Saturday, July 19, 2008

Eyes only

The decision of a French court to deny citizenship to a
Muslim woman who insists on wearing a burqa at all
times in public—refusing to remove it even to be
photographed for a passport—raises delicate issues of
personal freedom and cultural values. On the one hand,
there is the argument that an individual in a free state is
entitled to wear what they like, provided it does no harm
to others. If a burqa is unacceptable, why not, for instance,
ban bikie gear or tongue studs? You could get into some
very tricky territory over where to draw the line. On the
other hand, if a nation has any cultural values worth
defending at all, presumably it is entitled to assert them.
A fully masked face is not the norm in Western countries
like France and New Zealand—just as certain Western
customs are not the norm in Islamic countries. In Saudi
Arabia, for instance, Westerners must change their ways
to suit the locals by not drinking alcohol in public and by
not wearing revealing clothing. If it’s all right for Islamic
countries to insist on others doing it their way, shouldn’t
it be all right for Western countries to do the same on
their own turf?

Then you get into the even thornier territory of religious
belief; but the French court made no allowance for that,
because the French believe strongly in a secular state and a
“secular arena” common to all citizens in which religion has
no power. The French, of course, have already gone further
than most nations and banned religious clothing like
headscarves from state schools and public buildings. I think
New Zealanders would be uneasy about going too far down
that road, because there’s a strong liberal live-and-let-live
strain in our culture; but we too might draw the line at
women serving us in shops, say, or teaching school in full-
length burqas with only their eyes showing.

For my own part, I might be more inclined to defend the
freedom of religious belief, and therefore disagree with the
French court, if I didn’t regard Islam as essentially a male-
supremacist religion. So I side with the French feminists
who say that such a religion shouldn’t be allowed to have its
way willy-nilly in the secular arena. If there’s a line to be
drawn, it’s not so much against items of clothing or forms
of belief as such but against anything conducive to the
subjugation, silencing and social sidelining of women.


Steve Withers said...

Here's an example with a local context: Two women in downtown Auckland wearing full burqa with only a slit for the eyes. I'm a tolerant person, so I thought hard about what it was that bothered me about this.

I boiled it down to: We are an open society and accountability to each other is part of our mutual and shared responsibility as citizens. If you hide your face from me, you are rejecting that responsibility to be open and accountable for your actions. You are hiding yourself. You are therefore a possible threat.....if only because if you do something wrong or harmful to me, I cannot know who did it.

For this reason - religion being utterly irrelevant - I reject the practice of covering of one's face in public.

You can see who I am. I should be able to see who you are. We help ensure our mutual security and accountability as citizens by being open in this way.

As such, NOT covering our faces is a fundamental part of being an open and law-abiding culture.

Deborah said...

A male supremacist religion having its way willy-nilly....

Tell me that wasn't deliberate?

I wrote my doctoral thesis in multiculturalism. In the thesis, I rejected moral relativism, and argued that there are practices which me should not tolerate, and must simply reject as being morally wrong. This is, I think, one of them, because it is so closely linked to the subjugation of women.

Steve Withers said...

deborah: I personally agree that making women wear such garb is not right. I also know that Muslim women themselves have been conditioned to wear very modest clothing and they will argue vehemently that no one is forcing them.....though stories of muslim men overseas beating or even killing women who do not want to wear the usual muslim gear where they live are many and heard often.

I have no objection to the robes and head dresses worn by many muslim women. It's their uniform. It's how they identify each other and - broadly - maintain their social separateness from non-muslims. That's their choice.

But the covering of the face is another matter entirely. To me, and in practical terms, it obliterates identity and represents a threat to the function of individual accountability necessary in a nation of responsible citizens who obey laws.

Deborah said...

It's the full-scale burqa that I find worrying. If a woman chooses to wear say, a hijab, then okay, I can live with that.

It's like many sticky issues - there is a slippery slope involved, and because it can be hard to make judgments about cases in the middle of the slope, we assume that it's not possible to make judgments about either end of the slope. Actually, we can. I think burqa-wearing is clearly so much tied up with the subjugation of women that it can be rejected, at the very least in our society. Hijab? Well - that doesn't entirely efface the woman. I can live with that.

homepaddock said...

A little bit of history: Women in Vejer de La Frontera in southern Spain wore the cobijada, which like the burqa covered all but their eyes, until the civl war when it was banned - but it wasn't to free women it was because it was too easy to hide weapons under the garment and men were wearing it to disguise themselves as women.

I'm with Deborah there are soem things we shouldn't tolerate and this is one of them.