This was written as part of a response to Martha Nussbaum’s opinion piece found here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/veiled-threats
I’d like to share my personal view on the burqa (face mask) controversy. My views are not based on the black-and-white, binary, false dichotomy presented too often by both supporters of the face-mask ban and those who wish to defend the garb.
Put simply: I support *regulation* of the Burqa/Niqab (the FACE covering part), not a “ban” on it.
Why? The key here is to understand the difference between regulating and banning something. Can we walk around naked in society? Besides in nudist beaches, at private gatherings, and a few special events in a few places, like some pride parades, is there legal and social regulation in place to stop people from walking around buck naked? Is that an encroachment of people’s right to be buck naked? Why is that regulation okay? If a cult started walking around buck naked and saying it was their religious duty, would we have to argue on their behalf too?
People who defend the right to wear a face-mask sometimes say that it is wrong to assume that anyone is ever speaking from an “objective” stance, and they are quite right. Yes, we are all socially programmed by many things in the worlds we live in; we all follow some normalization codes or other, whether we are aware of our own programmed behaviours or not; what we consider “normal” is a combination of what the societies we grew up in tell us is normal, and our own views on what we find natural for each of us. The question is not whether we are all programmed with different ways of thinking about things, but which of those ways of thinking is worthy of widespread support; which of those memes is something that supports the human rights and well-being of the maximum number of people.
Yes, freedom of expression needs to be preserved, however, it is not to be given completely free reign, otherwise we could all walk around naked anywhere in the public sphere. The fact that we can’t, the fact that strangers hanging about on the grounds of schools are looked upon with suspicion, the fact that we are not supposed to swear or smoke around kids, the fact that restaurants deny service to those not wearing shirts or shoes, the fact that your driver’s license and passport photos have to show your face, the fact that banks and airports have cameras to catch the faces of would-be criminals and of witnesses; these and many more social and legal regulations are in place to try to create a somewhat level playing field, at least in public spaces, where one’s identity is always at stake, should one try to break the law or cause trouble. Why should niqabis (and those who would don the niqab to commit crimes, or hurt people in public spaces) be exempt from these and other regulations? Because “God” told them to? The burqa / face mask is not even Islamic! Where does the Quran say a woman’s face must be kept hidden? It’s actually a sin, bida’h, if you consider the Islamic rule to not say that God said something he didn’t (according to Islam’s own rules!).
As far as women’s choices, sure some women want to wear the burqa, but can we deduce – given the nature of violent patriarchy – how many more are forced or compelled into wearing it? Of course there are no hard and fast statistics, like there usually aren’t when there is socio-culturally accepted oppression going on. What about those women’s rights? Is it “white guilt”, or Cultural Relativism as it’s known in Anthropological circles, that makes some otherwise lucid feminists lose sight of the fact that there are severe human rights abuses happening within Muslim cultures too, just like within all human social groups? Why do some feminists and liberals refuse to accept that there exist widely differing views within Muslims, and that certain segments of Muslims (like segments of virtually any other peoples on Earth) really do oppress women, gays, apostates, dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, etc.; and that being liberal, progressive or left-wing in the west does not have to mean one has to align one’s self with right-wing, conservative, traditionalist, anti-liberals among Muslims, just to prove a point to the right-wingers of the west?
Proving a point should not be more important than defending the human rights of individuals, no matter what culture they happen to be from. If liberal feminists ignore them, who among progressives will speak up about those women oppressed by patriarchy in “other” cultures, while we are busy defending the patriarchal structures that exist inside those countries and cultures? Why has it been left up to right-wing think tanks to challenge the most right-wing branches of Islam? Why is it fine and dandy if a Muslim woman is oppressed by Muslims, but not okay if she is told she has to show her face to confirm her identity, to communicate etc.?
Women do bad things and wrong things too. I’m the type of feminist who believes in COMPLETE equality of both potential good and potential harm by both men and women. Women perpetuate male and female genital mutilation, as much or more than men. Women put their daughters into beauty contests, women treat their sons and daughters unequally too. Women participate in anti-choice rallies, women are as liable as men to be homophobes, including many members of the Westboro Church and the governer of Hawaii, and Sarah Palin and perhaps millions of other women who remain silently homophobic, and vote in homophobic laws with the right to vote their grandmothers fought tooth and nail for them to have. Women betray women’s rights, just look up Phyllis Schlafly. Just because a woman is doing something or saying something, does not automatically make it correct, right, good, humane or the best, most reasonable idea to listen to. Women can be very wrong about things too. Ann Coulter, anyone? Michelle Malkin? Especially when the women have internalized patriarchal values – when they believe in the deepest recesses of their socialized brains that they have no existence or value in the world unless men are owning them or using them or heckling them or treating them like their personal stash of pearls.
I definitely think ALL gender role socializations are bullshit and can and should be challenged and confronted and mocked and changed as needed. That includes the gender role that says that women are pearls and candy and rosebuds and princesses; fragile, helpless damsels to be saved and whisked away by a Prince Charming or Prince Alladin. And that includes the gender role that says that men have to be stoic and macho, and never show any emotion that isn’t anger or jealousy. That also includes the gender role that people are, by default, exclusively heterosexual, and any variation is thus a deviation.
But the Burqa/Niqab does not liberate anyone from anything. It only deflects the issues of gender role socializations, patriarchy and women’s self-worth. What are the similarities between a burqa-clad woman walking down the street like a Dementor from Harry Potter movies, and an anorexic, breast-implanted, botox-filled woman walking down the street in a halter top and short shorts? They have both accepted and internalized the notion that they exist to satisfy men. The niqabi woman (who is doing it out of “choice”) wants to be owned by particular men, her father, husband, brother – she wants to be private property. The halter-top woman wants to be desired, admired, and have her existence affirmed by the maximum number of men – she wants to be public property. But both only see themselves and all other women as men’s property. How is it liberating to be on one extreme or the other?
I wonder what it would be like for more women to learn their own self-worth and not define or dress themselves purely for the benefit of men. What irks me about those feminists and otherwise liberal westerners who would disregard the ethical implications of too much cultural relativism, and who look the other way at any mention of Muslim-on-Muslim oppression, besides the fact that they are subscribing to the “noble savage” cliché of the exoticized “other”, is that they are also still playing by the same rules that patriarchy has outlined for millenia: “Women, you were created for men. Your only choices are: either be a virgin or a whore, your womb is the only thing that matters. The rest of you, your brain, your heart, your talents, your ambitions, your words, your voice, don’t matter, unless some man somewhere finds you worthy of being his property.”
There’s a middle ground in this oh-so-controversial debate, that’s a lot more reasonable and not based on demagoguery, but based on an honest examination of the deepest assumptions of people on both sides. This is all why I support regulation and not a ban, on the face masks in public spaces. At home, at private get-togethers, at designated events, I couldn’t give a damn how many tents a woman, or a man, wears or doesn’t wear. I don’t care if it’s religious belief causing a person to want to mask their identity in a public space, or simply a political fuck-you to the people he or she resents due to an ingrained sense of supremacism to the rest of society. If you’re going to be in a public space, you have to abide by certain regulations – you can’t go around flashing your genitals at strangers, and you can’t hide your basic identification from everyone around you either. Religious piety is no excuse to bypass the social regulations in a secular society.
I don’t support a ban because (a) bans polarize debates and create strong resistance movements that often make the debate more heated and dialogue and compromise less possible, (b) bans can’t be easily enforced without a society turning into a police state, © the women who are being forced to wear a face-mask may genuinely be cut-off from the rest of society if their male owners just outright lock them up rather than let them go outside showing their faces. For these reasons I can not and will not support a full out ban, though if it’s regulation in public spaces we’re talking about, and it’s presented with an eye towards, and education about, the gender role socializations that we all are subject to, no matter what we wear or don’t wear, then I could support such regulation.
Ultimately, what’s needed is a hearty discussion of what women’s and men’s roles are, have been and could be, within both Muslim and non-Muslim cultures.
Also, if our governments could just y’know stop fuckin’ with the lives of people in other countries, while telling them it’s for their own benefit, maybe there’d be less of a backlash against the freedoms and education many of us value. Something to think about.