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Burka & women’s liberation
By Huma Yusuf
Monday, 29 Jun, 2009 | 07:22 AM PST |

From Fata to France, the question of what differentiates moderate from extremist Islam is being settled on the bodies of women. Using women as a litmus test for whether a certain interpretation of religion is ‘acceptable’ is one of the worst things that can happen to women’s rights. 

This is especially true if the indicator is women’s clothing, as nothing can be a more superficial gauge of either emancipation or religiosity. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the struggle for women’s liberation and religious moderation is a long-term effort that will require systemic social change. What, then, is all the fuss about?

Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ruffled many a headscarf when he lashed out against burkas. He framed his remarks as an issue of women’s rights, rather than religious tolerance. By describing burkas as a sign of ‘subjugation’ and ‘submission’ that deprive women of their identity and hinder social participation, he cast the garments as a cultural tool of male oppression (rather than a religious expression). Seeing is believing, his simple logic suggested: if a woman looks liberated, she must be liberated. 

Now, a national commission backed by 58 members of parliament, many of whom are from Sarkozy’s rightwing UMP party, are conducting a ‘burka probe’. If investigations suggest that women are being coerced into covering themselves, burkas will be banned in France to protect women and ensure their equality.

The problem is, Sarkozy’s women’s lib argument holds no water. The 2004 ruling that banned ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols — including headscarves — from French classrooms forced many Muslim girls to leave the public secular school system and enroll in Islamic schools where they could continue wearing hijabs. A ban on burkas will similarly confine women who veil themselves to their homes. Rather than boost social participation, integration and equality, French legislation on Muslim women’s clothing will further marginalise them. In a secular state such as France, where human rights are privileged, this outcome should be seen as counter-productive.

One is also discomfited by Sarkozy’s throwback to colonial posturing. His brash attempt to ‘save’ Muslim women from their barbaric, overbearing husbands and fathers is paternalistic, eerily recalling the we-meant-best rhetoric that stemmed from the ‘white man’s burden’.

Many have also pointed out that Sarkozy’s absolutist rhetoric resembles the very extremism it aims to counter. In Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, women have been forced to wear burkas — a practice that has been widely denounced. But how can its flipside — forcing women not to wear burkas — be any better? The argument that the state cannot tell a woman how to dress is equally valid in the Muslim world and the West. 

As such, everything about Sarkozy’s burka-bashing seems ridiculous. Given that only about 100,000 women out of France’s total population of five million Muslims wear burkas, it also seems unnecessary. Can such a minority merit the attention of the French parliament when the country as a whole is still wrangling with the problem of how to integrate Muslims into mainstream French society? Is it possible that the feisty Frenchman’s burka fervour is really directed at something else? 

Soon after Sarkozy condemned burkas, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of France’s Representative Muslim Council, expressed support for the president’s stance and declared that his group was investing in promoting a moderate version of Islam. Moussaoui’s comments indicated that Sarkozy’s decision to raise this point had less to do with the social politics of the burka per se, and more to do with which western power decides what interpretation of Islam will be acceptable to the West.

It is no coincidence that Sarkozy spoke out against burkas soon after US President Barack Obama delivered his historic address in Cairo. In that speech, Obama hit out at European countries that are dictating how Muslim women should dress and warned against disguising “hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism”. Sarkozy’s critique of the burka, then, is a way to push back against Obama, making it clear that France will deal with Islam on its own terms, not America’s. 

Indeed, the burka issue gets at the heart of a longstanding tussle between the US and France. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Howard LaFranchi points out that the difference between the two countries’ approaches to notions of freedom 'comes down to one of ‘freedom to’ versus 'freedom from'. While the US defends a woman’s right to dress as she likes, France wants to ensure women’s freedom from coercion and subjugation. In the former approach, individual liberty is elevated; in the latter, the state as protector bears the burden of responsibility.
This arm-wrestling between the US and France over concepts of freedom is centuries old, and is now taking place on the backs of Muslim women because the greatest challenge the West currently faces is its engagement with Islam.


Whichever nation sets the boundaries for what constitutes ‘moderate’ Islam will emerge victorious, at least for now.Of course, this could also be a case of petty personal politics. Sarkozy and Obama are both charismatic, ‘rule’-breaking, superstars with a penchant for the limelight. At the G20, Nato and EU summits earlier this year, Sarkozy was publicly perturbed at being overshadowed by Obama — he even went so far as to declare that the US president was inexperienced and thus not 'up to standard'. Post-Cairo, France’s favourite troubleshooter probably wants to ensure that he is not eclipsed by Obama. 

It would be best if western powers left Muslim women’s clothes out of their lovers’ spats. Denying women the option to veil themselves may provide France with a vision of a progressive Islam, but it will compromise the reality of Muslims in Europe. After all, banning burkas does not address the real issues that continue to hinder the progress of Muslim women the world over — access to education, political representation, job opportunities, vulnerability to domestic violence and more. In the near future, when military operations in Pakistan’s tribal and northwestern areas end, it will be time to invest in social and economic development. International donors have already implied that bolstering women’s rights while respecting tribal mores will be of utmost importance.

One hopes that the Pakistani government can learn a lesson from the fallacies of the French and instead take a page from Obama’s Cairo address. Let the chador be. Instead, emphasise female literacy, fiscal independence through micro-finance, equitable healthcare and freedom of movement. Looking the part is the least important aspect of being liberated.

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