Monday, June 22, 2009

God Bless France: A Secularist Feminist Critique of Sarkozy's Objection to Burqas

NOTE: I should in fairness stress that my following of this incident has been limited. I looked at a few other stories online which seemed to be summeries of the Google article, so the analysis is based almost completely on this one account. If you feel the article does not represent the incident or Sarkozy well enough, please feel free to leave alternative accounts in the discussion below with links. I'm headed out of town and had to scramble to finish this before it became too dated. I expect that even with the proof reading I'll want to edit this thing to death when I see it again with fresh eyes two days from now.

There are a few things about French President Sarkozy's reasoning against the wearing of burqas in his country that I find curious. Living in Virginia, where it is illegal for an adult regardless of sex to wear a mask or other substantial face covering in public, I find it surprising that the most pragmatic argument against allowing the wearing of a burqa--that it conceals the wearers identity in public--is apparently not an issue with regard to safety for Sarkozy. Where I cannot walk down the street wearing a full Richard Nixon mask over my head without a police officer being concerned that I'm going to commit a crime (yes, like rob a bank), Sarkozy seems more concerned about someone completely covered from head to toe posing a threat to secularism and feminism.

As a secularist and a feminist (yes men can be feminist too) Sarkozy's angle bothers me.

First of all, there is the simple inconsistency of his secular argument as it's presented by Google News. He seems to want to have it both ways, saying that the Islamic burka (or burqa) is not welcome in secular France but at the same time saying, "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience." How can it be both not a sign of religion and undermine secularism? While shifting the focus to feminism this quote in effect manages to secularize the burqa which poses even more trouble for his agenda when we look at how it supposedly undermines feminism.

Since Sarkozy has relieved us of our burdensome preconceptions about ignorant Islamic barbarism, let us indulge a bit more and lay down the baggage of western (arguably still white) middle-class/bourgeois feminism. That is to say, let us attempt to look at the Burqa as a completely secularized object devoid of as much preconceived bureaucracy of dynamics as possible. What we are left with is an object that virtually conceals all aspects of appearance, forcing wearers to define their selves in a non-superficial manner. When we are freed from the the notion of the non-consensual wearing of the burqa, the male order forcing women to cover up so that their sexuality does not undermine some patriarchal chauvinist order, we see the woman (or wearer of any sex) is just as freed from the objective gaze. Instead of the physical prejudices which influence our opinions of people (what is beautiful, ugly, sexy, etc.), relationships with and between burqa wearers would seem to develop on the basis of personality, one's intelligence, beliefs, tastes and so on. In this light, is the burqa not potentially the physical preexistence of the condition of early internet socializing?

With image and video an ever increasing aspect of internet society now, it is easy to forget that in the early days there were no or very limited avatars and profile pictures. In your home you were you with all your physical characteristics, but on the internet you were essentially a name, a being of text to be judged by the content of your text. This relationship hasn't utterly vanished. For example, I've never bothered to put a photo of myself up on this blog, so for the visiting reader I am essentially these words. You can't see if I am buttoned down and neatly dressed or unshaven and covered in grass clippings, fat or trim, if I look like an Old Navy model or your cousin who plays Halo 3 all the time, to give but a few of the many possibilities. Without an external relationship, I'm freed of virtually all visual coding by you the reader.

A personal example of this absence of visual codes as a positive is found in the many late nights in college talking with a Muslim friend of mine. Though she did not wear a burqa, she did adhere to many formalities in public which coded her very much as Muslim, which, all things September 11th aside, left a sense of treading eggshells for a ferocious secularist fighting the Marshall-Newman amendment like myself. Yet, this baggage was quickly obliterated within the disembodied space of the internet where she would initiate wonderful conversations with me about, among other things--and of all things--Nietzsche. (This occurred often at three in the morning while we both wrote papers due the next day). While I never disregarded her customs, this idea of Muslim other simply broke down, and I found myself able to talk to her more or less as I would anyone else.

The Burqa seems to function mostly in the same way. Inside one's home, it is not worn (among family); it is something put on to enter the public sphere which makes interaction something outside visual coding. This however is not as effective as the internet for it still retains the cultural dimension of the specific garment, which admittedly can become exceptionally coded, especially in contemporary times. While it prevents me from seeing not only if I am sexually attracted to wearer's physique, it also prevents me from making preconceptions about them based on fashion sense... except that they are Muslim. That detail of course is one betrayed by Sarcozy in claiming the garment to be "not a sign of religion." Secularized, it is a garment that, like the text-based internet, actually encourages intellectuality and personality as the definers of identity and relationship.

Isn't that what most feminist want? To be identified as people and not just sexual objects?

I am not unaware of the enormous problem with what I've argued so far. Sarcozy, or any sensible feminist who wants to strangle me write now, is arguing that women are forced to wear these so men don't have deal with their urges. Feminism is as much a psychological movement as a political one, and in most circles it is the gaze itself that is the issue, not what is being gazed at. My point is simply that the object, the burqa, separated from the context of who decides for who, is not a fundamentally bad thing. It is not genital mutilation or some other extreme form of misogyny at its core, but rather something which one could even conceivably choose to wear as a means of separating their identity from their body. This could even be an act of feminist resistance to the sexual objectification of one's self.

Let us consider how identity is addressed by Sarkozy. Instead of framing it as a necessity that others see one's identity for their benefit (ridding all criminals and law abiding citizens alike of the luxury of visual anonymity), Sarkozy focuses on the woman's need to show her self for the benefit of being seen. "We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity." Identity here becomes something bestowed by society, projected upon the woman's exposed skin. Identity is thus superficial. I think I just heard Camus roll over in his grave.

What this 'need to be seen' really means is that to have an identity others must see you, and (because of the extreme coverage of the burqa) you can't wear too much clothing while being seen. That strikes me as the opposite of feminism, and even smacks of the same subversive motivations as heterosexual men insisting that women should have the same equal rights to walk around topless. If Sarkozy is seriously concerned about feminism in his country he should (like Obama, who he makes a point of differing with) stress the woman's choice to wear or not wear a burqa and oppose anyone depriving them of the right to choose for their selves. He should even insist that men have the right to wear them as well, destroying the gender connotation.

I swear, as he argues it, even the use of "submissive" becomes suspect. Don't people have the right to wear submissively coded clothes? I get that he's probably as hard on nuns for the way they dress, but can we expect him to crack down on corset wearing emo-types as well? Should we be bracing for a full-scale shut down of fetish clubs and a mass deportation of gimps from France in the coming months?

Jokes aside, Sarkozy's argument has a perverse undercurrent to his reasons against the burqa that should not be overlooked by our cultural imperialistic progressive urge to cleans everyone of barbarity. I haven't even gotten to what, as a secularist, I find to be perhaps the biggest problem with his statement that, "The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience." More than the inconsistency of the statement we should be asking who is he to say that it isn't a sign of religion? What he is doing is as a president--one of the highest positions of political authority--is imposing a theocratic position on his people. How the hell can he call himself a secularist and do that? Imposing a theocratic view from a political position as an argument for potential legislation is about the greatest undermining of secularism anyone could conceivably commit.

The purpose of a secularist government should be the insistence of pragmatism and utilitarianism as the means for determining laws. Drawing from the premise of theologian Roger Williams that marrying church and state corrupts the church, secularism can be as much a pro-religion institution as opposed, understanding the necessity of the state not to favor one religion or particular interpretation of a religion over others in a multi-faith populace. As I pointed out at the beginning, there is a perfectly good pragmatic reason to object burqas for reasons of safety, but Sarcozy is not quoted addressing it, choosing instead to tell citizens what does and does not represent their faith and that they cannot represent their faith. While the movement to forbid politicians from wearing signs or otherwise outwardly designating themselves as members of a particular faith is not beyond the scope of how secularism can be practiced by a government, the implementing of such restrictions on civilians elevates atheism in the very same problematic way as elevating a given religion. Politicians bare a responsibility to everyone that they represent, which in a secularist state requires some personal sacrifice to ensure one serves equally, but to impose the same on civilians as citizens is pure religious oppression. Sarkozy seems more interested in an atheist state than a secular government for France, which anyone truly serious about secularism should oppose.

So yeah, damn you Sarkozy for making me defend burqas!


Blogger Edward Azad said...

That was an insightful post. I didn't even know about this!

I don't know Sarkozy's motivations, but it seems to me that Europe is split between people who thing Islamic militants are covertly trying to take over the continent by infiltrating their neighborhoods one block at a time ("As Europe Slept" is a paranoid book by a well-meaning man who thinks Sharia law is intolerable in *any* sphere).

The other side of the coin wants to integrate Islam peacefully and (basically) stick their heads in the sand when it comes to the nastiness of Sharia law.

This is one of those tough issues with overlapping rights. I agree, it's a slippery slope to command people not to follow the tenant of their faith. That's hardly addressing the worst abuses of women. It's just going to foster more racist sentiment from the people of France and won't do anything to discourage Sharia law.

12:05 PM  

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