Belgium recently banned burqas and niqabs, and France is considering passing a similar law. One of the arguments for these bans is that the muslim religious clothing which requires the women covering up is inherently oppressing and therefore a ban of it would be a step in right direction for gender equality and freedom of choice.
But would it, though?
The dangers with banning a certain type of clothing, or anything, is that it restricts the freedom of choice for people. Regardless of whether or not you want to wear a burqa or niqab, you are under law prohibitied from doing so. There is an exchange from potentially robbing these women from the choice of how to dress to absolutely robbing them of it.
I do not doubt that some cultures force women to cover up as a means of controlling their sexuality, or as it was said in one of the academic articles I read for my human rights course, for the sake of the men, the argument being that women who do not cover up will entice the men with their sexuality to the point that they cannot conrol themselves. Surely, there are men who force their wives to wear a burqa or a niqab in the same ways that there are Christian, or western men, who strongly dislike their wives speaking to other men, or showing off too much skin. But this ban is not about the men, it is about the women.
There is also a danger in portraying these women as victims. While they are to a certain extent victims of their culture and life in general, as are we all, by saying that they need rescue in the form of a state ban on a certain type of clothing we are taking away their agency, i.e. we are taking away the belief that these women somehow have the capability to choose. We are making them into the powerless, pitiful women that we are so desperately trying to disconnect them from. By trying to take away the gender stereotype we are effectively reinforcing it, just altering it slightly. We are saying that these women cannot handle themselves, they can never make a choice because their men are making it for them and therefore we have to take control over the situation and make the choice for them. Find something slightly contradictory in that?
As anyone who has read my blog before would know, I am all for women’s liberation, empowerment, freedom of choice, you name it. However, it is not only about the result, it is about the road to get there as well. We need to choose our methods carefully lest we shall alienate a large proportion of the people from the discourse, which will in all likelihood happen with this. How do the Belgian and French governments propose that we change the image of women in Islam if we end up banning their religious symbols that play a large importance for them? (I would say that the Belgian government should not say much as it officially dissolved this week.) I am not saying that it is right that women should have to cover up in order to “protect” themselves from men, or to protect the men from them, depending on how one chooses to see it. I am saying that this form of an external attempt to change a culture is more likely to be seen as insulting than helpful and that it will not further the advancement of women’s rights in the countries that need it so. It shouts of European arrogance.
Women’s liberation is a tough fight, one which will not come overnight. It is important to continuously repeat the message over and over again that women are not less worth than men, both through legislation and through social reform. The key to this is, though, that one cannot come without the other. If you pass a legislation that is not agreed with, society can turn against it. The right legislation has to come with the right reform in social thinking. Legislation without breaking of patriarchal norms amounts to nothing. It is hollow words and nothing more. And to try to change social norms and old patterns of thinking, we cannot arrogantly pass a piece of legislation like this sending out a message that we know better. If we truly want to change these women’s situation, it has to be through enabling discussion and change, not through bans.
Also, I do recognise there are other reasons for the ban, such as security and identification being two very important reasons, but this is about the feminist argument, and the other two are completely different discussions although nontheless important ones.