By Joshua Surtees
On the 13th of July, the day before Bastille Day, the French parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on women wearing the burka in public. 335 politicians voted in favour of the ban, just one against. Justice Minister Michelle Alliot-Marie described the occasion as a victory for democracy and French values.
But surely, the point of democracy is that people have the freedom to choose things like the clothes they wear?
Just in the same way that some women in France choose to wear miniskirts, hotpants, push up bras or bikinis in the street. Just as men and women in France are allowed to walk around naked on nudist beaches. Just as newsagents and broadcasters are allowed to display pornographic images of women on shop shelves or national television channels like Canal +. Should Muslim women not be given the democratic freedom to determine how much or little of their bodies are seen? Just as these two Lebanese women in the photograph below have both made their individual decisions to cover or uncover their bodies – why should a government take it upon itself to ban one of them?
My personal opinion is that people should be allowed to wear what they want to wear and if that causes offence to others then those others should simply look away. I don’t particularly like the bomber jacket and cherry red Doc Martens uniform of the National Front – a symbol of the overt racist tendencies of the wearer. But I would not expect the government to ban it from being worn.
Some people may object to tattoos or piercings and the values they symbolise, some may object to the elongated ‘giraffe necks’ of some Burmese women, some may object to the sartorial choices of some transsexual people; but just because a style of dress reflects a culture that is different to ours, it is surely an extreme measure to officially eradicate it.
On the face of it this ban appears to have three strands. The first is a stance against the oppression of Islamic women. The second is a symbol of France’s secularisation of the state. The third is Islamophobia.
Turning first to the oppression of Islamic women. Do these women photographed in Birmingham look oppressed?
It’s an interesting question. Some of you might say yes, others might see a group of strong Muslim women, defiant and proud of their culture. In what way is what they are wearing any more oppressive than the cultural European norms that dictate women should be seen in high heels and make up?
On a trip to Syria a few years ago I met a young Parisian woman of Algerian heritage. Before leaving the hotel one day she decided it would be easier for her to wear a headscarf. When I asked why she told me it would attract less attention. As a woman in a city like Paris she endures the daily stares, whistles and comments that all men direct towards women. When a woman covers up the parts of her that men find attractive it neutralises the potential for sexist behaviour or unwanted attention. In Islam it is seen as a symbol of modesty. In France it is seen as oppression. Feminists would argue that rather than covering women up, instead men should be held accountable for their behaviour. But how do you stop men from staring and whistling? Perhaps a law against lewd sexist behaviour in public should have been pursued in tandem with the ban on the burka. But that will never happen under French law. There is no feminism within French law, only the pretence of it.
It is often said that women are forced to wear the burka by their husbands and, of course where this is the case – as in Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power – it is entirely unacceptable. But in Europe, large parts of North Africa and the Middle East, the choice to wear the veil is predominantly a woman’s choice based on her religious beliefs and not the result of coercion or domestic patriarchy.
With regard to the second point; the secularisation of the French republic. While all religious symbols are banned in schools and universities, there is currently no legislation banning the Jewish kippah or Sikh turban from public places. Jean-Francois Cope of the UMP party declared that “the burka is not a question of religion, it is the way for some extremists to make an instrumentalisation of the religion in order to make politics.” A deeply flawed and questionable statement which leads us on to point three. Is this simply Islamophobia in action?
There are 5 million Muslims living in France – many of whom opposed the ban. Only 2,000 French women are believed to wear the full burka. It therefore seems a symbolically aggressive gesture directed from the French state towards a minority community. Surely, in a case such as this, where the tangible effects of passing this law will be to remove from France’s streets a physical manifestation of a culture and religion, would it not have been more acceptable to put the vote to a national referendum? Or would that serve only to further polarise communities and exacerbate the tensions that have always existed between France and the peoples of its former colonies?
In Britain, a ban such as this would be seen as inherently racist and unacceptable. British Muslims would see it as an act of marginalisation of religious behaviour. Moreover it would be seen as an oppression of basic human rights. Tory MP Andrew Grice has already been warned that his statements about refusing to meet with constituents dressed in the veil could lead to legal action legal action. Yet, in Spain, Holland and Belgium similar bans to the one in France are already being discussed. This suggests something fundamentally different in the extent to which diverse racial and religious groups are accepted in British society as opposed to elsewhere in Europe.
On my way home on the bus the other day a woman was sat with her two young daughters. All three of them chatting away and laughing in Arabic. Her two young girls were wearing jeans, trainers, t-shirts while their mother was wearing the niqab. At one point during their conversation she turned to me and though I saw only her eyes, I could see she was smiling. I smiled back and she turned back and continued her conversation. Where I live in north London the veil is simply a small part of life just like the colourful flowing dresses of the Roma gypsies, the Lycra leggings of the Polish girls, the head scarves of the Turkish, the furry hats of the Orthodox Jews or the miniskirts of English women. Nobody stares, nobody is scared, nobody appears offended.
Why should they be?
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