Under the Veil: Feminism and the Burka

Is the burqa ban feminist legislation, or does it go against every feminist value possible?

Recently, political discussions in developed countries have been erratic and based almost entirely around feelings and emotion. Leaders have taken it upon themselves to not only lead their countries, but decide the values the want to present to the world. Western countries grandstanding their “moral superiority” is hardly a new concept. However, this ethical high horse has chosen a new focus of late: Muslim culture and religion. With burkini bans and hijab restrictions popping up in Western countries such as France or the Netherlands, it’s impossible to ignore the conversation around faith and women. The veil these countries hide behind is one of concern: these poor women are oppressed, but we in France don’t stand for the oppression of women! Some even try to mask their prejudice with political waffle about the danger of extremist Muslim terror attacks. But let’s be clear: the burqa ban is not a practical reform to curtail terrorism, it is symbolic of sexist and racist policies that harm women more than they protect them. And it absolutely should absolutely be a feminist issue.

The burqa ban has been creeping through Europe like a morally superior police force. The first openly anti-Muslim law was passed in France in 2004, however the conversation has been bubbling under the surface since 1989. This most recent piece of legislation banned the hijab from being worn in schools, as it was a religious sign that contradicted France’s religious secularism. The education of young girls is being sacrificed in the name of equity. The banning of such items of clothing, most recently the burkini, just represents the failure in France’s secularism: it only singles out the most vulnerable and visible to blame. Women being dragged off beaches for wearing comfortable swimsuits is the very opposite of ‘fraternity’ or brotherhood. Instead, the far right further exclude Muslims from society, pushing them into the arms of radicals. The idea that a woman on the beach with her family is a hidden terrorist is just political rhetoric. The terrorist attacks in France didn’t come from new refugees wearing bathing suits, it was by second-tier immigrants that felt marginalised and excluded from society. This burqa ban just perpetuates the issue: by excluding more people from your society, you make it easier for these views to cultivate themselves.

A woman on a French beach removing a burkini under police supervision

The main argument being touted by politicians such as Le Pen is that a burqa ban frees women from oppression and welcomes women into a liberated society. Rather, the opposite will happen: you will create a situation where women feel that have to stay inside or become isolated in little communities. Women in Saudi Arabia may feel pressured to wear a burqa, however in a country like France, women aren’t made to wear a headdress. They’re doing it out of their own free will. If you ask someone to choose between their faith and conformity, history doesn’t look favourably on choosing the conformity option. Women in these countries actively choose to wear the burqa, and will choose to continue to wear it even if it isolates them from their so-called “tolerant” adopted nation. By banning the burqa, these countries are working in the same way as countries that force women to wear it. By forcing a woman out of a burqa instead of allowing her to choose is an act of humiliation and cultural violence. Replacing one form of oppression with another doesn’t create liberation. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Political focus to the point of obsession with how Muslim women dress is a dangerous game. By banning Muslim women from covering themselves as they please, the most basic human right is violated: freedom of expression and self-determination.

Protests against the burqa are bipartisan, but for different reasons

It’s not just the banning of one item of clothing that is concerning, it is the precedent it sets. By making it acceptable to dictate how women dress and express their faith, more extreme measures become more obtainable. The current political climate has seen leaders of major countries throw around words like registries and bans. This symbolic denial of human rights makes more extreme measures seem like a real possibility. And while it may seem odd, imploring feminists to support seven varieties of items of clothing that has been used as a tool to oppress women since the writing of the Qaran, the burqa bans effects all feminists. Feminism is about allowing women the freedom to do what they want. If you support the ban, you cannot claim that it’s because of your feminist beliefs that make you dislike the way those countries treat women. Feminist liberation was not founded on restricting what women can wear in public. In fact, replace the hijab with any other item of clothing, and it seems overwhelmingly anti-feminist.

Personally, the full-faced veil does concerns me when I rarely see it. I wonder if the women are happy and supported at home. However, in New Zealand, it is a choice to wear that. While a burqa ban might make me feel happier, it would do nothing to improve the lives of the women truly affected.

Feminists need to ensure that Muslim women have the ability to participate in our society in whatever way that makes them feel comfortable. My “feelings” towards a woman wearing a head scarf are extraordinarily redundant in this debate.

As writer and activist Audre Lorde defined feminism: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even if her shackles are very different from my own” My feminist beliefs instead implore to understand that the suffering of women, in whatever form, is an issue for feminism.

Women in Western countries are doing it out of their own free will

Feminists may be torn on this issue: they don’t want to police women’s clothing, yet we don’t want to something that is historically used as a tool of oppression. By banning the burqa, we award governments the power to decide what is a symbol of oppression. Do we then take items of clothing that represent Western femininity, such as high heels or lipsticks, and ban them? The feminist movement doesn’t, and shouldn’t, demand that any oppressive item of clothing is confiscated. Henderson Police Station would be stockpiling push-up bras and eyebrow pencils. Ultimately, a law that doesn’t allow women to choose what they can wear is a sexist law. A law that treats women as though they are children that cannot be trusted to make decisions is a sexist law. A law the singles out the most vulnerable women is a sexist law. And that is not what feminism is, or supports. These laws may win back sexist votes, but they do a very poor job of protecting women.

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