exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

thinly veiled

by Jen at 5:15 pm on 13.07.2010 | 2 Comments
filed under: like a fish needs a bicycle, rant and rage

“france’s lower house of parliament has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public.”

i’ve mentioned here before numerous times that i live in a largely muslim neighbourhood. every day i step out my front door, i see many women in some form of traditional Islamic dress – most often that’s just long sleeves and hijab, but a niquab, or even full burqua, is not terribly uncommon. as an atheist feminist, i’m the first to admit that it makes me uncomfortable to witness, both the disconnect from the westernised culture we both live in, and what such dress represents about a woman’s place in that socio-religious context. it’s something i find symbolically oppressive, even when it is the woman’s fully informed choice to dress that way, as i believe it tacitly condones those (patriarchal) frameworks which exclude choice for so many other women.

but what makes me even more uncomfortable, is the idea that any (largely white, largely male) government should think they are entitled to dictate what a woman does or does not wear.

if i’m feeling charitable, i’ll ascribe these actions to some benevolent impulse – but what all those well-meaning lawmakers miss is this: that to proscribe a certain form of religious dress by specific law, is just as dictatorial as any religion proscribing westernised dress. the attempted imposition of westernised mores on women by telling them they cannot wear the veil, is just as oppressive as any religious requirements telling them they cannot show their hair. because when it comes down to it, the rationale may sound different, but the motives are the same: both embody an attitude of moral superiority, and a belief that society not only has the right to, but an obligation, nay, an *imperative*, to “protect” women through dress code.

when you put the religious clerics and the lawmakers side by side, they all think they know what’s best for the women, who are viewed through a lens of passive participation in their own lives and closets. and whether it’s through religious dictum or democratic law, women are stripped of any agency to *choose what is best for them*.

do some women choose to electively wear the veil? i’m sure many do, even as many do not. is it a choice i would make or agree with? not at all. but under no circumstances would i believe the have the right to tell them that they shouldn’t – just as i don’t believe they have the right to tell me i should. even worse, the targets of this law are people who are already (in many cases) dispossessed of the ability to exercise their will – and yet the lawmakers have banded together and singled them out for special attention and regulation. would any of them dare to dictate what a westernised woman could not wear?

established democracies must be committed to upholding freedom of religious expression, even if it’s an expression we find intensely uncomfortable. in a free society, we must uphold the right for women to make choices, even if those are choices we disagree with – otherwise we engage in perpetuating a power imbalance where women do not decide for themselves. i acknowledge that in some religious contexts, many women may not decide for themselves, and that continues to be problematic – however one set of clothing commandments does not, and cannot cancel out another. we may all feel better not having to see women wearing veils, but it doesn’t change a damn thing that’s going on behind them.

in the end , we cannot change people or their religion simply by changing their clothes, and it’s foolish to try. i think that if we want women to opt out of a religious mandate which views them (and requires them to dress) as lesser beings, we can only hope to incite change by exemplifying freedom, choice and tolerance ourselves.

2 people like this post.


  • 1

    Comment by daddio

    13.07.2010 @ 23:39 pm

    some people are just stupid, afraid, intolerant and insecure. too bad stupid, afraid, intolerant and insecure people elect them to office.

  • 2

    Comment by blues

    13.08.2010 @ 15:15 pm

    You so eloquently put into words exactly how I feel about this issue. It’s something I’ve spoken about many times with Spanish people who definitely lean towards the French way of viewing this. I think as Americans we have a real problem with the state imposing their will over how we will dress and whether or not we will choose to wear religious symbols, the feminist issue aside. The Free Exercise clause allows us to express our individual religiosity in any public setting and this goes so deep into what it means to be free as Americans. In France, though, the state is seen as protector of the people from religious influences – the only one compulsory association that may be manifested in a public setting is the French nationality. It’s as if any other signs of identification are viewed as a threat to French nationality and people are effectively stripped of this expression of individualism. They coat this in feminist rhetoric but it is what it is. Here in Spain, where religion is synonymous with Catholicism, the debate is quite different, and mostly Muslims here that argue in favor of allowing the headscarf don’t want religion to enter the public sphere in a new and different way, they simply want religion here to be redefined as a plural phenomenon. For example, in schools, Muslims are requesting that a place for them be made in a system which already accommodates one religion fully.

    We have a tendency in the West to categorize those whose definition of religion entails more than what is relegated to the private sphere as radical fundamentalists instead of seeing them as people who belong to a culture whose concept of religion is not cross-culturally translatable to our understanding. Whether or not these indicate an incapacity on behalf of secularists to comprehend other cultures or the incapacity of the religiously devout to accept religion as a private element of life depends on where one stands culturally and ideologically. Many Muslim groups, like many Christian groups, are fundamentally at odds with many current notions of the public/private divide that is inherent to many Western nations. They cannot enter the public realm and leave their religion at the door because their religion is a way of life and cannot be kept to the closed doors of their homes. Women that adhere to this religious law can’t just leave their headscarves behind when they walk into a public building without completely changing their cultural views about what religion is and means. It can’t just be brushed aside as radical fundamentalist notions, a quick fix to a discriminatory practice engaged in by women against women.

    As a woman, it bothers me to see them covered as well and it’s difficult to understand, but for me it’s a matter of the lesser of two evils. But I find it really interesting that a group of people that are accused of being incompatible with modernity, democracy and secular culture engage a discourse of freedom, democracy, and equality in this debate and it really makes you have to look a little deeper than the surface on this.

    Thanks again for an interesting post!

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