France has the burqa all wrong

The push for a veil ban assumes the practice is forced on Muslim women. A French historian says: Think again

Topics: France, Religion, Broadsheet, Islam, Love and Sex,

France has the burqa all wrong

The burqa has been having a baaad couple of months. Several European countries are actively pushing for an all-out ban on the full veil, and Belgium seems poised to become the first to make it happen. It’s France, though, that has garnered most of the international attention surrounding the issue, especially stateside. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a compelling defense of a French ban. Peter Berkowitz of Stanford’s Hoover Institution argued that the principles typically used to defend women’s right to veil simply do not hold up against the cultural, political and historical forces that are at play in France. 

Immediately, this argument brought to mind Joan Wallach Scott, an American historian of France and author of “The Politics of the Veil.”  What better person to speak with about Berkowitz’s Op-Ed and the burqa debate in general? Not only is the Princeton professor known for using gender as a lens for historical analysis, but she’s also an expert in French history. It would be a pity for her voice to be left out of the debate. So, I contacted Scott and she kindly fielded my questions over the weekend via e-mail.

Can you explain the logic of France’s anti-burqa campaigners?

There are several reasons: They argue that France is a secular country and that membership in the nation requires giving priority to one’s French identity. All other identities must be secondary and private. Wearing religious signs in public suggests the primacy of one’s religious identity.

Women have been singled out (no one objected to Sikh turbans or Jewish yarmulkes before the head-scarf ban in 2004), on the grounds that veils signify the subordination of women (again, other signs of such subordination — nuns veils, Jewish women’s wigs or other head coverings — were never objected to before Islam became an issue). In accordance with French secular principles, the state protects citizens from the demands of religion, thus the French state is protecting women presumed to be coerced into wearing burqas from the claims of their religious communities.



Yet another argument is that covering one’s face in a society that depends on visual communication and the transparency of faces violates social protocol and also is a threat to security (we don’t know who’s hiding behind that veil).

What do they have right, and what do they have wrong?

Well, I agree that covering one’s face makes communication difficult in societies used to judging people by how they look at one another. And, for purposes of identification, faces need to be uncovered. It’s also true that there is no Quranic requirement that women wear these coverings; rather it seems to be an old tribal custom that has been elevated by some political/religious groups to an Islamic requirement.

What’s wrong is that there’s no real attempt to find out why women wear these or to grant the idea that they may be making a choice; that they are not forced to do this, but find it a way of expressing their religious identity or religious conscience.

What is your strongest argument for defending women’s right to veil?

That their freedom of religious conscience must be respected. One can’t assume they know why a woman wears a veil or even that it signifies oppression.

As a feminist, I think the most compelling argument for banning the burqa is that it is part of a culture of oppression and is often forced upon women who have no meaningful choice in the matter. What do you think of such arguments?

I think they’re wrong. They don’t take into account the many reasons women might decide to wear a veil — much of the testimony suggests women [in France] choose this; they are not forced. By assuming that there is only one reason women might wear a veil, this argument refuses to grant agency or religious conscience to women.

The Western idea that women are emancipated when they are uncovered, allowed to be sexy, or whatever is a false one. There are many ways to be emancipated, many ways to be subordinated and these include certain Western practices as well as Islamic ones. I’m most persuaded by a group of French feminists (Muslim and secular) who say they are for equality and against any coercion: against forced wearing of veils and against forced removal of veils.

How is this debate unique to France?

It is not unique to France. Other countries in Western Europe are having versions of the same debate. You may remember that a few years ago a British politician urged the removal of the burqa and there was lots of debate at the time. Among other things, sales of burqas increased dramatically in Muslim neighborhoods because people felt his comments were discriminatory and wanted to protest against them, feeling there was deep misunderstanding of Islamic practices and deep racism about Muslims.

In most of these countries the issue focuses on the inequality suffered by Muslim women, ignoring all the ways in which these European countries do not have such equality (if you look at percentage of women in parliaments, the wage differentials between women and men in the workforce, the rates of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and other such indicators).

Why does the veil so dominate conversations about the rights of Muslim women?

Well, that’s an interesting question. I think it is a way of avoiding talking about the discrimination Muslims (men and women) face in Western societies, a way of indicating “our” superiority to “them,” of blaming “them” for the discrimination they suffer, a way of depicting “them” as less modern, less enlightened than “us.”

The focus on women (and on sexuality) suggests that the issue of “sexual democracy” now stands for what’s good about democracy instead of many other substantive issues such as economic equality, lack of discrimination based on race or ethnicity, etc., etc. When we ask why sexual issues (also the question of Muslim homophobia — as if there isn’t homophobia in the West) predominate in these discussions, we have to ask what they allow us to ignore, as well as what they point us to.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>