London - The proper French response is: I hate what you wear but I would defend to the death your right to wear it.
London – The proper French response is: I hate what you wear but I would defend to the death your right to wear it.
It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore to them their lost dignity – and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners…I here throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual virtues, not excepting modesty. Mary Wollestonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792.
‘I may hate your misattribution of quotes to Voltaire, but I would die for your right to misattribute quotes to Voltaire,’ reads a witty Internet meme. While Voltaire may never have said anything like this, the message is at least consonant with the spirit of his work. The French ban on the burkini however, represents a misattribution of a much higher order: we are now entitled to ask whether the principles of liberté, égalité and fraternité can properly be associated with France itself. The philosophers have spent centuries debating what these terms precisely mean, but what they do not mean is approaching a woman on a beach, gun in hand, and ordering her to remove her clothing. Such practices represent fraternité in only the American college sense.
The Burka ban represents a pathetic and doomed attempt to use laws against ideas and undermines the very secular ideals it purports to defend. There are even fantastical suggestions at large that this law has something to do with terrorism, but no one can imagine what that might be. The effect of the prohibition of the burkini and the wider ‘burka ban’ is to criminalize the very people it is apparently designed to protect – Muslim women – who find themselves penned in by a sexist culture on the one side and a bigoted police-state on the other. The policy is so palpably self-defeating that, if one attributes any intelligence to those who designed it, one must assume the effect is intentional.
Most of all, the entire discussion surrounding the burka ban demonstrates how far we still have to travel on the path toward the full emancipation of women. It is true that many Muslims believe that it is a disgrace for a woman to look like a woman in public. The idea is that the female form, unedited, is an obscenity that needs to be mitigated by a deeply creepy and unnatural notion of female ‘modesty,’ code for ‘passivity and obedience.’ But many non-Muslims also think that in order for a woman to have worth, she must engage in all-out war with her natural physical and psychological state. So-called western women are expected to live on a diet constant self-doubt, weight loss, face painting, removal of naturally occurring body-hair and so on. The message from both cultures is clear: women are objects who exist to please the ugliest, most insecure aspects of male sexuality. They are not human beings in the full sense, free to create their own essence. They are forbidden to be ugly, to be ‘immodest,’ to be human. They must be what we tell them to be.
The response to this must be a society-wide rejection of the idea that there is any connection between a man’s view of a woman’s appearance and her worth. Indeed we need to wholly repudiate the notion that there is a link between sex and morality at all. The discussion around the burka ban, pitched as a clash between two male conceptions of what women should wear, makes this as plain as could be. It is a profound indictment of our contempt for women, in Islam and in the west, that we use their bodies as the theatre for our political disputes.
Part of the solution to this depressing problem must be, as usual, to assert enlightenment values without apology. While defending the right of all people to wear what they want, we must clearly state that there is no question that the burka is a symbol of the oppression of women. It is a requirement that applies to a person on the sole grounds that they are a woman – the definition of sexism. In fact, the question ‘what is sexist about the burka?’ is fairly difficult to answer because it can only be sincerely asked by a person with no operating understanding of what sexism is.
This stands without even going into why the burka is (to be polite) ‘recommended’ by Islamic fundamentalists. Like most sexism, it is based upon the idea that a woman’s value is based on the way her sexuality is perceived by men. The argument goes that women should be ‘modest’ (already an intensely sexist idea on its own) and that this modesty is preserved by refraining from any activity that would disgrace or defile her person. These activities consist entirely of things men are permitted to do and rest largely on the infantilising idea that men cannot and should not control their sexual desires.
Hence the prohibition on a woman showing any part of her body in public, including the hands and hair, because to do so would in itself be a sexual invitation to all men in the vicinity. Sexual invitations are shameful in the highest order, of course, constituting a betrayal of the only man entitled to see a woman’s body parts – her husband. If these ideas are not sexist, the word has no meaning. But this is my opinion. It should not be the law. Using laws to control ideas always does more harm than good. This applies even when the lawmakers have good intentions; indeed,especially when they have good intentions. In other words, sexism should be legal.
The burkini scandal tells us as much about Europe as it does about Islam. The burka stands in the no-man’s-land of the modern culture war. Those of us who genuinely stand for enlightenment values like the equality of women risk being caught in the crossfire. Where is there to hide from the shells and the bullets when both trenches seem so deeply unappealing? One dug-out appears to be full of creepy religious fundamentalists who believe a woman’s body is unfit to be seen in public. The other is apparently manned by sinister xenophobes intent on targeting a minority group. One group believes that Muslim men should be able to boss women around, while the other believes this is the privilege of the French state. Who is less revolting – those who think a woman’s body belongs to her husband or those who regard it as public property?
To make matters appear yet more confusing, much of this debate centres around a misplaced and sickly version of cultural tolerance. ‘After all,’ we say, ‘the Qur’an does call for women to cover their bodies.’ In fact, the Qur’an does not call for women to cover their bodies. The rise of the burka can roughly be traced as a symptom of the Islamisation of Muslim communities throughout the west, stemming from the deliberate export of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia in the mid-twentieth-century.
Traditional female dress varies greatly across the so-called ‘Islamic world’ and, in many Muslim majority countries, it is flat-out illegal to wear the niqab (the garment leaving only the eyes uncovered). In Iran there is a solidarity movement in which men march in hijab, protesting the law requiring all women to cover in public. But in London, in Paris, in New York, it is assumed by many self-styled liberals that the most extreme must be the norm. Customs perceived as foreign, such as the burka or the niqab, should therefore be morally tolerated, lest we cause offence. Thus, the ultimate signifier of oppression has become for many a bizarre symbol of tolerance and diversity. This is how the ratchet gets turned.
But this is where classical liberalism can save the day once again. The brilliance of liberalism, properly understood, is not that is presents a ‘balance’ between ethics and freedom as we so often hear. Instead, liberalism provides us with an means of defending our rights in principle, without any need for compromise between liberty and right. Put simply, the burka is bad and the burka ban is bad.
Finally, beyond the essential task of asserting enlightenment values, we need to find a way to calm down about Islam. If the Burka was not an Islamic garment, it is likely that liberals would be able to figure out what is sexist about the idea that to be a good woman, you must be ‘modest’ and cover your body in black fabric in the boiling sun. Likewise, if we were discussing a Christian dress code, right-wingers would probably be able to see what is unjust about criminalising people for simply wearing an item of clothing. The force of these positions is overwhelming, but, where Islam is involved, all bets are off. Everyone retreats to their respective corners and tries to outdo the stupidity of the other side. If we want to avoid more persecution and more terror, it is time for both Muslims and non-Muslims to stop playing the victim and think.
The burka ban will soon be a thing of the past, but if we truly believe in liberalism and democracy, there is much work still to be done. We need to establish the principle that everyone has the right to wear anything or nothing in public. No one has the right to tell women (or anyone else) what to wear: not Muslim men; not French policemen. No one. Once we have used our ire to quash the French government’s idiotic and bigoted response to sexism, let us use that same liberating anger to defeat sexism itself.
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