France is well on its way to banning burqas. Leftists generally consider this a Very Bad Thing, both because it discriminates against Muslims and because it would restrict civil liberties. Some feminists argue to the contrary that burqas are a tool of patriarchal oppression and France would be liberating Muslim women from a sexist practice by banning them. I see merit in both of these arguments, though the second requires some elaboration (more on that below). I also have a primitive gut reaction: burqas are creepy.
You already know this, but burqas are those head-to-toe black shrouds that cover everything but a woman’s eyes. They look hot and confining, and undoubtedly impair peripheral vision.
So here’s the creepy part: burqas cover the wearer’s face. Masks provide anonymity and thus, ironically, lend people who wear them a limited measure of freedom to act without consequences. This is why bank robbers wear masks or those stupid-looking nylon things on their heads. Spiderman, Zorro, the Lone Ranger – fictional or not, all wore masks to evade the consequences of their actions. I’m not suggesting that women are wearing burqas to facilitate crime sprees or to become vigilante superheroes, just that masks can make other people nervous, and for good reason: the wearers can see you, but you can’t see them. Something primitive inside me finds that threatening, while at the same time I feel bad for the women confined in what looks like some very unpleasant attire.
Back to the ideology and symbolism: when I see women wearing burqas I recoil at what appears to be extreme control of women by men, as feminists argue. (Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying feminist, which is no surprise to those of you who have read some of my other posts, e.g. Women: What Is So Bad About Your Names? or Fashion Industry vs. Women.) But many women who wear burqas say that they freely chose to do so, which brings us to the controversial topic of false consciousness. False consciousness occurs when (in this case) women “believe they know what’s going on, but they really don’t, and [therefore they] do things to support the…very system that oppresses them…without” intending to. From where I sit, choosing to wear a burqa looks like a classic example of false consciousness: women choose to wear an uncomfortable and unwieldy uniform for religious reasons, when really the burqa is not required by the Quran and serves the primary purpose of marking women as sinful objects who can lure men into profane behavior, while also making women’s lives more difficult. (Of course, the women who choose to wear burqas would argue that I am the one who does not know what is going on.)
Women choose to wear burqas for many reasons, among them that they feel freer when they wear a burqa because men do not stare at them or treat them as sex objects. That means that the problem is not the burqa itself, but the way some men think of women solely as sex objects whose most salient characteristic is their ability to distract men or seduce them into wrongdoing. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides another example of this phenomenon: men in that culture are not supposed to hear a woman singing, much less see a woman while praying, lest she distract them from their concentration on holiness. The implication is either that it does not matter if men distract women because women’s prayers are insignificant, or that women have no sexual drive and are not distracted by sexual desire – or both. (The complete disregard of homosexuality’s existence pretty much goes without saying when you’re dealing with this extreme level of religious observance.)
The religious discrimination arguments against banning burqas are sympathetic: singling out a religion for discrimination is a very, very dangerous slope to start down. But I’m not that concerned with protecting the right of a culture to swath its women head-to-toe in black, the same way I don’t respect the right of a culture to mutilate the genitals of its female children. Perhaps I appear naïve in saying that it is okay to discriminate against a religion in one way (banning burqas) but not in another (say, closing mosques), and expecting government to stay within those lines. In fact, I don’t expect government to stay within those lines. I do expect myself and others to exert all possible pressure on any government that goes beyond those lines. One step down a slippery slope does not guarantee a slide to the bottom when the public stands up to its government.
In the end, ironically, I come down against banning burqas for feminist reasons. A ban will do nothing to change the underlying religious and societal beliefs that force women to wear burqas or make burqas their most appealing option. I can’t say I know how to change those beliefs, but I do know that the primary impetus for change will have to come from Muslims themselves, not from the French government. The more a secular government tries to impose this ban from outside the religion, the more Muslims will resist it. By banning burqas, France would likely make them even more popular, and as a result could even reinforce the patriarchal oppression that created burqas in the first place.