Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Intersectionality in Practice: The Burqa Debate

So you may have read that Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing a debate about banning the burqa in France, by which he appears to mean banning those Islamic methods of veiling which cover the face (the Afghan burqa with a grille in front of the eyes and the niqab, common in Saudi Arabia, which leaves only the eyes visible). I found reading the comments threads attached to posts on this topic at feministing.com and at feministe very interesting: Intersectionality in practice!

Except that this reveals one problem with intersectionality: by focusing on women and Islam we lose sight of the men and Islam, we lose sight of the long tradition of religious interpretation by men, and we lose sight of the question of women's roles in the three Abrahamic religions. Though intersectionality does help bring into light questions about colonialism and racism or xenophobia.

But I'd like to go a few layers inwards in the onion* that these kinds of debates really are, and to point out that the responsibility for modesty and sexual restraint is always put on women's shoulders. Now, a true believer probably accepts that and the differential rules of behavior for women. If that's the case, such a true believer might also believe that women ought to subjugate themselves to men. Some Southern Baptists believe this, for example. Probably some fundamentalist Muslim women do, too.

Then in rides the white knight in the form of the French President and valiantly puts his horse's hoof in his mouth. No, banning burqas would not help any women who are now forced to wear them, because the ban might force them to stay at home altogether. Banning burqas doesn't seem to help the women who have decided to wear them all on their own, either, though I can see some justification for banning burqas for driving (after experimenting a bit with a lace tablecloth). Banning certain forms of dress as a symbol of women's oppression may be misplaced. Even if it isn't, the ban itself is akin to thinking that breaking the thermometer will cure a patient with fever.

You know, men are not expected to wear burqas and we don't debate that issue, even though the rules about proper female dress have traditionally been made by men. That sentence looks like a silly one, but I was impressed by the way men are disappeared when this topic is debated. As if they don't exist, much.

* I think of this onion in these terms: The innermost layer consists of the religious teaching of a religion, when pared to its minimum. Much of this is not kind to women in the three Abrahamic religion. The next layer consists of the interpretations of this teaching over time. This is almost always done by men.

The third layer then consists of religious freedom, and this is the layer that I see mostly discussed in those comments threads. Individual women should have the same rights to practice their religion as individual men do, though of course religions themselves often make the religious duties of men and women different. Add to this the impact of cultures and of the political meaning of various apparently religious observances and you get an onion stew.

Added later: I'm trying to find out what French Muslim women's organizations think about all this. Here's one link (in French).