Women’s bodies and double standards

Lizzie Schroder 29 January 2010

President Sarkozy has made his views on the burka clear: it is “not welcome” in France.

Indeed, it seems likely that a ban on the public wearing of the burka will soon be in place. A further step in the secularisation of the country, following the prohibition of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols, the call for a burka ban has caused some controversy. Exactly what are the motives behind this?

Certainly, it is difficult to claim that it has nothing to do with rising Islamophobia.

Increasing hostility towards Muslims only threatens to create further tensions within a country that has first-hand experience of the problems of integration. The ban, it is hoped, will create a more unified France, free from obvious symbols of religious difference.

The most problematic aspect of this impending ban is, I feel, the vague, ‘feminist’ statements in which many of its proponents couch their arguments.

Sarkozy has expressed his opposition to the subjugation of women through the covering of their faces.

Even the French Socialist Party, who oppose the prohibition of the garment, nonetheless have stated that it is “simply a prison for women who wear it.”

We are told that the burka is an instrument of oppression, an affront to women’s dignity, which has no place in our democratic, Western societies.

We are reminded of states in which women are forced to cover their faces and bodies, their identities stripped from them as a symbol of their second-class status.

If France purges the burka from its streets, we are led to believe, Muslim women will be liberated.

Of course women have the right to refuse the burka. Nobody should be forced into hiding. But we shouldn’t presume to understand the complex social and psychological motivations behind each woman’s decision to adopt it.

Nobody is actually asking French women about their experiences with the burka.

Nobody is asking them why they wear it, or how they feel when they do.

We need to take into account the fact that some women report a sense of security and freedom from behind their veils.

They state that the burka is a garment of protection, rather than oppression, and believe that it is an appropriate way to express their religious beliefs.

We don’t need to wade into the doctrinal justifications for this. Whether or not the Qur’an advocates the burka is irrelevant; what matters is that these women have the right to express their faith as they understand it.

Perhaps the burka attracts so much controversy because the female body is so prominent within popular culture. It is plastered in magazines and on billboards, airbrushed to perfection.

It is dissected and criticised, and punished for being the wrong shape. It is painted and plucked and wrapped in new fashions.

From childhood onwards, girls and women are constantly reminded that they will be looked at, and therefore that they should look good.

How then do we deal with women who don’t even want their faces to be seen?

They don’t seem to fit into societies in which the female body is such an important commodity.

As a rule, we are far more comfortable viewing naked women in magazines than we are seeing women draped from head to foot.

But I’m not sure that the concealment of the face and body creates any more of a ‘prison’ for women than their exposure.

I find it hard to reconcile Sarkozy’s views on the burka, for example, with the huge popularity of his wife, ex-supermodel Carla Bruni.

Why do we accept the modelling industry, but find the burka so appalling?

Who is to say whether wearing a burka on the street is any more a symbol of women’s oppression than wearing a bikini on the catwalk?

Women have the right to make informed decisions about how they express themselves through their dress.

Nobody should tell them what they need, or attempt to rescue them from their perceived ignorance, particularly if they have not taken the time to listen to their experiences.

Furthermore, it is through education, and directly experiencing ‘otherness’, that we learn to accept and appreciate difference.

Prohibiting the burka will only serve to fan the flames of Islamophobia, while, in the process, undermining the right of French women to refuse the exposure of their bodies.

Lizzie Schroder