Saturday, January 22, 2011

Burqa Ban in the US?: Tensions Among Feminists

As I have previously written about, the burqa (and the hijab) are controversial in that it is not agreed upon among Muslims as to what specifically is mandated by Islam to satisfy the 'modesty' requirements. This is especially controversial among feminists, as it represents the ongoing and seemingly endless debate about whether it is more feminist to allow a freedom of choice in wearing the burqa (or hijab, for the purposes of this argument here), or to declare it misogynist and a symbol of women's oppression.

Phyllis Chesler's article in Middle East Quarterly in Fall 2010 titled "Ban the Burqa? The Argument in Favor" is one example of a feminist (or as I would put it "feminist") argument that supports banning the burqa in the US. She believes it is a misogynist tool to control women's bodies, that is not necessarily required by Islam, but instead is a minority view that is unjustly being forced on all Muslims. Furthermore, she explains that arguments against the burqa ban--that the state should not be controlling women's bodies--does not hold true, as the state does control women's bodies in banning nudity.

There are a couple of points that I do actually agree with: 1) that what counts as "modesty" is debatable and it is not clear if the burqa (or even just the hijab) are required by Islam; and 2) that the burqa requirement is (at times!) a minority view that is unjustly pushed on others (ie in countries that mandate it). BUT there are many problems with her arguments themselves and the evidence she cites in support of this that I find problematic. Lastly, I disagree with her general argument that the burqa (and hijab) are necessarily oppressive, and instead support the idea that to deny choice--any choice--to women is what is actually oppressive.

First of all, Chesler introduces her article by stating that she will explain why she supports banning the burqa in the US, only to follow this introduction with a detailed history of Muslim-majority countries that have banned the burqa or the hijab. By collapsing examples of banning the burqa and the hijab into a single argument, she weakens her argument in that she shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of veiling itself, which takes away her legitimacy in discussing Islamic requirements for (general) veiling.

Chesler gives these historical examples in attempt to show how it must be obvious that the Islamic requirements for the burqa are questionable if so many times Muslim rulers themselves have tried to ban it. But what she doesn't do is explain what the results of those bans have been. Have they been met with resistance? If so, does this not indicate that some women may actually want to wear the burqa? Chesler would likely argue that if this were the case, it would probably be because male family members are pushing their female relatives to wear it, or because they have internalized the oppression. Of course this may be the case, we see example of this in headlines all the time. I'm not denying that the burqa is never forced, I just think that it is not always the case. To assume so would be to assume that women cannot think for themselves and are incapable of escaping religious--or "religious"--beliefs that have been pushed on them.

She goes on to give several specific examples of when the burqa has been forced on women, and the severe consequences if they disobey. She does this to further argue her point that there is just no way that women are able to freely choose to wear the burqa, simply because there have been so many cases when it has been forced. Big problem with this argument here! Just because it has been forced--either by the state or by family members--does not mean it always is! What about women who have not lived in a country that requires the burqa and have not grown up with family members pushing it, and have made a fully-informed (aware of all arguments for and against the burqa) decision to wear it for herself--because they themselves see value in some way or another in wearing it?!

Whose job is it to argue that women have internalized patriarchy?? What is patriarchy and what is oppression? Who gets to decide that? It is not necessarily the same for everybody. Just because you yourself may not agree with a decision, does not mean your views need to be pushed on other that not oppressive? This is an endless debate, but even if we as feminists do not agree with other women's decisions, does not mean we get to dictate how women live their own lives. There could be many reasons women choose to wear the burqa, and it is not up to anyone else to judge why that is.

Lastly, Chesler gives examples of women who wear or have worn the burqa who explain how uncomfortable it is, how oppressive it feels, and who flee a country just to escape it. First of all, these are all obviously examples of when the burqa has clearly been forced...where are the testimonies of women who have worn the burqa on their own, free from the state's or their family's requirements? Also, an example she argues is that "many Saudi and Afghan women toss their coverings the moment they leave the country or enter their own courtyards" (Chesler 2010). Where does this evidence come from? A book written by Edward Hunter in 1959!! I mean, really? That is a little bit outdated, is it not??

Chesler argues for a burqa ban in the US, but this is all based on assumptions that the burqa is always forced, and cherry-picks negative examples to show how it has been forced, and assumes that this is always the case. Like I said, it is sometimes hard for feminists to agree with all decisions other feminists may make, but the most important thing is that we are given a choice in the matter. Forcing our own views on other feminists is also oppressive, which is what feminism is supposed to get away from in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Well said... I have recently come to the conclusion that feminism has just created another form of oppression... for example what if you WANT to be a home maker... Women spend their whole lives now thinking this is oppressive... but being a slave to capitalism is equally oppressive. I have become aware that in many ways traditional wear and garb is a spit in the face of capitalism and western ideals... thats probably why they have fooled us into believing it is oppressive... but if 40,000 college students in turkey protest to wear thier traditional head wraps... we need to re-evaluate the way we impose our so called freedoms on others... and if you look at the extremes we have a heels and short skirts... I would take a head wrap or burka any day... If you think of the lack of respect women in western society get and the way they are degraded, coweled, accosted etc. sometimes I can even see the logic behind it. If you think of the way style and dress can categorize you into a class... In many ways I can even admire it... Thanks for the lovely article as I have been putting forth the same ideas to the modern women these days... That feminism might have just been a coated trick... to make us all better slaves. Convince the population someone is oppressed and they will all fight for the right to defend capitalism which entrenchs them in slavery... I have recently made the point that and women who protest against the burka are protesting for capitalism and the western ideal which both are sadly failing miserably.
    Your Truly
    A Recovering Feminist.