Daily Archives: July 6, 2009

LINKAGE: Veiling On My Mind

Creepy photograph of Mavis Leno with presumably Afghan women in burqas whom she’s hoping to rescue from Jezebel.

Recent comments from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and responses from Western feminist blogs on his support for a burqa ban, have led to an explosion of reading materials about the myriad of concerns attached to the politics of hijab, and specifically those forms that cover the face, including the increased traction of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments in the states of the European Union; the continued revamping of the “civilizing mission” by Western politicians and the imperialist feminist support for that mission; the analytic but also political failures of an adherence to liberalism’s measures of the good and the true, including its beloved self-governing subject and her “freedom of choice;” the political but also affective attachments to the face as the seat of interpretive transparency (i.e., that uncovered face tells us something “real” about the individual); and in the digital arena, how the problematic rhetorical forms through which we engage in dialogue –or “dialogue”– are illuminated by sheer ubiquity and repetition.

For instance, this helpful (and satirical) guide to “Telling Other People Exactly What You Think: A Tip Sheet to Make Your Online Commentary Really Count,” from the same people who brought us the etiquette guide to “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf,” outlines the rhetorical tactics most often used to decry the complex personhood of Muslim persons who seem to refuse to accept the knowledge of their necessarily inferior and pitiable status.

These are scary times. Without asking your permission, Muslims are daring to write articles, create films, develop radio programs, and produce art that unabashedly celebrates the complex and textured role Islam plays in their lives. They say Islamic feminism is alive and well; that they’re perfectly capable of saving themselves thank you very much, that they aren’t a monolithic lot, and their identity as Muslims isn’t their only influencer. Concerned? Enjoy the tip sheet below and tell those people exactly what you think. After all, who needs thoughtful, community building dialogue anyway?

8): Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Make the conversation about yourself. Talk about how scarves make you feel uncomfortable, how beards are scary, how much you care about women’s rights, and get offended when your ideas are deconstructed. If anyone asks you to do something hard like take steps towards real issues like stopping war, improving things like education, health and employment, or helping the 3 million internally displaced people in Swat right now, move to tip nine:

9): Obsess on dress: And specifically, obsess about the hijab, the niqab, the jilbab and the fact that people find your hang-ups a little weird. Make lots of veiled references about how maybe ‘excessive’ clothing interferes with one’s ability to think. (and just like the sentence above try and use the word ‘veil’ as much as possible. Muslims love that.)

In this great post on Muslimah Media Watch, Krista addresses this recent controversy in “Sarkozy to the Rescue! France, Burqas, and the Question of ‘Choice.’” One of the analytic rubrics that introduces my fashion course is a challenge to the language of choice and the question of coercion. I found this immensely useful as a potential course reading for next semester because “choice” versus “coercion” are so often the go-to answers for how we evaluate sartorial or corporeal practices, and I want to move students beyond this narrow dichotomy.

The thing is, the whole idea of any “choice” being completely free of any social constraints is a bit of a myth. I think we need to complicate this issue of “choice,” for two reasons.

First, choice is always socially contextual. Even if I might “choose” what I want to wear every day (and for me personally, that choice has yet to include a burqa), there’s a reason I don’t walk around outside in my pyjamas, or attend classes wearing fancy dresses. We don’t ever make choices that are entirely independent of social expectations. So when I see people express the idea that women are oppressed by their crazy Muslim communities that make them believe that they want to wear a burqa, and that because this “choice” is made in order to conform to social expectations, we should ignore it, because it’s not a free choice, it just makes me wonder: what choice is ever independent of the expectations that are imposed on us by our societies? And how can we decide which “choices” are legitimate and free, and worthy of being respected?

Second, the assumption made by many people is that the “choice” is being made between either wearing the burqa or living a life that’s completely free of sexual oppression. The problems that are supposedly inherent to the burqa are assumed not to exist once the burqa is removed.

So when Sarkozy talks about women in burqas as “prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” and about the burqas themselves as markers of “subservience,” he’s implying that it’s the burqa, and the burqa alone, that holds women captive (and that it, apparently, deprives them of identity, a claim that might say more about the way that Sarkozy conceptualises identity than it does about the women he’s attempting to rescue.)

I found this New York Times op-ed, “My Burqa Is None of Your Business,” by practicing lawyer Ronald Sokol, interesting for its reiteration of the right to privacy to include anonymity, since so much of the French state’s disapproval of the burqa is about improved visibility and potential surveillance, and so much of the imperial feminist’s disgust for the burqa is about the liberal recognition of individuality which is also about visibility and surveillance. Both the French state and the imperial feminist determine that the face is a crucial component to distinguishing among persons, granting the face a kind of interpretive transparency. Both demand the right to survey, evaluate, and correct what we might call (borrowing from Minoo Moallem) the civic face of the Muslim woman –whether or not she observes hijab, and how ever much she might cover– according to their specific measures of liberal modernity.

Covering one’s face from the view of others is a way of protecting one’s anonymity. The right to anonymity, if there is such a right, is closely linked to the right of privacy that is guaranteed by the French civil code and by the European Convention on Human Rights. On public streets or in an outdoor market, one’s anonymity enjoys legal protection from photographers. Other than permitting identification, there would appear to be no legitimate public interest in compelling people to expose their faces.

The analogy that the president seemed to have in mind is that of a sect whose members are so brainwashed that they have lost all power to free themselves from exploitation. But there is no evidence that women in France who wear burqas are victims of a sect or are exploited.

Many wish to see the burqa as a badge of feminine oppression. They seem to feel that by removing the dress the purported oppression will vanish and the person’s true voice will be found. Yet no evidence shows that women in France who wear burqas are forced to wear them, or have low self-esteem, or are unable to exercise their legal rights.

The political clamor to ban the burqa is not an evidence-based policy. It is a misguided effort to enhance the status of women grounded in speculation about what a woman hidden in a burqa must feel. Yet whatever she feels will certainly not be changed by a law telling her what not to wear. And were there a law, how would it be enforced? Would there be a fine for wearing a burqa? Would there be clothes police?

And finally, Krista from Muslim Lookout “sets the record straight” on the Canadian effort to introduce legislation that would force women who wear niqab to show their faces when voting. Noting that the proposed legislation would not have required all voters to submit to some form of visual identification –just the hypothetical voter in a face-covering veil– Krista concludes,

I followed a lot of the media hype around it in the fall, and much of it seemed to be from people worried that Muslims were taking over Canada’s political systems and forcing Elections Canada to allow them to vote with faces covered, despite a total lack of evidence that any of this was coming from Muslims, as well as the fact that the absence of a requirement of photo identification was part of the existing laws and not some concession being made to Muslim communities (who, again, had not even asked for any such concession.) The comments on some of the news articles were even worse; women in niqab were portrayed as dangerous and untrustworthy, and as a foreign threat, despite the fact that, as voters, the women in question are necessarily Canadian citizens.

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