By Asma Afsaruddin,
Chair, CSID Board of Directors
The recent passage of the bill banning the burqa in the French Senate and the heated discussion preceding it have brought into relief a time-honored (masculine) practice of waging culture wars on the bodies of women. In this case, the bodies are those of veiled Muslim women serving as ideological sites for passionate French debates about national identity and cultural authenticity.
For all the female emancipatory rhetoric which heavily cloaks (pun intended) this piece of legislation, the paternalism of those who are agitating for it is unmistakable. After all, it is mostly male French legislators who are in the process of deciding, without the consent of and consultation with the women involved, what is good for them. If, as has been argued correctly in my opinion, no one has the right to force women to wear the burqa, then to be consistent, it should similarly be argued that no one has the right to force them to desist – both smack of unconscionable paternalism and condescension. In the current highly-charged French atmosphere, the former is deemed offensive, the latter not – even though both measures deny the women themselves any agency and rob them of their voices, a situation that these legislators are supposed to be against. French president Sarkozy, of all people, has tied the ban to an attempt to protect “the dignity of women” and prevent their “oppression.”
Sarkozy? Recently he intervened on behalf of Roman Polanski wanted on charges of statutory rape of a young girl in this country. The current French first lady – Sarkozy’s third wife – has bared her body in public for commercial gain and hardly serves as a poster girl for the dignity of women. It should therefore not come as a surprise if religious women and feminists in general express disdain for sexually degrading cultural norms and take the initiative to assert their personhood in self-respectful, non-conformist ways. If a minority of Muslim women signal their rejection of society’s objectification of women’s bodies by choosing to cover themselves from head to foot, those of us of the female persuasion who do not choose to dress this way may wonder at the choice but feel impelled to support it. It is after all an assertion of their individuality and of their right to express their religiosity in the public sphere in a way that does not infringe on anyone else’s right. If we do not defend their right to freedom of religious expression as they see fit, what guarantee is there that our right to do so [or not] will not be jeopardized in the future?
But, one may remonstrate, what about security concerns in an age plagued by violence? What about the right of a doctor to examine a woman’s face/body for medical reasons – for her own good and of others? Rights are of course never absolute. Rights are exercised in social contexts and they derive their normativity and valences in these contexts. My right to listen to music at a certain decibel in my home has to be mitigated by the right of my neighbors not to have their hearing assaulted by loud music. Similarly behavioral injunctions understood to be rooted in religion – outside of worship – are not absolute either. In Islamic law, Muslims are allowed to consume pork if they are otherwise faced with starvation; or allowed to imbibe alcohol for unavoidable medicinal reasons. A higher moral imperative – the preservation of one’s life and health in such cases – trumps a lower one. Women who choose to wear particularly the face-veil are hopefully aware that even if they consider this to be a religiously-mandated duty (according to majority juridical opinion, it is not; there is nothing in Islam’s foundational texts that would require such a practice) that concessions, known in Arabic asrukhas, are readily available which allow Muslims to find a modus vivendi between their variegated religio-cultural practices and their surrounding circumstances. For security, medical, and commonweal reasons, these women will have to negotiate, even abdicate, their right to wear the face-veil in certain contexts.
On the other hand, there should be nothing objectionable about women choosing to dress in this manner and attending schools and universities and workplaces, away from banks, airports, and other places where security concerns are paramount. But wait – what if some of these women are indeed being forced to don the burqa by their menfolk? The sensible answer should be that making sure these women have access to education and economic opportunities, regardless of their attire, equips them with the tools to take charge of their own lives and challenge oppressive patriarchal authority. The Nobel laureate and indefatigable human rights activist Shirin Ebadi in her book Iran Awakening makes the very important observation that Iranian women began to challenge misogynist rulings on the part of the Khomeini government when they started gaining better access to education – especially religious education – which provided them with valuable knowledge of their rights found within Islam’s foundational texts. A universal ban on the burqa in France will prevent some of the veiled women from getting an education or holding jobs and generally flourishing as humans on their own terms. For those ostensibly committed to human rights, particularly women’s rights, such a situation should be deemed intolerable.
Or is tolerance to be extended only to those who think like the majority, behave like the majority, and look like the majority? The current paranoia in French society over the burqa is arguably primarily about race, as Joan Wallach Scott has cogently maintained in her book The Politics of the Veil. Anti-immigration sentiment is being fanned by dangerous right-wing groups in France, as in much of Western Europe, directed primarily against Middle Eastern and Muslim groups. The proposed veil ban further encodes atavistic French hostility towards religion and religious expression – the cult of secularism was meant to displace all other cults in French society after the French revolution. The often distinctive religio-cultural attire and practices of Muslims and their increasing visibility perhaps signal to many in France that the Revolution did not fully succeed and that the clock may be turned back. The problem with contemporary French secularism is that for all its embrace of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it is becoming ferociously parochial and fearful of ambiguity – ironically, mirroring the world-view of religious fundamentalists in general who similarly abhor a lack of certainty. The anthropologist Talal Asad’s definition of a secular world is noteworthy and potentially liberatory for all. He remarks in his book Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, “This world is ‘secular’ not because scientific knowledge has replaced religious belief (that is, because the ‘real’ has at last become apparent) but because, on the contrary, it must be lived in uncertainty, without fixed moorings even for the believer, a world in which the real and the imaginary mirror each other.” Both religious and secular people today would relate to each other more meaningfully if they were to embrace the uncertainty Asad speaks of and discern the opportunities afforded by societies in flux to imagine and shape a potentially different and more congenial future, especially one in which women’s bodies are not held hostage in the power struggles of men.
Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington and Chair of the Board of Directors of CSID. She edited Hermeneutics and Honor: Negotiating Women’s Public Space in Islamicate Societies (Harvard University, 1999).