COMMENTARY: Oppressing the ‘oppressed’ – What good can come from the banning the burka?

April saw the much debated burka ban come into effect in France. With reported acts of resistance already underway, the ban means that women seen wearing the burka and niqab (full Islamic veils) in public can receive a €150 fine or a French citizenship course.

Considered a violation of human rights and a slur against Muslims by many of its critics, the law in itself makes no explicit reference to the burka or niqab. In fact it’s the absurd elephant in the room as the law, labelled  ‘prohibiting the concealing of the face in public’, oddly makes no direct mention of women or the veil in what can only be assumed as a misguided attempt to appear neutral.

However there is no doubt that the estimated 2000 Muslim women who wear the burka in France have been targeted here. Deemed a ‘sign of subservience’, by French president Sarkozy, the niqab and burka have been growing sources of contention in France for years.  With many other European countries such as Belgium and Holland threatening to jump on the bandwagon, we have to ask ourselves; will this ban actually solve anything?

One of the main arguments for the ban is that the burka is a method of ‘debasement’ that only seeks to oppress women. Sarkozy, that well known trooper for women’s rights, claims that these women are, “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life (and) deprived of identity”  Moreover, with no solid mention in the Qur’an, another recurring argument  for the ban is that there is no religious standing  on which the burka should be worn.

Amidst the backlash, the mainstream media has given us a few examples of strong Muslim women who’ve expressed their outrage against the ban, many considering it a betrayal from a country they call home.  Many have asserted their right to wear the burka, deeming it a personal and spiritual choice. These voices seem to be the part-remedy to the conservative rhetoric that would have us believe that all women wearing the burka are shackled to abusive relationships. However imperative this insight, the voices of the women that are truly oppressed are unlikely to make our newspaper columns and could even remain unaffected by the ban.  Abusive and oppressive relationships are controlling by their very nature. Surely an abusive man forcing his wife to wear a burka would have his wife stay at home rather than abide by a law he has no control over. This would further exacerbate the problem and isolate the woman from the community, rendering the ban irrelevant.

The French feminist group, Ni Putes Ni Soumises, (translated Neither Whores or Submissive) begs to differ on this take and are in full support of the ban, calling the full veil the ‘ultimate paroxysm of machismo’ and launching the campaign, ‘Ni Voiles Ni Burqa’  (Neither Veil or Burka) in the run up to the ban. However these vocal advocates seem to have missed the point. True emancipation cannot come by force.  If the burka is symptomatic of powerlessness and oppression, legally controlling these women and restricting them from wearing the burka will not help either. How can you berate and yet employ the very same methods as the oppressor you criticise?  Is this hypocrisy the antidote?

Regardless of the reasons and rationale behind the ban, what remains is that the women discussed needed to have been a pro-active part of the legal process. Where have they been?  Only one niqab wearing woman was part of the 6 month French parliamentary inquiry which produced a report recommending the ban out of a total of 211 people.  Yet again, we find the male minority exerting their power over a decision they do not have to live by. It’s a time old problem that seems to be stuck on repeat.  There are plenty of intelligent Muslim women with an array of opinions on the burka and niqab, how much more insightful and richer would that report be with their input? Not to mention more credible.

Despite Sarkozy’s apparent concern for these women (nothing to do with upcoming elections, of course), this law shows no real respect for these women. They’re the children in the back of the car while politicians muddle over who should be in the driving seat. France hasn’t really fully broached the issue of the burka and niqab because it hasn’t provided any real way for these women to have access to any power and have their voices heard. Real respect comes from horizontal consultation with opportunity for education (that works both ways) and interactive discussion in a public forum, not a law that these women have had no part of.

So the rhetoric of releasing women from a ‘male prison’ just doesn’t wash- whether it’s the ‘abusive partner’ at home or the 210 male parliamentary committee members, it’s seems that at best these woman have just been transferred  from one prison to another. Some freedom.

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4 comments
  1. As an atheist feminist, I see little value in banning burkas and agree that it’s just piling on more discrimination to a powerless group.

    There is little value in attacking the outward manifestation of inequality while leaving the actual inequality unaddressed – that is to say religion is discriminatory against women.

    Education and economic participation is needed to free all people from religion’s oppression.

  2. Hello Selina,

    I posted your blog on my Facebook site with this introduction. I wanted to get some feedback from you.

    “In search of information on the burqa (history, opinions), I stumbled upon the blog linked below… It criticizes a French policy that attempts to cover up a deeply-rooted problem with a band-aid. Females wear burqas for many reasons. If societal pressure is one, the oppression and backlash will remain at home and among social circles, regardless of the fact that the government says it is illegal to wear them.
    I think it is safe to say that not every female wearing a burqa is oppressed. How much freer are women in the Western world in their skimpy outfits? Our defensiveness at the sight of a woman covered from head to toe just reaffirms our belief that women should have complete control of their bodies and lives. There are abusive and oppressive men throughout the world. It follows that the real solution would be to empower females by helping them provide for themselves, plan families, and avoid abusive relationships when possible (economic independence aids this)… It takes more than a village! You’ve got many factors involved… Cultural and political… “

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