Monday, 26 July 2010

My bit on niqabs and fear of the hidden face

David Mitchell wrote an opinion piece in the Observer this weekend about why banning burqas is unliberal. Other people say that burqas (I think they mean niqabs because I'm never seen a burqa outside of TV pictures of Afghanistan) are horrible because they show women being forced to do things by men or religion. I say:

We don't know that it's not a choice for women. Here's two reasons for a start: maybe women who cover dislike being looked at sexually by men (of course, the real solution would be men stop ogling and sexualising women); maybe the hair is constructed as being as personal, not for viewing in public, just as many cultures have constructed breasts/bottoms/genitals as personal and not for public show. The construction of shame and the need to cover certain parts of the body is exactly that, a construction, and totally arbitrary. So there is no way that anyone can judge Muslim women for constructing a need to cover the hair, unless they believe that there is an imperative for everyone to go naked all the time.

Mitchell's piece is problematic, mainly for this bit:
"those women who feel pressured into wearing burqas by cultural or familial forces might become aware that they're living in a society where questioning those forces is welcomed."

Way to assume low/zero education and knowledge of Britain in a group of women! How infantilising! I think women know where they live!

And he rests a lot of his argument on what he sees as his right to take the piss out of women who cover. As someone who intensely hates being made fun of, that's not really something I can get behind.

Here's some articles which present a better take on it; however, as one of them says, why don't we stop blathering about clothes and start discussing war or poverty or education! And stop using women as a way to dress Islamophobia up as liberation.


Muslimah Media Watch on a potential ban in Quebec

MMW again

Is choice not the issue? Should there be a debate about head to toe covering in Europe, if it can stop wringing it's hands over cultural relativism? Mona Eltahawy says this

I think she's right in reminding that Islam is not monolithic and that full coverings might be coming from only very right wing cultural interpretations of the religion, but I don't think Western governments and commenters can presume to kn...ow how many Western Muslim women are choosing to cover and how many are forced. Actually a woman wearing a niqab walked past me where I'm sat in Loughborough Uni library just ten minutes ago; I don't know whether she wishes to dress like that or not and it's not really my business because although niqabs and burqas might be a symbol of misogyny, talking about women's clothing is not going to stop violence against women, or racism, which Eltahawy seems to suggest will stop if women don't cover (the bit where she mentions the group Ni Poutes Ni Soumises). If the French were really bothered about misogynistic violence and racism then they would address those problems directly, but instead they focus on a fear of the unknown (a hidden face and a different type of clothing) and say the face is central to Western identity and human interaction. I don't want to be culturally relativist, because British Muslims don't live under a government that demands covering, therefore we might question why a woman feels the need to wear a niqab in a country like Britain, we might ask why she feels it necessary, but either way clothing doesn't bring social justice.

Sometimes I feel like covering my face (bad skin) and lots of women might hide their identity behind a shovel full of make up, and maybe some men use beards to hide behind. These are body presentations issues too but no one talks about liberating women from make up regimes because I am suspicious that for a lot of people the issue is that Muslimahs who cover are rejecting Western beauty trends and the imperative to dress for men, to be viewed by men. And Westerners don't get that.

Really the way to stop misogyny and racism and violence and work for tolerance and social justice is to address the causes of intolerance, bring education and stop fear. It's like the way that anti-rape campaigns preach to potential victims "don't go out late on your own, don't wear slutty clothes, etc" - but you don't stop rape by changing women's behaviour, you stop rape by getting men to stop raping. Likewise, you stop Islamophobia, racism and misogyny against Muslim women not by changing the women's behaviour or dress, but by stopping racists from meting out frightened violence, educating against violence against women, and solving the poverty, unemployment and segregation that is behind a lot of hatred of the Other.

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