Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Burqa

The burqa is back in the news. Is it because Obama, while in Cairo and again in France, ruffled some republican sensibilities by suggesting that a free society oughtn't to tell individuals what they ought to wear? Be that as it may, the current line of argument turns not on the defense of laïcité but rather on the defense of womanhood. In one petition, the burqa is described as une prison ambulante--a description ratified by 4 Communists, 7 Socialists, and 43 elected officials of the UMP. On France2 last night, the objection to the burqa was expressed as an opposition between compulsion and free choice: this garb is subi, it was asserted. But the reportage then shifted to England, where any number of burqa-wearing women were interviewed, and all described their dress as a conscious choice, personal preference, and form of self-expression.

I'm not sure that any of us is entirely "free" in the way we dress. In Washington yesterday to talk with people in government, I wore a tie; at Harvard I occasionally do, but mostly not; in ordinary life, never. Why do I make these choices? Are they subis or libres? Am I the prisoner of (perhaps imagined) traditions or a free individual responding to perceived situations? Such questions are badly framed, I think, and simply avoid the real issue, which is, Why do societies choose to regulate some types of behavior and not others? Which such regulations are legitimate and which are not?

A number of officials have commented on the burqa in "personal" as opposed to "legal" terms. They find it particularly "troubling," moreso than other types of "traditional" garb. Xavier Darcos is one, and he has said that it would be "a horror" if a woman were to arrive at school wearing a burqa. Well, I'm personally horrified by men who cover their bodies with tattoos, but I would be equally horrified if they were to be banned from school for that reason. Darcos finds the burqa a symbol of oppression even if worn in the streets. Perhaps, but then one might ask if the woman who, rather than cover her body, bares much of it is a victim of the culture's repressive tolerance or a beacon of the liberated Occident. Since we would likely find a range of answers to that question, we tend not to legislate the issue. If we listened carefully, I suspect we would also find a range of answers on the burqa question and choose not to legislate, or at least legislate only very cautiously. No doubt the current mini-furor will dissipate, but the recurrence of this theme is symptomatic of an underlying disquiet that needs to be discussed with an open mind. A member of the Stasi commission recommends a similar caution.

Or am I guilty of proffering "propos de salon alambiqués face à des intégristes prêts à tout" (Jacques Myard, UMP).?

A jurist's view.

Some background.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

i think this and the phrase by Manuel Valls you commented on recently are all symptoms of an evolution;
for almost two decades, any talk about immigration was tainted by the accusation of racism, and therefore deemed evil. Anti-racism was raised to a national cause by Mitterand (SOS racisme is his creature). The real reason was to exacerbate tension so as to polarize people and increase the vote for the National Front, thus weakening the republican right; this allowed the socialists to remain in power for several extra years.
Now this taboo is no longer effective, as the excess of anti-racism, sometime on the verge of a new fascism, have become apparent, and especially as the excess of immigration have become obvious. It is likely that a vast majority of Frenchmen, including many immigrants recently integrated, whether or not they acquired citizenship, see that integration is clogged by too much immigration. It also appears that Islam is often difficult to reconcile with republic: polygamy, oppression of women, stronger allegiance to muslim ties than to the nation, proselitism, anti-semitism, scorn towards non-muslim, blind and automatic solidarity with Palestinians, even when some use abject terrorism, etc.
You should wander a little longer in some suburbs next time you visit. Evry really could use more whites, and that's even for the sake of non-whites, some of whom have declared they agree with Manuel Valls.
When I was in evry's big shopping mall and saw two women in burka, let me tell you it's very violent. It's not a garment: it's a battle dress, it states "we are about to conquer this territory in the name of islam and you're not welcome here". Such occurences are yet rare, but I'd hate to see them more often.
I also do not like people who'd be tattooed all over, but it's not a tenth as violent.
We have the right to remain laic, to remain a majority of whites, to keep our cultural values (three different things, I'm not saying non-whites are of a different culture or unwilling to adopt ours). That's what is at stake, no less, because at the rate things are moving, this could become challenged in only a decade or so.
Of course, the burka is only one of many symptoms, "la goutte qui fait déborder le vase".

Anonymous said...

I think there is a difference between professional choice and a choice or a dictat by religious authority. I think one needs to look into the origin of these two dresscode to see that there is no similarity, apples and oranges. Fundamentally what I see in this "choice" is many people's inability to accept that the role and status of women are different in western democracy, where they have equal rights as men. From what I understand the French govt is only bans religious whatever in public institution. One is free to practice it at home. Though I have absolutely no sympathy for the champions of right to wear a burqa, I respect their right to wear it, that is if it is really an individual choice and not forced by the father, brother, husband or the community.

p.s I am not french but an immigrant here in France.

jenibelle said...

"I think there is a difference between professional choice and a choice or a dictat by religious authority. I think one needs to look into the origin of these two dresscode to see that there is no similarity, apples and oranges. Fundamentally what I see in this "choice" is many people's inability to accept that the role and status of women are different in western democracy, where they have equal rights as men"

If I am understanding you correctly, you attribute these women's choice to coercion by a religious authority. Sure, some women are coerced to wear the burka. And yet, many are not. Some live in a free country such as France where they have the same rights as men -- and, for whatever reason, they freely choose to wear the burka.

Saying that all women who choose to wear the burka have a "false consciousness" in which they are victims of overarching societal forces is frankly presumptuous.

I live in France. I know at least one feminist who wears a headscarf for no other reason than to say "F- you" to people who think she shouldn't.