longer, richer experience of Islamic migration, and consider their experiences before we rush in either pro or anti banning. We don't always need to learn from cruel experience.

Frances said...

Red Horse:
For what it's worth, I've always found that when others are nude, it's easy to go nude also.
And I'm talking as an ex convent school girl now in her 7th decade of life.
But, I found that truth out 40 years ago.
My guess is that, faced with lots of bare breasts, both you and your husband would find them and yours unremarkable.

Anonymous said...

My friend told me a story of being on the tube in London and putting on her makeup one morning and meeting the eyes of a woman in a burqua opposite her.... she kind of smiled as if to say 'look at us, me painting my face and you hiding yours' and said she could see the woman's eyes smiling at her... I always liked that story.

Chris said...

Both Red Horse and Frances have raised the point that always occurs to me about this debate. If we say that Islamic woman can't cover their faces, how would the proponents of that argument feel if Christian woman were forced to not cover their breasts (or taboo body part of your choice)? Let's not pretend that the West is that liberated when it comes to clothing.

An Indian friend of mine has always maintained that I'm Christian because I was raised in a Christian culture, regardless of my personal beliefs. Perhaps that's a discussion for another time :)

screamish said...

I live in France and the topic is pretty hot at the moment...two women (one in a burka) ended up in a fistfight a couple of weeks ago over it...

In principle I think it should be banned (and how pompous I sound saying that- deciding what's best for these women even if most of them are probably happy to wear it) but I worry about how practical such a ban would be to enforce.

Are we going to have gendarmes stopping women in the street and insisting they uncover their faces? Or is it an on the spot fine...they go home and pay the fine and risk another the next time they go out?

"ordinary" members of the public are already stopping women in the street insulting them...given that in a city like Marseille for example, many Arab women have limited French because many basically stay at home all day in family (as I do, with two small kids) I tend to think that in the short term it'll only increase the isolation and stigmatization of these women.

Perhaps in a long term view, their daughters will grow up with the ban and the full burka will die out.

I do think we need to reflect each one of us on our real motivations- if we object to the burka because we sincerely care about these women, or whether it's just a nasty subconscious anti-arab/Islam reaction.