Sarkozy to the Rescue! France, Burqas, and the Question of “Choice”

Nicholas Sarkozy. Image via BBC.

Nicholas Sarkozy. Image via BBC.

As I’m sure many of you have seen already, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week that he supports a commission to consider banning the wearing of burqas in public places.  Here are some excerpts of his speech, quoted from this article:

“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” Mr. Sarkozy told a special session of parliament in Versailles.

“That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.”

“The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic,” the French president said.

But he stressed that France “must not fight the wrong battle”, saying that “the Muslim religion must be respected as much as other religions” in the country.

If this conversation sounds familiar, it’s because we keep having it.  It has come up recently in debates about whether the niqab should be allowed in courtrooms, and whether feminist organisations in Quebec should support a ban on headscarves for public employees.  There’s pretty much a set script: Western leader (usually white and male, nearly always non-Muslim) decides that Muslim women who dress in certain ways are a threat to Western culture, and under threat from the big bad extremist Muslim men in their communities.  Burqas (or niqabs, or headscarves) are portrayed as completely incompatible with Western societies, and their wearers assumed to be entirely outside of Western cultures until the offending clothing can be removed.  Patronising conversations about oppression and choice follow, and the tiny percentage of people in the area being discussed who actually wear the item of clothing being debated all suddenly find themselves as pawns in discussions about principles of liberation, secularism, fundamentalism, and symbols of the demise of the world as we know it.

We’ve been through all of this before, and I’m not going to write another post re-hashing why this latest incarnation of the clothing-ban debate is problematic.  Jill at Feministe and Wendi at Racialicious have also looked at this particular issue in detail (although some of the comments on the Feministe article are pretty horrendous; the commenters should all go read this piece.  As should the rest of you, because it’s funny.)

Moving on…  I want to focus in on one particular element of the debate, which is the idea of choice.  It comes up a lot, and often gets talked about in a very superficial way, by both sides.  Conversations about whether certain articles of clothing should be permitted often go like this:

A: The [hijab/niqab/burqa] should be banned, because it’s oppressive!

B: No, it’s not.  Some Muslim women choose to wear those things.

A: Yeah, but is it really a choice?  Their husbands will probably kill them if they don’t.  Or they probably feel like they have to wear it to live up to cultural expectations.  Or they are misguided and believe this is a religious obligation, even if it isn’t.

B: But we can’t just assume that all women are forced to wear it…  Some women really do choose it.

And so on.  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.)

It’s a narrow-minded perspective, because it ignores all of the other ways that sexism acts upon women, both within Muslim communities and within non-Muslim communities in the west.  After all, there are all sorts of ways that non-burqa-wearing women may be objectified (and thus deprived of identity in a different way), or made to be subservient. It also misses the many other systems of oppression – for example, those based on race or economic class, both of which also affect many Muslim women in France, that imprison and marginalise (or “cut off”) women.  So, when these women make the “choice” to wear the burqa, they are not necessarily choosing between imprisonment and freedom, or between subservience and empowerment; they may be making this choice between multiple forms of imprisonment (symbolic or otherwise), or multiple options that still place them in subservient positions, or they may even be making this choice in a context where the burqa represents the positive side of those dichotomies.  The point is that the arguments about “choice” simplify the discussion, and ignores the ways that women may claim agency even in situations where their possible “choices” might be restricted.

(As a side note, Saba Mahmood, in her book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, has some very interesting things to say about religious identity and practice in relation to women’s agency.  Go read it.)

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think that “choice” is really the best framework for the conversations that we are trying to have.  Of course, I believe that we should work to create conditions so that all people can wear the clothing that makes them feel comfortable.  But I also think that it’s hard to have these conversations if we focus primarily on ideas of “choice,” which often ignore the complexity of the contexts in which all of our choices take place, and the many competing systems and structures in which we attempt to act.

  • Ista

    I read the comments on Feministe about this and I really hoped that there would be an article here on the “choice”. So, thanks for this.

  • http://www.terry.ubc.ca/index.php/author/nickzarzycki/ Nick

    You seem to bring up two major points.

    Your first point addresses the question of direct oppression (which is brought about by, say, an authority figure), and indirect ‘oppression’, which might be the result of social and cultural influence. You end with the question of how we decide “which ‘choices’ are legitimate and free, and worthy of being respected”, and leave it at that. I think that the question is very interesting and complex and slippery (as I’m sure you do too) and I think brushing it off because it’s complex (that’s is the impression that I get from the way you’ve put it) isn’t useful, and isn’t going to help us.

    It’s important because, for example, it helps us avoid the strawman-ish argument people set up when they say “Yeah, but is it really a choice? Their husbands will probably kill them if they don’t.” being brought up in a discussion. It is (obviously) just as absurd to think that all Muslim girls’ fathers/husbands will kill them if they don’t follow hijab as it is to think that all proponents of headscarf banning think this way.

    Instead, we should start thinking about choice in terms of free agency and the ways in which it operates within a framework of social pressures. Indeed, there are social and cultural pressures behind many of the things we ‘choose’ to do. I think what Sarkozy is arguing is that the pressures behind burqa/headscarf/etc.-wearing are grounded in misogyny and chauvinism to begin with, and that, however subtle/nuanced they may be (say, if the husband/father merely suggests or hints at the idea that burquas and headscarves are a good idea [or, indeed, if girls are taught growing up that hijab is a good thing {or maybe not even taught, but simply nudged in the direction of hijab-observation by way of unconscious and unintentional familial/cultural influence}]) they are still incompatible with Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité.

    (Though there’s much to be argued about Sarkozy’s view [I, personally, am opposed to it], I can already foresee someone bringing up a [somewhat common] argument that goes something like this: “hey, you’re treating Muslim females like they’re slaves to their culture and/or whatever they learned when they were little – do you think that they can’t figure out what constitutes liberal and egalitarian behaviour as well as non-Muslims do?” My answer is: of course Muslim females aren’t any more enslaved by cultural/societal norms than non-Muslims are. No-one is absolutely free of the cultural environment in which they live/were raised in. And that includes Muslim females. [What Sarkozy would argue, again, is that if we can identify a product of social pressures that clearly is not compatible with ‘Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité’, then it should be addressed.])

    You second point is a little bit less complex. You say:

    “So when Sarkozy talks about women in burqas as “prisoners… subservience,” he’s implying that it’s the burqa, and the burqa alone, that holds women captive”

    You talk about how this issue “often gets talked about in a very superficial way, by both sides”—indeed here you seem to have succumbed to that temptation yourself. Of course Sarkozy isn’t saying that burqas are the only way “sexism acts upon women”. He’s saying that burqas are _a_ way in which “sexism acts upon women”.

    What I think Sarkozy would argue (once we get the myth out of the way that Sarkozy thinks the only way in which sexism happens w/r/t [muslim] women in France is by way of burqa [this is obviously _not_ what he means]), is that unlike some other “ways that non-burqa-wearing women may be objectified” or “made to be subservient” or placed “in subservient positions”, the burqa is a very concrete and tangible way in which “sexism acts upon women”. It is a custom, set in scripture and consciously enforced by people who think hijab is good stuff. If you are looking to make society more egalitarian and less filled with “multiple forms of imprisonment (symbolic or otherwise)”, banning customs or traditions that are tangibly and crassly misogynistic and chauvinistic might be a good place to start.

    Now that I look at it (and I know this comment is long so I’ll wrap it up), your argument in your last three paragraphs seems to be:

    - Hey, look, Sarko thinks the burqa is the only form of sexism present in the French Republic.
    - There are many ways in which sexism acts upon women (Sarko is such a dummy).
    - Therefore, the burqa is not sexist (or should not be treated as something sexist).

    Sarkozy said that the burqa is a “sign” of subservience, and he is as much criticizing the social pressures behind the promotion of burqa-wearing as he is the meaning behind it.

    In other words, he a) wants to stop the social pressures behind burqa-wearing, and b) disagrees with Muslims who believe that ‘Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité’ are compatible with burqa-wearing.

    That, I think, is what we should be arguing about.

  • http://muslimlookout.org Krista

    @ Nick:

    Wow, that was a long one! Here goes an attempt at a response:

    First, just to be clear, my point here wasn’t to discuss the actual ban or even burqas in general – I wanted to, instead, question some of the language used to talk about it, because, as I said in my post, I don’t think that “choice” (especially in the liberal/individualist understandings of the word) is the right framework for these conversations.

    “Your first point addresses the question of direct oppression (which is brought about by, say, an authority figure), and indirect ‘oppression’, which might be the result of social and cultural influence. You end with the question of how we decide “which ‘choices’ are legitimate and free, and worthy of being respected”, and leave it at that. I think that the question is very interesting and complex and slippery (as I’m sure you do too) and I think brushing it off because it’s complex (that’s is the impression that I get from the way you’ve put it) isn’t useful, and isn’t going to help us.”

    I’m not trying to brush it off because it’s complex, but rather because I’m not sure it’s that useful. As you said, “we should start thinking about choice in terms of free agency and the ways in which it operates within a framework of social pressures.” I would probably take the word “free” out of that (because I disagree that any of this can be totally free), but I’m more comfortable using the word “agency” in these debates, because I think it does a better job of capturing the existing systems that affect the ways that we act.

    “You talk about how this issue “often gets talked about in a very superficial way, by both sides”—indeed here you seem to have succumbed to that temptation yourself. Of course Sarkozy isn’t saying that burqas are the only way “sexism acts upon women”. He’s saying that burqas are _a_ way in which “sexism acts upon women”.”

    Okay, fair point. But what I was trying to say is that if we follow Sarkozy’s argument that burqa = prison and therefore should be removed, the assumption follows that the absence of a burqa is necessarily less of a prison than a burqa is, and I’m just not sure that that’s always the case. Even if we assume that a burqa is always a tool of sexist oppression, or always a symbol of female inferiority (which are already simplifying the issue), it may still be the case that other manifestations of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression could create a situation where a woman felt that the safest/most comfortable/least restricted clothing option would be a burqa. I’m not saying that’s common, but that the situation is way too complex to believe that a woman would be better off without a burqa.

    As for your summing up of my argument:
    “- Hey, look, Sarko thinks the burqa is the only form of sexism present in the French Republic.
    - There are many ways in which sexism acts upon women (Sarko is such a dummy).
    - Therefore, the burqa is not sexist (or should not be treated as something sexist).”

    For the first two points, what I really meant is that the way the issue is presented glosses over the other ways that sexism (and other forms of oppression) is manifested. I would hope that Sarkozy would recognise that multiple expressions of sexism exist throughout French society, and I’m not trying to argue that he doesn’t, but a lot of the language – throughout the media, not just the quotes from Sarko – seems to paint a black-and-white scenario of burqa as oppressed and no-burqa as not-oppressed, which obviously leaves out a lot of what’s going on.

    As for the last point, nope, that’s not what I said at all. This blog is not the place for my own comments on the burqa, so I’m not going to go there, although I think that an argument about whether the burqa “is sexist” or not is rather reductive. There is definitely a lot of sexism associated with the burqa. I just think it’s simplistic to reduce the burqa to something that can assumed to be always and only sexist, or to assume that its removal is always the best option.

    “In other words, he a) wants to stop the social pressures behind burqa-wearing, and b) disagrees with Muslims who believe that ‘Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité’ are compatible with burqa-wearing.

    “That, I think, is what we should be arguing about.”

    Fair enough. My own feeling is that enough people are already talking about that stuff, and I didn’t feel an especially big urge to join in, which is why I wanted to step back and talk about some of the concepts being used in the debate instead.

  • http://rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    Read “The Politics of the Veil” by Joan Scott. Definitive work.

  • http://explainingislam.blogspot.com Nada Al-Mahdi

    It’s clear from what Sarkozy is saying, is that he doesn’t want Islam in his country, or that he wants a version of Islam that is more Westernized. If he truely believes in freedom, then this freedom should extend to how you follow your religion. I don’t believe that the burka is mandatory in Islam, but if a woman wants to wear it because she feels that this is what modesty means, she shouldn’t be told, “No! You are going against our beliefs of what freedom is.” If a woman can be accepted in society wearing a skimpy outfit, them she can certainly be accepted wearing modest clothing, it will do more good to their society than bad.

  • http://rawi.wordpress.com rawi

    >”I don’t think that ‘choice’ is really the best framework for the conversations that we are trying to have.”

    I fully agree, and I think the ironic fact that Sarkozy is attempting to institute a ban to counteract a purported lack-of-freedom is another indication of the limits of liberal politics. In fact, liberalism is essentially bankrupt when it comes to making sense of human agency–which is what I take to be the main point of Saba Mahmood (who should be made obligatory [no pun intended] reading for all!)

  • Hassan

    Banning a highly visible and popular element of a minority culture can never in any way encourage freedom. It is eliminating absolutely the freedom to dress oneself according to one’s beliefs, with the pretense of protecting one’s freedom to dress like everyone else. There is no need to protect a citizen’s right to behave like the majority. It is expressing oneself as a minority that is constantly endangered in Europe.

    This is all based on the (very European) assumption that the minority culture is inferior. Why else treat any expression of that culture as harmful and oppressive? Just what is it, in a cosmic and supernatural sense, that makes dressing like the Virgin Mary oppressive? In a liberal society like France, there is little public pressure to wear anything at all, let alone Hijab. The only pressure to observe that religious obligation (or any moral obligation whatsoever) comes from one’s family and religion. How is that different from any other religious obligation?

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • RCHOUDH

    Just to add to your point Krista another very obvious way that clothing is dictated by social/cultural expectations is the way people working in the corporate sector have to dress. Women for example should come dressed in business attire (whether it be attire consisting of a blouse and skirt or blouse and pants does not matter the point is it has to look “professional and business like”). There’s very few companies that will allow their employees to come dressed everyday in casual attire (forget fortune 500 companies being lenient like that). Some companies even dictate what sort of hairstyles are/aren’t allowed. In America Black American women have been made to feel that their hair has to be straightened and permed before being deemed “acceptable” in a business environment. One of the major reasons why I chose to ultimately pursue an MPA (Masters in Public Administration) degree instead of an MBA is because I know that the hijab on my head may be a cause for employers discriminating against me when deciding who to hire. This is just one very real example of how we are not really “free” to dress the way we like even within a free society.

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  • Kalimaat

    @ Nada Al Mahdi

    Sarkozy is not ordering women to change their long skirts and jilbabs for skimpy outfits, the issue is not one of dress but hiding of the face. As a Muslim i am sure you do not believe in absolute freedom, so why do we expect and demand it in a secular society like France?

    I dont see how it is good for their society to have women behind a mask.

  • http://vsthepomegranate.blogspot.com/ Joseph Shahadi

    This is a really great take on this latest round of Islamophobic Euro-silliness. Cosign on Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, btw fantastic book.

  • http://threadbared.blogspot.com Mimi

    I too cosign on recommending Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. The issues of choice and coercion are too complicated to be rendered as absolutes — I always try to address this early on in my Politics of Fashion course, but it’s difficult work.

  • http://threadbared.blogspot.com Mimi

    FYI, I plan on assigning this post to my class this fall semester!

  • Sahar

    Great point about choice!

    Read both Saba Mahmood’s work and Joan Scott. The former is too secular for my liking but she definitely does provide interesting research on the veiling movement in Egypt. Scott is brilliant and really summarises everything one needs to know about the hijab debate in France.

    Here’s my take on the burqa issue in France:

    http://nuseiba.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/the-enemy-within-muslims-in-france/

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