By Barkha Dutt
June 27, 2009
Like most feminists, I am wary of religious codes that foist forced modesty on women. Like most liberals, I am uncomfortable with the State playing God on what’s secular and what’s not. That’s why French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the ‘burqa’ managed to push even my normally over-opinionated self into a zone of ifs and buts.
There’s no doubt that when Sarko declared that the face-covering, body-length burqa was ‘not welcome in France’ he sounded dangerously xenophobic. He made the French — otherwise legendary for their permissiveness — sound dogmatic and intolerant. He was in fact echoing what Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary in Britain had said a few years ago. Straw described the full veil as a ‘mark of separation’ and a custom that ghettoised the Muslim community. Sarkozy made a similar argument in an address to his country’s parliament proclaiming that, “the burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement”.
The liberal in me found the comments grating and very offensive. He made multiculturalism sound like it had an expiry tag. Yet, the feminist in me began to wonder when he argued that the full veil essentially forced women into being “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity”.
The fact is that the debate around the veil is too complex to be reduced to these kind of sweeping generalisations. What the veil stands for seems to change every time history, context and culture shifts.
I have to confess that I don’t get it when some women say that being behind a veil liberates them from the prying eyes of the male gaze and makes them feel safer. It’s become just about the most clichéd explanation. But then — if you deconstruct any religion and culture — chances are that you will find several attempts at reigning in female sexuality and containing it within bounds of modesty and meekness. The ghoonghat, the covered head — even the dupatta — were all originally such symbols of protocol and morality. It’s just that as societies change, symbols can often get separated from their original contexts and become contemporary in usage. Take the bindi for example. Most of us, who wear one today do so for entirely aesthetic reasons, unmindful that once upon a time it would have made us Hindu and Married. Perhaps the burqa isn’t yet seen as an aesthetic cultural custom to those who watch from the outside. But, the hijab or the headscarf, for example, seems to have been assimilated into the mainstream of several societies across the world.
Essentially, classic western feminism hits a dead-end when it comes to a complex word called choice. Traditions that seem patently unequal find refuge in the argument of choice. And we can debate forever whether it’s about free will or socialisation by a patriarchal regime, but there’s not much you can say to a woman who chooses to drape herself in swathes of black cloth. I still remember Kamala Das, the eccentric — but fiercely independent — poet arriving on my television show in a burqa. She had recently converted, and this she said, was her choice. How could anyone argue against that?
When we look at the veil debate through the prism of gender, there’s also one more question that’s begun to nag at me. Does less really mean more? Do pin-up girls in little bikinis and big breasts that invite a travelling camera lens as if it were a lover really symbolise liberation? Is manufactured hyper-sexuality the only antidote to decades of control? It seems as if women can only be pulled towards two different extremes. Whereas most of us, I suspect, like the place in the middle and the freedom to define it for ourselves.
Ironically, it was the politics of cultural assimilation that first helped me change my own textbook positions. It was 2001. 9/11 had just shaken the world and I was in New York. Though it’s admirable that there was no violent backlash, I remember how scared Muslims in the city were. In the first few weeks, several Muslim women I met had discarded the safety and comfort of the hijab because they didn’t want to be noticed or targeted. At the city’s community centre for Arab-Americans, social workers advised women to dress in a way that would blend them into the mainstream: no headscarves, skirts and dresses, if possible.
At a peace vigil, I met a Bangladeshi woman who suddenly broke down and wept; it was the first time she had stepped out of her house without wearing her customary salwar-kameez. So, in effect, clothes condemned as old-fashioned by some, suddenly became symbols of religious and political freedom. No wonder today, it’s Obama who is telling Western countries to “to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim women should wear,” saying such action is actually ‘hostility’ towards other religions in ‘the pretence of liberalism’.
There’s the famous story of a London journalist, Zaiba Malik, who wore a veil just for a day to chronicle whether her city would respond differently. “On the street it takes just seconds for me to discover that there are different categories of stare,” she wrote, “Elderly people stop dead in their tracks and glare; women tend to wait until you have passed and then turn round when they think you can’t see; men just look out of the corners of their eyes. And young children — well, they just stare, point and laugh.”
And that’s the main problem with Sarkozy’s remarks. He’s trying to homogenise culture. You can’t claim to stand for Freedom when you impose and force your views on those who think differently. Freedom, in the end, is the space to be yourself.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
Source: Hindustan Times, 27 June 2009
No burqas please, we're French
By Mohammad Makhlouf, Special to Gulf News
Published: June 27, 2009
The burqa is causing a turmoil in France, although only a few dozen Muslim women wear it. This is a new phenomenon not seen in France before, and it is still considered marginal, in terms of the number of people concerned.
Most French citizens have only seen women wearing the burqa in newspaper pictures or on television, thanks to photographers who watched and waited until they could photograph one of them.
However, even if this phenomenon was insignificant considering the number of people involved, it is not at all a marginal topic in French society.
The magnitude of the controversy created by this issue made it appear like an earthquake that is shaking the identity and existence of French society.
In an address to the joint session of France's two houses of parliament on June 22, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared his support for a ban on burqas.
"In our country we cannot accept women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French republic has of women's dignity," he said.
The burqa is not a sign of religion; it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome in the territory of the French republic," he added.
This announcement was the head of state's reaction to the lengthy parliamentary discussions on the issue.
Sixty Parliament members of all parties submitted a memorandum requesting that a commission be formed to investigate the issue and take all measures against what they described as sectarian deviation.
Subsequently, a 32-member commission was formed, and will submit its recommendations by the end of the year.
Many voices called for an immediate ban of the burqa before this phenomenon spreads, and some even called for a special law in this regard, while others said that every human being is free to choose his or her attire, as long as he or she does not violate the law.
Yet, the reality of the matter surpasses the burqa itself. This is seen clearly in the fear that swiped France in reaction to the burqa, which appears like a reproduction of the dress code imposed by the Taliban on women in Afghanistan.
The historic implications of the burqa are those of radicalism and extremism, thus the stir is not an expression of racism against Muslims, as some claimed, but simply a fear of a drift towards sectarianism.
There is no doubt that immigrants, in general, are subject to injustice and restrictions in France for many reasons not related to the burqa, but to the country's economic and social situations.
Surely, there are some fanatics in France, but they remain a minority, just like in all other countries.
The burqa situation, just like the ban of the hijab (headscarf) in French schools in 2004, brings up the issue of France's distinguished historical background.
In Britain, for example, people face no problems concerning what they wear, even at government department. It is not odd to see British Muslim policewomen wearing headscarves, which is unimaginable in France, a secular country that embraced the separation of religion and state since 1905 and adopted the concept of citizenship, which considers all citizens equal, regardless of their religion.
This is what Sarkozy referred to when said: "We must not fight the wrong battle. In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions."
The real issue is about personal freedom. If a woman decided to wear the burqa freely and consciously, then preventing her from wearing it would be a violation of her personal freedom, which is protected by the law.
However, if the woman was forced to wear it, banning the burqa by law would be a must in the name of republican values.
In both cases, personal freedom is the keyword.
Another controversial point here is about personal conduct and its relation to the laws and traditions of the country that an individual chooses to live in.
Many people argue that Islamic countries impose heavy restrictions on dress code, thus it is not acceptable to deny other communities with different values this right.
Also, many people are not aware that most French Muslims, or Muslim residents of France, including Dalil Abu Bakr, Dean of the Paris Grand Mosque, expressed their disapproval of the burqa, and some Muslim women's societies called for banning it on French soil.
Thus, it is important for the commission set up by the French Parliament to study the issue carefully and investigate the roots of this phenomenon before making any decision. It is also vital to work silently, as the president of parliament said.
Undoubtedly, the burqa issue and discussions in France were used by some politicians to divert attention from real problems, such as unemployment and buying power, the impact of which was felt heavily in France as a result of the global economic crisis. Also, some parties blew the issue out of proportion for political and electoral reasons.
Although this problem made a lot of noise, it is not expected to linger, unlike the crisis of immigration and immigrants in France.
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