Posted at 11:50 AM Apr 21, 2010
By Andrea Grimes
Because everybody knows the best way to ensure that women are happy and free is for their mostly-male government to them what they can and cannot wear. Per the New York Times:
Mr. Sarkozy wants a bill that goes farther than initial proposals, including a ban on wearing the full veil -- the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered, and the burqa, which is almost unknown in France -- from streets, markets and shops, according to his spokesman, Luc Chatel. The full veil "hurts the dignity of women and is unacceptable in French society," Mr. Chatel quoted Mr. Sarkozy as telling the Cabinet.
Oh, Nicky! Thanks so much for caring about the "dignity of women," and lending your expertise to the practice of ladyness and how ladyness should properly be experienced. I presume Sarkozy's credentials in this area include being married to a model and ... being French?
The knee-jerk reaction to veiling by most Westerners--Western feminists included--is to see the practice of veiling as inherently oppressive. After all, women are forced to cover their bodies in shame, are they not? Well, no, they're not. Go buy Politics Of The Veil. Or, spend 20 minutes reading a PDF copy of Elizabeth Fernea's excellent and nuanced anthropological study, Behind The Veil.
It's not as simple as taking the veil away from Muslim women and telling them to go celebrate their newfound freedom from patriarchy. Many Muslim women choose to veil. In a world where many of women's gendered choices are subject to scrutiny (to shave or not to shave?), singling out veiling as some kind of greater sin is ignorant and probably a little bit racist (what with France not banning, say, other forms of modest dress in Christian circles). Something tells me these high-fashion veils are A-OK by Sarkozy's standards, but those nasty burqas are off limits because they're patriarchal, while women dressing beautifully, wearing makeup and aspiring to be thin to attract men is ... not? At the very least, this is a classic example of "progressive" Westerners telling the "uncivilized" and "ignorant" brown folks what to do, because somehow they know better.
Anyway, if veiling is, in fact, oppressive and misogynistic--and let me reiterate again that I do not believe it is, in all cases--preventing women from wearing it in no way addresses the actual problem of oppression and misogyny. It's a difficult issue because we're talking about religious beliefs instead of purely social ones, which makes approaches like educating people about sexism and demanding equal rights and pay nigh impossible. How do you convince someone their religious beliefs are oppressive to women--and moreover, how do you convince someone to care if they are? If that's what God says, after all, then that's the way it should be. Regardless, banning women from wearing a veil doesn't do anything to improve the lived experience of women who may be oppressed by it. It just makes their personal lives more difficult and probably would inspire them to retreat from the public sphere.