24 May 2010, Comments (23)

We must arrest this woman in order to save her

Author: Helen

The burqa is a controversial piece of clothing at the moment, and it certainly has a strange effect on some people. Their reading comprehension seems to go out the window, almost as if they were the ones peering out of a tiny slit which only allows limited vision. Some of them also seem to have a severe case of White Knight syndrome. For the the last week I’ve been involved in a circular and pointless argument on LP which has gone something like this (a reconstruction if you will, not a verbatim account, which you can read at the link if you have the stomach.)

Me: I’m against Cory Bernardi’s / Fred Nile’s call to ban the wearing of burqas in public because I find it unacceptable to punish people who are already oppressed. Plus, I don’t think it will work.

Another Commenter: So you support wearing burqas! How can you call yourself a feminist?

Me: Not at all. I think the burqa is highly problematic garment and if it’s forced on people it’s definitely a tool of oppression. I just think arresting, fining and perhaps imprisoning women for wearing it isn’t going to exactly have the effect you’re looking for.

Another Commenter: You feminists and your support for the burqa!

Me: Dude. I just said I did not support the burqa. I have no love for the burqa, niqab and what they represent. I just don’t support criminalising people who wear it because it will punish the people you are trying to help.

Another feminist: What do you think will happen if they pass this one?

AC: You feminists, so busy compromising you can’t stand for anything!

Me: Look, here’s an example of how you can think something is harmful while opposing making its users criminals.

AC: See, here are three quotes from some Muslim/Middle Eastern feminists who want to ban the burqa. That proves I’m right!

Me: “…”

The conversation has been framed – all over, it seems, not just on that blog – as A versus B where A represents po-mo acceptance of compulsory veiling and B represents making a law against it. It seems incomprehensible when a few of us say that we don’t approve of forcing a burqa or niqab on someone at all, but we also think criminalising it will do more harm than good, especially to the veilees- C or D – it’s heard by most people as A. It just can’t be heard, somehow, outside the frame.

The media has enjoyed a week of glorious po-mo-feminist scolding, culminating in this doozy by Virginia Hausegger, which took up almost a third of the AGE editorial page:

A bizarre form of political correctness is preventing us from an open discussion about what is, in fact, female subjugation.
It would seem there are some things in Australia we are not allowed to discuss. A ban on the burqa is clearly one of them.

Almost performance art that, the biggest article on maybe the second most important page of a national daily complaining about being completely silenced. I know that “we’re not allowed to talk about anything because of all this political correctness” is pretty much Holy Writ for culture warriors, but to persist in the face of so much countervailing evidence is nothing less than heroic, and I know that opinion is not the same as reporting, but when did it become simply making stuff up? Yah, political correctness was preventing us from an open discussion of the burqa ban so much, we had only been discussing it for several days on various blogs and talkback radio and crap TV, and there had only been articles on it (both opinion and reporting) in the AGE, the Australian, 9msn, all the news.com.au outlets, Yahoo news, the Punch, New Matilda… to name a few. As forbidden and taboo as twittering about Masterchef.

As for the LP thread, once the discussion had morphed from what they’re doing in France to what we should do here, you would think that instead of being a vanishingly rare minority, burqas had taken over the entire Australian landscape, that is, if you were to give credence to the people who are “offended” by them. Worse, though, is the excruciating fauxminism flung around by some otherwise intelligent people who would just like to feel they’re doing something to “help” the oppressed women of Islam by adding a new offence to the penal code. So, what will happen to women if they are forced to wear the thing by abusive fundamentalist family members? Will they become housebound? What happens to women who might just be habituated to covering up? Will there be any help for them if they experience agoraphobia and panic? Will criminalisation spark a reaction, from both conservatives and fundies and from the minority of young radicals to whom it’s a political or social statement?

Presumably, women brought in for burqa-wearing would also end up with a criminal record.

Or as Kim more eloquently put it: “Yeah, right, we solve inequality in gender relations between Islamic men and women in some cultural manifestations through banning women from doing something. Great!”

And the one question which supporters of the ban don’t want to answer – how should they, as men, be addressing the root of the problem. Whether the burqa is a required feature, rather than a bug, in Islam is probably something few non-Muslim Australians are qualified to argue about – although there’s an interesting discussion of that here. What should be done about the male gaze, and the assumption that women’s bodies are so radioactive and men so weak of will that rape will simply be compulsory if women don’t cover up, is definitely something which the blokes on LP can do something about, if they so choose. The difference between “Infidel uncovered meat!1!” and “what did she expect, going there at that hour in that skirt” is only one of degree, not kind. But it’s easier to make a new law with the stroke of a pen and claim your fauxminism has won the day for women everywhere than think about that stuff.

If you find you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with Fred Nile and Cory Bernardi, that might give you an inkling that perhaps something isn’t right. Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iran took a nasty turn and no WMDs or Osama Bin Laden turned up, and people who were- to put it mildly – not known for their feminism started getting thumpy-chested about rescuing the poor women of Islam from the nastier manifestations of their culture, many of us look at Bernardi and Howard and Nile and go “uh-oh.” The burqa has been around for a while. Why is it suddenly intolerable and criminal now? Has it anything to do with the rise of rightwing groups and the need to placate nationalism in Europe, UK and here? Could it be that Cory wants a handy dogwhistle against strange people from other countries, now that Boat People are being used again as a wedging political issue?

It was with a great sense of recognition that I read The Discourse of the Veil, by Leila Ahmed, recommended by Laura. The appropriation of quasi-femininist thinking by people who would subject Muslim women to police harassment and fines is just the latest example in a long history of interactions between Western culture and Muslim women. You really need to read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt about Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring), a British administrator in Egypt in the late nineteenth century:

This champion of the unveiling of Egyptian women was, in England, founding member and sometime president of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Feminism on the home front and feminism directed against white men was to be resisted and suppressed; but taken abroad and directed against the cultures of colonized peoples, it could be promoted in ways that admirably served and furthered the project of the dominance of the white man.

And this wasn’t merely an eccentricity of Cromer’s, but part of a pattern:

(T)he ideas of Western feminism essentially functioned to morally justify the attack on native societies and to support the notion of the comprehensive superiority of Europe. Evidently, then, whatever the disagreements of feminism with white male domination within Western societies, outside their borders feminism turned from being the critic of the system of white male dominance to being its docile servant.

Legalistic burqa bans had the most impact on the most powerless women, and not necessarily the result expected.

Similarly, in the 1920s the Iranian ruler Reza Shah, also an active reformer and westernizer, went so far as to issue a proclamation banning the veil, a move which had the support of some upper-class women as well as upper-class men…The police had instructions to deal harshly with any woman wearing anything other than a European-style hat or no headgear at all, and many women chose to stay at home rather than venture outdoors and risk having their veils pulled off by the police.

Fast forward to the Noughties, and the Blairs/Bolts/Hitchens using fauxminism to add an idealistic tinge to their Mesopotamian and Afghani adventures, while sneering at feminists themselves. I’d thought their fauxminism was a new development peculiar to our hyper-cynical age of spin, but no. It’s been going on for a long time.

I’m sick of the lazy argument that people who disagree with making women, going about their daily business, into criminals, are therefore in favour of burqas. I’m sick, too, of the endless repetition of “feminists won’t help women of other cultures because they’re po-mo cultural relativists”. Give it a rest. If I could end forced veiling (if anyone chooses to wear a burqa, I really don’t think it’s any of our business) and FGM tomorrow, I would. But using legal punishment – and punishing the people who are themselves abused by any cultural practice – is simply using the wrong tool for the job, fellas. You’re not going to engender love for the glorious Western civ that way.

The most effective challenge to the burqa would be for men to start talking amongst themselves about the presumption of entitlement to any uncovered, or less-covered female body which pervades their own society, whether Islamic or not. I think that compared to just adding another crime to the statute books, having a nice warm glow, and forgetting about it, that would be quite hard work.

Comments (23) »

  • Cristy says:

    Brilliant. Not sure how you retain the energy to deal with those bloody circular arguments in the LP comments threads though…

  • Helen says:

    Thanks so much Cristy! And you’ve started No Pod up again. I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist just one more post…

  • Zoe says:

    I can’t hack the LP battle any more. Thank you, Helen, foryour valiant persistence!

  • Helen says:

    Thanks, but not doing it anymore on that thread Zoe – In my case it’s too easy to get sucked into it and then I think “wait a minute, in the time it took to write all those fruitless replies I could be calmly making my point in my own time on own blog.”

  • Ann O'Dyne says:

    IF ONLY the pressure could be applied to The MEN who require their female family-members to be shrouded against ‘immodesty’.
    Conversely, and with regard to muslim men in Australia, we cannot blame them for worrying that, if un-chadored,The Missus will devolve into a Bryanne Edelsten caricature.

  • Mindy says:

    I really knew it had gone completely to the dogs when someone said “400(something) comments and no one has mentioned foot binding yet? WTF? Then I get told I can’t have it both ways when I say that a burka is something you can take off as opposed to bound feet! (from a previous comment that women removing the burka [in public] could face DV from their husbands.) Sometimes I think these people just argue for the sake of it. Then on another thread they are all congratulating each other for being the voice of reason on LP and isn’t it nice to meet other right wingers on a left wing blog and who would have thought. I should copy and paste that somewhere for the next time the “LP is only for latte sipping lefties” meme comes around. /rant.

    Sorry, didn’t realise I was that angry abou it.

  • rayedish says:

    Great post Helen – I haven’t been able to wade through the swamp at LP, but in relation to the argument as to why banning will do more harm good (beside the fact that oppression should not be fought with further oppression)history tells us it will not work.

    In colonial India the horrified British banned the little practiced tradition of Sati (widow burning)which was confined (at the time)to the upper castes in a particular region. The result was a backlash against British cultural imperialism and the practice became more far more widespread. Its very easy to imagine that this would be the result should the burka be banned in public here.

  • Mindy says:

    Many years ago at Uni I sat near a group of young Lebanese men who seemed to try to outdo each other in who could be more Lebanese, which is hard to describe but was mainly dressing a certain way, holding certain opinions (still quite liberal I now realise) and playing certain sports. At the time I didn’t understand it, but now having traveled a bit myself I do. In Greece the gorgeous boys weren’t trying to be “Greek” they just were because they were at home. Conversely I don’t think I’ve said g’day some many times in my life because I wanted people to know I was an Aussie. I don’t do it at home. All we need to do is allow people enough time to feel able to let go of the burka and they will do it of their own accord. Just as Helen said of the Italian and Greek nanas of old, swathed in black who seem to have largely died out now in Australia.

  • lilacsigil says:

    Yeah, I was in a similar argument over at Skeptic Lawyer and apparently “it makes me uncomfortable because I can’t see her face” and “it looks unprofessional” are good feminist reasons to ban the burqa!

  • Helen says:

    You know, I kind of miss those little (they were always under 5 foot something) black clad Nonnas.

  • […] We must arrest this woman in order to save her | Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony What should be done about the male gaze, and the assumption that women’s bodies are so radioactive and men so weak of will that rape will simply be compulsory if women don’t cover up, is definitely something which the blokes on LP can do something about, if they so choose. The difference between “Infidel uncovered meat!1!” and “what did she expect, going there at that hour in that skirt” is only one of degree, not kind. But it’s easier to make a new law with the stroke of a pen and claim your fauxminism has won the day for women everywhere than think about that stuff. (tags: australia feminism islam muslim.women face.coverings) […]

  • […] Long live The Blogger on the Cast Iron Balconey. […]

  • persiflage says:

    I agree it is a difficult issue, and the banning the public wearing of the burqa denies the right to a particular choice about clothing, but on the other hand I have come to the conclusion that sometimes a general principle should override an individual right. Australia is a secular democracy with equality at least theoretically between males and females, and the wearing of the burqa is an affront to and denial of our values. If modesty is so important, let the men cover up their hair, faces, arms and fine manly hairy chests. The covering of the face is totally offensive. Women travelling in many Islamic countries are required to cover up, and our mores here should be respected. General social and political disapproval can be very important in changing attitudes.

  • Helen says:

    Hi Persiflage – I agree completely with your first sentence. I won’t trundle over the rest b/c I think I’ve made my case as to why “general social and political disapproval” shouldn’t equate to “someone being stopped in the street by police and fined $550 (Fred Nile’s suggested level of fine IIRC)”.

  • Mindy says:

    I don’t think that the burqa is an affront to my values or a denial of them. I’m not sure where this sudden ‘universal’ value system has come from. But it is not one that I share.

  • Come to my suburb in Canberra. Black-clad nonnas right, left and centre! I see them every day, raking the autumn leaves from their front yards, fighting autumn with every ounce of energy.

    Thanks Helen, I’d much rather come here and get a sensible precis than scroll through all the crap on LP. I gave that up for Lent a few years ago, my blood pressure just couldn’t take it.

  • Ariane says:

    It probably doesn’t count for much, but at the pub tonight, my comment that the feminist blogosphere in general is opposed to banning burqas was met with resounding approval.

    Thankfully, not everyone has so much difficulty comprehending the idea that you don’t grant women freedom by removing one of their choices. (although it can definitely start to feel otherwise)

  • […] Australian writer worries about what will happen to a class of women who have been so smothered all their lives that […]

  • Helen says:

    I don’t think that disingenuous bit of cut-and-paste-and-snark linked to above does that academic any credit- I’d expect better from someone in her position.

  • Josh says:

    Helen, I just came here thanks to a link from “that academic” and was delighted to find your article (if I may use that term for a blog post). I don’t think the conservative academic in question is being “disingenuous”: she really has a strong emotional reaction to burqa-clad women that impedes her understanding of articles like yours. She did the same thing with Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article about teaching burqa-wearing students. I’m just glad her obsession with the issue leads her to call attention to articles like yours and his.

  • Nice post. I’m very much anti-burqa myself, but agree that banning it raises a whole heap of issues.

    Your description of the quality of arguing-via-comments on blogs is sadly all too true. Expressing a viewpoint that is nuanced and moderate is too confusing to a lot of commenters, who only understand a dichotomous “for or against” argument.

  • […] July 2010 by Jo Tamar As I understand it, the rationale for the much discussed burqa ban (recently instituted in France, but also considered elsewhere, as the linked posts and many, […]

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