And are western fashion dictates a sign of empowerment?
Some people are surprised, when they ask my view on women and the burqa, to hear me reply: “I don’t know”.
I am not a Muslim woman. I am speaking as a white privileged woman about something I really know little about, from a cultural background that is in many ways very different.
I do wish that no woman should have to wear this clothing. The version with the mesh eye covers is especially troubling to me. I see this full cover as saying that a woman’s body needs to be covered because it is dangerous in some way and can provoke sexual thoughts or acts in men. It looks uncomfortable and restrictive to wear. And I am disturbed that in some parts of the world women can be upbraided, arrested, or even killed for not covering up, or for inadvertently exposing parts of their bodies. (I’m also disturbed that in Australia, women wearing this dress have been spat on and called terrorists).
I appreciate the arguments of liberation and respect that covering is said to promote. But from my perspective a woman should be able to expect respect and honour in whatever clothing she wears.
And when I hear the arguments about women feeling safer wearing it, I think – shouldn’t we try to make the world a safe place rather than bundle up women out of the public part of that world?
I oppose different kinds of condemnatory language used against women from all sides – whether because they are not sexy, beautiful, perfect or fashionable enough or whether they are seen as not sexless enough, covered enough or drab enough. Too often, remarks about women’s dress are used to denigrate them and put them down.
I am also concerned that banning the burqa in liberal western democracies would mean that women who now feel it is an obligation or sign of religious devotion to wear it, will have less freedom as a result. They won’t be able to venture out, but will be more trapped than ever. How will they be exposed to public life and witness the freedom of other women?
I wonder how much of the debate is really about politics and the highly charged issues of immigration rather than about real freedom for women. And it is women’s freedom that should be our focus here.
While there is so much attention on the tiny number of women who wear the burqa in Western countries, there seems to be much less concern with the symbols of objectification of Western women, and how our culture influences us to dress in certain ways. Is wearing very little a sign of real freedom? Is getting our gear off always a sign of empowerment? And I wonder not so much why women want to cover, as why we want to uncover them.
I spoke about the issue and the divided views within feminism recently on the Channel 7 Morning Show.
Here are some articles that have informed my current thinking on this issue. The first, ‘Veiled Threats’ is by Martha Nussbaum, writing last month in the New York Times.
This extract is worth thinking about:
[An] argument, very prominent today, is that the burqa is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women (that they are being seen as mere objects). A Catalonian legislator recently called the burqa a “degrading prison.” The first thing we should say about this argument is that the people who make it typically don’t know much about Islam and would have a hard time saying what symbolizes what in that religion. But the more glaring flaw in the argument is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. And what about the “degrading prison” of plastic surgery? Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants. Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects? Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty. Once again, then, the opponents of the burqa are utterly inconsistent, betraying a fear of the different that is discriminatory and unworthy of a liberal democracy. The way to deal with sexism, in this case as in all, is by persuasion and example, not by removing liberty.
‘Respecting hijab’, an older piece by Helen Pringle and Shakira Hussein and published on Online Opinion, is also worth reflecting on.
I know I’ve gone back and forth in my arguments. It’s a complex issue and I’m still thinking it through. I would prefer not to see this garb on any woman….but I don’t think brute force bans are the way to get there. And I think we need to recognise objectification and the constraining of true freedom for women in its many guises, not just the one.