Point French Xenophobia and the Burqa Ban
by Joan W. Scott
by Feisal G. Mohamed
The French ban on the burqa cannot be understood apart from the larger context of the current political situation. (At stake is a niqab, not really a burqa, which seems beside the point in the discussion and I have employed their word in this article. The French also refer to “le voile intégral” as a more appropriate term.) The justifications for the burqa—the covering of women is a sign of their inferiority; the burqa is a “prison” from which women have to be emancipated; removing the burqa is a matter of national security since terrorists and other criminals can hide behind it with impunity; covering women is counter to French culture; uncovering them is consistent with “primordial” French secular values—are simply masks for the xenophobia the current government has mobilized to support its electoral ambitions.
President Sarkozy and his party are campaigning hard for the presidency in 2012 and to hold onto seats in the National Assembly as well. Their strategy is to draw voters away from the right-wing National Front party whose platform is built on an anti-immigrant crusade. In addition, the focus on the “immigrant problem” draws attention away from the economic and social problems the nation faces; instead of coming up with long-term, viable solutions, the political leadership promises to rid France of troublesome ‘others’ who are said to be the source of all difficulties. The Minister of Immigration and National Identity put it clearly last year: “If our national identity is faltering, if it is in a bad way, it is primarily and above all the fault of the immigrants.”
The ban on the burqa is a symbolic attack on Muslims; a way of indicating that Islam is an alien presence in France, although, of course, many Muslims have long been French citizens and their history has been integral to the nation’s history. It is a way of asserting a national identity that is “truly” French, that is largely white and Christian (though room has been made for Jews), and that is “culturally” French–marked by a commitment to the purity of the language, to an established style of social interaction, and to a certain view of history. It was no accident the National Assembly voted for a ban on wearing the burqa in public on July 13, the eve of the celebration of the French Revolution’s overthrow of the monarchy and the feudal regime. This, moreover, is after a year in which the government tried (and failed) to develop a controversial national conversation on the meaning of French identity. Over the summer, in line with the focus on “dangerous immigrants,” the police began to expel illegally camped Roma (gypsies) from French soil and the President proposed a law that would deprive citizenship to children of immigrants, which they had by birthright, if they were convicted of certain crimes. In the name of security, immigrants are to be regulated at the very least and expelled if at all possible, in order to make the nation and its “true” citizens safe.
Some feminists and otherwise anti-racist republicans have been drawn to support the law against the burqa in the name of women’s equality, lured, as it were, into the xenophobic campaign by the politicians’ instrumentalization of feminist themes. (These same politicians have done their best to keep French women out of politics and to oppose laws on sexual harassment and domestic violence.) France is not the only country where this is happening; Islamophobia often speaks in the language of women’s emancipation. This, even when many Muslim women insist they dress as they do, not because their husbands or fathers or imams are forcing them to, but because they choose to do so as a way of honoring their religion and their god. This, even when there are feministgroups within the Islamic world who consider veiling part of their religious and ethnic identity. Some of these groups have articulated a position which refuses domination of any kind, whether from families or the state: no forced veiling, no forced unveiling. This seems to me a far wiser position for feminists to take (whether they are secular or religious, whatever their geographic location) than the one that buys the notion of a “clash of civilizations” in which the secular West is on the side of liberty and the religious East on the side of oppression. History, culture and current politics are far more complex than such a vision would have it. It behooves us to learn the history and study the politics if we are to critically evaluate actions such as the French burqa ban and come up with ways of creating democracies in which difference and diversity are not simply tolerated, but recognized as integral to the very constitution of any national identity.
Many arguments against the burqa have no merit whatsoever. When we hear it is a security risk, or that it must be awfully stuffy in there, or it is impolite to hide your face in public, we are generally hearing murmurs of discomfort with visible adherence to a faith widely feared and misunderstood. Those sentiments have simmered under the surface of American life for the past decade and boiled over in the wake of the proposed Park51 Islamic center: I write this the day after Michael Enright was formally charged with hate crimes for his horrifying stabbing of a Muslim taxi driver.
It is understandable the burqa can raise such concerns. Terrorism is a mode of warfare that makes us anxious about the “other” in our midst and leads us to doubt the safety of everyday life. It shows us the precariousness of the security offered by civility’s code of conduct, which the terrorist knows well enough to walk undetected among us. An anxiety-ridden desire more rigidly to enforce civility is dubious justification for the restriction of acts performed in the name of religion; it is also an entirely unproductive response to terrorism.
I also do not think this is an empirically significant issue. Left entirely unchecked, the number of burqa wearers will always be too small to alter the fabric of any civil society in the West. Again we must resist the Gingrich/Palin-style paranoia that sees a rising extremist tide threatening to drown us all—the deep irony of such statements from this country’s Christian radicals would be laughable were it not so terrifying.
Having said all of that, there is an important principle at stake. The burqa offers a test case in the limits we can and should impose on the toleration of practices claiming to arise from religion and culture. Strict adherence to the principle of liberty of conscience will lead us automatically to stop asking questions of a thought or action once an individual declares it to arise from faith. The statement “it’s my religion” becomes equivalent to a tap-out in a wrestling match, releasing the believer from the straining and grappling characterizing the arena of contending claims. Liberty of conscience has metastasized to include “culture” and “identity,” which now seem also to be sacrosanct once invoked.
We must remind ourselves that multiculturalism is important as a means to the end of advancing equality. It is a gesture of humility recognizing that no single cultural tradition has proprietary claim to human civilization. It is emphatically not a license to condone violations of equality made in culture’s name.
We should discuss such practices through lively, respectful debate in civil society. But some practices strive to prevent a group of individuals from participating in such conversation, and through them an apartheid is effected, preventing engagement in public life. The burqa and the cultural attitudes it represents are precisely such an obstacle: they are a means of keeping women firmly on the margins of societies where they cannot so much as tie their shoelaces without the supervision and consent of a male relative.
That is what makes the burqa different from other kinds of religious garb, which are often marks of the gender inequality religious orthodoxy breeds. I am not crazy about the rules of dress imposed upon Orthodox Jewish women. And I really don’t like the niqab, or face veil, but I am not sure it should be outlawed: donning the veil has sometimes been a mark of resistance to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Such a turn to orthodoxy seems to me like diving into the whirlpool to spite the rock, but it does suggest that in certain contexts wearing the niqab can be a form of civic expression. I refer here only to the burqa, the head-to-toe piece of cloth that completely obscures the human form. This nasty device is quite unique and completely unequivocal in the message it delivers to its wearer: you are to be tucked away at home, and when you have the temerity to walk abroad must do so in a traveling tent. As a physical barrier to participation in civic fora, the burqa should be outlawed in any society that values the citizenship of women.
It is not that the burqa has no place in the West; the burqa has no place anywhere. It must be resisted wherever it presents itself. Before his death in March 2010, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, supreme sheikh of Cairo’s Al’Azhar University—the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam—declared unequivocally that the niqab is a folk garment with no religious basis. This is all the more true for the burqa. If Tantawi knew such garments have no place in Islam, then we should see those who would justify their use on religious grounds are making spurious claims grounded in regressive attitudes. Only fools will take those claims at face value.
About the Issue
Point author: Feisal G. Mohamed is an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois. His most recent book, Milton and the Post-Secular Present, will be published by the Stanford University Press in Fall 2011.
Edited by: aaron bekemeyer
Cover by: Dan Connors