parallels between burqas and short skirts: objectifying or empowering?
The Burqa ban is the cause of much debate in France. The ban sparked a discussion about human rights: do the citizens of France have free will to wear whatever they want? Is the next step to silence people from saying what they want? Or is the Burqa a security threat — a piece of fabric that can completely conceal the identity of a person, and possible a weapon, or worse a bomb, too?
It raises many a question from a feminist perspective too. Is it empowering to be able to conceal your body so you are judged on your personality and not on how you look? Is it oppressive because it is imposed upon women by men?
When I asked a male Muslim colleague why women were asked to wear a Burqa I was outraged when he told me it was so that men were not tempted by the appearance of women. He told me Muslims try to live a holy life, one that is above temptation and as near to godliness as possible, which is similar to Christianity and the commandment “You must not be envious of your neighbor’s goods. You shall not be envious of his house nor his wife, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The assumption being that if you are tempted, you may be led to commit the sin of adultery and (it is implied) you are ungrateful for the good things in your own life.
I often feel there is an element of smugness when people report or speak about the Burqa. Perhaps British people feel proud they need not enter into a debate about what women wear because there are no restrictions for women in this country. Very few people in Britain would label themselves as religious in today’s society and as such need not concern themselves with any kind of religious debate about sin.
It occurred to me recently that although there may not be an outward rule or a particular garment of clothing that women are expected to wear to cover themselves up, the expectations on women to dress in a certain way in this culture are as clear as ever.
In a recent school assembly, the girls in my school were told in order to avoid sexual exploitation they should not wear short skirts or low cut tops. In many a rape trial, evidence has been used against the victim to imply that her choice of clothing meant the woman was ‘asking’ to be raped. This misinformed concept seems to be somewhat global and reinforced to this day. Consider Swaziland’s recent ban on “rape-provoking” clothing and the lawyer for the accused rapists involved in the Delhi girl gang rape crime announcement that he has ‘never known a respectable woman be raped.’ The implication is all too clear: cover yourselves up, girls, or there is no one to blame but yourselves if you receive unwanted physical attention.
We might not call it a Burqa, we might not prescribe the clothing that is classified as ‘respectable’ but we are expected to dress a certain way to be perceived a certain way in society — specifically for the same reasons cited in discussions about the burqa: so that men are not ‘tempted’ by us, so that they can feel comfortable in our presence, or can safely decide that, yes, we are respectable human beings.
And as with many issues raised by feminism, no one seems to be talking about that aspect of this debate. By keeping the pressure on a single group in our society we are missing the bigger picture — how the burqa is just one nuanced example in one culture of how women all over are policed through their appearance. The “burqa” in my life is a high necked, long dress I wear to be taken seriously in meetings and interviews. What’s yours?