Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Liberation via oppression?

 This blog post also appeared on the Fresh Outlook at:

Back in 2001 the image of a woman shrouded in a burqa was beamed into our living rooms from Afghanistan, the country we were about to declare war on. The burqa became a symbol of women's oppression in this most fundamentalist of states, where women were required by law to cover their faces, refused access to public services and banned from work and education. The war in Afghanistan, we were assured by a man whose first act as president was to restrict international women's access to abortion, would liberate women from the oppression they faced daily under the Taliban.

Feminist rhetoric was evoked to defend military action against a country that had had little to do with the September 11 attacks, whilst many feminists like myself shook our heads and wondered how bombing a woman's home and family would help liberate her. We almost all agreed, however, that women were oppressed under the Taliban, and laws that refused women an education, health access, a vote, a voice, and forced them to dress a certain way needed to be challenged.

Ten years on, and the lives of women in Afghanistan have not changed hugely in a country ravaged by war, partisan politics, corruption and violence. But we find that the burqa is once more making headlines, this time in France, where a ban has been passed so that Muslim women can no longer wear the burqa or niqab in public. The burqa is very rarely worn in France anyway - the ban is chiefly occupied with the niqab - the full veil where only the woman's eyes are visible.

The ban comes in the context of President Sarkozy's troubling policies on minority ethnic communities. He is not a popular politician, and many have considered this move to be a populist law capitalising on a growing mistrust in France of minority ethnic communities. Since he came to power, France has experienced economic problems, strikes and is now involved in conflicts overseas. Riots in the suburbs of Paris shone a spotlight on disenfranchised communities living in urban poverty. Throughout this, Mr Sarkozy has pushed through or advocated policies that focus on minority groups, including his much criticised and troubling plans to evict and deport the Roma population.

Advocates of the 'burqa ban' have attempted to justify the law in many ways; from the idea that France has been a proudly secular tradition, or suggesting that the niqab makes it hard to identify the woman wearing it, to arguments about 'integration' and 'French values'. But one of the most persistent arguments has been the one that falls back onto feminist rhetoric about oppression; the idea that women are forced to wear the veil, that it is somehow 'anti woman', and that by banning the burqa, France are liberating Muslim women.

There are many, many problems with this argument. Whatever your views on the veil, the idea that banning a woman from wearing an item of clothing is anything other than restricting women's choices is a ridiculous one. If the UK banned the mini skirt after suddenly becoming concerned that as an item of clothing it objectifies women and makes us appear as sex objects (I'm not saying the mini skirt does this by the way, although am sure there are some who do argue this) then we would rightly argue back that women should have the freedom to express themselves through dress however way we want to, and that people's response to our bare legs (i.e. the old chestnut that a woman is 'asking for it' by wearing a mini skirt) is not a reason to forbid women from wearing one. Yet, when it comes to the veil, many people from all across the political spectrum have fallen for the line that a ban is justified because the veil itself oppresses women.

Part of this has come from the Afghanistan narrative, where women were forced by law to wear a burqa and suffered violence for refusing to cover their faces. Advocates of the ban have argued that they are saving women from being forced into wearing an item of clothing that they may choose not to wear if they could. But to me, this argument has a major flaw. If a woman is being forced to wear the veil by a husband, father or brother etc, then banning the burqa or niqab could actually result in the restriction of her freedom. For if she is being forced to wear it, then it is unlikely that under a ban she would be allowed out of her home uncovered at all. So whereas before she may have been able to move freely through the community wearing the veil, now she must remain inside. Of course, I absolutely condemn anyone who would force a woman to wear the veil (or anything really) rather than respect her choice not to wear it, however I recognise that a simple ban may cause problems for the woman, rather than a solution.

But perhaps the most troubling thing at all is this assumption that all Muslim women who wear the veil are doing so because they are coerced into it, and it is up to white, Western men to swoop in and save her from this oppression. The possibility that a woman chooses to wear a veil for her own choice, her own spiritual reasons, has been completely ignored. The belief that no woman would wear the veil if she had the choice, and so the 'solution' is to take that choice away from her, is very troubling. And so rather than liberating women, this ban has only served to reduce a woman's choice to wear what she wants and express herself in the way that she wants to.

And policing women's freely made choices is not a pro-woman stance.

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