June 23, 2009

Woman, unveil thyself!

Unlike his pandering cohort from across the pond, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has the guts to declare a war on burka. Rejecting the waffling and the euphemisms of the apologists, he has mustered the courage to call a burka a burka. An anachronism that is nothing but a manifestation of the reprehensible and misogynistic idea in Islam that the exposure of even an inch of a woman's skin is fraught with danger. Danger to the ogling men, who will be forced to neglect their duty to bomb the hell out of the infidels and themselves. Instead of the heavenly embrace of the virgins that allah has guaranteed for them, they will be eternally damned by their frenzies of lust for the temptress. What could be worse than that, eh?

President Sarkozy, in his address to the French Parliament, declared to the applauding MPs and Senators:

"The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."

The applause was well deserved, but Sarkozy went on:

"We must not fight the wrong battle. In the republic, the Muslim religion must be respected as much as other religions."

Now, Sarkozy is obviously attempting to regain his balance on the political tight rope, as he deflects the battle away from Islam.

What are we battling against, if not the idea that woman is inferior to man, that woman must be subservient to man, that woman must not have the right to choose freely? And, where exactly are these strictures pronounced, the strictures that have eternal validity, that are the words of god, and therefore beyond challenge? If these are not in Islam, in the Koran, or the Hadiths, then why are they the law in most Islamic countries?

President Sarkozy is not quite there yet, but it must be granted that he's far more credible than President Obama, who asserted this recently in his speech in Cairo:

"The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it... I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal..."

I wish President Sarkozy had given his speech before President Obama gave his. No, the West (and, for that matter, much of the East, the North, and the South that is not under the crescent moon) does not view the woman who chooses not but feels compelled to wear the burka, the hijab, or whatever, as unequal. The idea of compulsory wear for women to protect the men from themselves, however, is quite different. That certainly is not equal — not even close — to the idea of liberty and equality.

  1. While many people are clearly against the forced burqa, there are several who argue for a woman's right to wear one.

    If a woman chooses to wear it, she should be allowed to, and that is where the issue becomes complex.

  2. Finally a leader who called a spade by its name - I was very disappointed by the much awaited (and for some reason acclaimed) speech to the Muslim World. I dunno why every leader who is out side the "Green land" bends over backward when it comes to these issues...

  3. Today they forced off my burkha because it is supposed to be bad for me and for society.

    Tomorrow they will tax my cigarettes because they are supposed to be bad for me and for society.

    Then they will outlaw speech critical of anyone else because it hurts their emotions and is supposed to be bad for society.

    Then they will force me to hire the less-qualified employee because not hiring him is bad for society.

    Oh wait....

  4. I live in France and there are atleast 2000 women who cover their entire faces in a way that you cannot tell if they are angry or sad (do they have a drivers license?). So, Sarkozy is expressing an opinion but such a law will never be passed. However, there is a law that they cannot come to work in such a dress. I have a niece in India ( a 10 year old) whose teacher comes completely veiled. The students complain that not only they cannot understand what she says but more importantly, they dont know when she smiles and when she is angry. So there is a total lack of communication in the class. A face is very important for communication - I am sorry to say, I cannot meaningfully converse with a person whom I cannot see. On the other hand, Obama said about covering one's hair, so that is different.

  5. I'd think forced unveiling as bad as forced veiling. Maybe there are women who 'choose' to wear the burqua - isnt Sarkozy then taking away their right to dress as they please? You may say that this choice to wear the burqua is part of social/cultural/religuous conditioning - but how can we say which choices arent so?

    I think this ban on burquas is like addressing the external manifestations of a bigger problem than the problem itself. Its not exactly a parallel example but an intresting one I read somewhere- its a little bit like saying women who have bruises due to domestic abuse should cover them - which doesnt yet solve the problem of domestic abuse.

    Finally, far from improving the position of Muslim women who are forced to wear the burqua when they go out, it could very likely make it worse. If the woman's family is traditional and influential enough to force her to wear a burqua when she goes out, its not too far a step for them to force her to stay at home rather than go out without a burqua.

  6. Sarkozy’s burqa – rhymes well. Joke apart, I think he has a point, so do foot-fetish guys when they say women wearing socks is an index of subjugation.

  7. Clearly, what anyone wears ought not to be government business. As Revathi said, I hope France does not repeat its earlier mistake.

    Having said that, government is not the only institution that seeks to be in this business. Deny as much as I do religion, I cannot deny that religion has as much, if not more, control over the lives of most people. In theocratic countries, the two institutions are inseparable twins. Should a secular state intervene, and if so, how, on behalf of the people against religion?

    Born and brought up in India, I have seen enough to vouchsafe for President Sarkozy's claim about burka being a symbol of misogyny and subservience of women. From the tonsure of child widows to the senseless fixation with the dhuppatta or the half-saree, I have seen it all - no pun intended - when it comes to restraints on female garbs.

    I know I am asserting here without evidence, but barring exceptional circumstances, I seriously doubt if any woman would choose to cover herself from head to toe. Really, will any man do so? And about the hijab for the school girls, how many of their parents do you really think would have given them a choice?

    President Obama stated that the U.S. government had gone to court to punish those who would deny the right of women and girls to wear the hijab. Fair enough, but will he also go to court to punish those who would deny the right of women and girls not to wear the hijab?

    Again, a government ban on hijab or no hijab is a slippery slope, as etlamatey has commented in his rephrase of Pastor Martin Niemöller's "First they came...". Hence the title of this post!

  8. I wonder if (& how) blogger handles automatic pings/trackbacks.

    I vented out my frustration in a post of my own, hope you don't mind.

  9. M.V.Sankaran6/24/2009 9:54 AM

    This blog reminds me of the news bit about a College at Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, prohibiting the wearing of jeans and tight tops by the girl students (which has now become the fashion in urban centers in the country) purportedly to avoid the growing menace of eve teasing and other Colleges taking the cue and issuing similar instructions. Recently, however, there was another news bit about the State Government (of U.P.) issuing a Government Order against any such prohibition. What does that show? A change in thinking and attitudes comes about slowly but surely even in tradition-bound societies that are however tolerant and willing to break away from the traditions in some respects at least.

  10. Neither Obama nor Sarkozy need to decide what is good for women ...Islamic or otherwise.When the Muslim women decide to come out of the purdah let them choose.When ,where and how.Its their life anyway.

    Women in India do wear the burqa mostly when they travel but once they are in safer (?) sorroundings they usually take off their face covering.A teacher with children conducting a class with burqa on is unheard of.A bit farfetched Ill say!!

  11. mahendra:
    I read your post, and here's my response:

    In the end, I think I differ from Sarkozy: if women choose to be subservient, let them be. It is their right. Men should not trample over that right, though they can trample over such women, if they wish.

    Most of us choose to be subservient in one context or another. For a salary, I wear a suit to work in sweltering weather. I choose here to be subservient to the company. That's free trade - I am trading my right to wear what I like to for a compensation. I don't think that's what happens when a woman finds herself subservient to a man (or men).

    Call it my affliction with the "knight-in-shining-armor" syndrome :), but I suspect the stockholm syndrome is active in most cases where you see a woman seemingly endorsing subservience to men. Not for a moment that I believe that coercion, years of child abuse, deprivation, and threats of being roasted in hell, have nothing to do with this "choice" - please read my post on Women in Hell and A Letter to My Sister.

    So, what can be done? To begin with, I expect the secular democratic states to legislate against forced marriage, marital rape, forced full-term pregnancy, forced female genital mutilation, forced female foeticide and infanticide, forced illiteracy, forced widowhood, forced whatever. And then, speak up against other social institutions that deny anyone the natural right to live their lives as they'd like. Let them know that we the people and the law are on their side.

  12. The Rational Fool: thank you (for your comment and allowing my second comment on your post).

    And thank you for giving the first insight to me regarding why emancipated women might be clinging to religion despite the obvious facts – Stockholm syndrome. Is it that living in an oppressed society (akin to a hostage situation), it is their defense mechanism that they believe their fathers and brothers and husbands will be the only ones who are in control and will be able to save them from this merciless world? An interesting insight that I will keep in mind and continue to explore.

    My post is an attempt to understand why no one realizes that Sarkozy’s statement of ‘burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience’ is inherently flawed. In a woman’s context, subservience is an inseparable part of religion. How can something be a sign of one and not of the other? I fail to understand how nobody seems to ‘get’ this.

    Your suggestions regarding what secular governments should do are of course very welcome and I have strongly fought for them on this blog myself. Thanks for reiterating them in your usual clear and inimitable style!

    [Duplicate comment from my blog]

  13. Mahendra wrote:
    ... In a woman’s context, subservience is an inseparable part of religion. How can something be a sign of one and not of the other?

    Precisely! When the politicians, both on the right and the left, rile against the Communist China or Pinochet's Chile, they have no hesitation in declaring that it's not the people of China or Chile that they are against, but the totalitarian regime - the idea that a few men (and fewer women, if any) have the power and authority to dictate the lives of millions of others. Why, then, when it comes to religion, they pussy-foot around and put this very similar idea on a pedestal?


Leave a Comment