Can the burqa ban promote gender equality?

Yesterday the French parliament voted on and approved a contentious bill banning citizens from covering their faces in public. That’s the official description, but around the world it’s become known as “the burqa ban” as if effectively targets the minority of French Muslim women who veil their faces when in public. It’s another bold step in a secular movement that saw the banning of headscarves and other religious symbols in French schools. If the bill is passed by Senate in September, it will become law, making it illegal for Muslim women to wear burqas.

 A variety of reasons have been cited for the ban: security purposes, the improved integration of immigrants into French society, gender equality, the preservation of French secular values. Those who object to the ban argue that it will further stigmatize and marginalise Muslim minorities and that it violates women’s rights to personal freedom and freedom of expression. Legal authorities have pointed out that the ban may be unconstitutional.

My concern regarding this issue is a predominantly feminist one: is an official ban on the burqa an effective means of promoting gender equality? Or is it a form of discrimination in itself, exacerbating the prejudice against Muslims and Islamic culture as well as violating women’s rights to individual choice and freedom of expression?

 If the burqa were merely a personal fashion preference – whatever the wearer’s reasons behind it – I would argue that a ban is ludicrous and unconstitutional. Governments should not be able to tell people what to wear, except perhaps in terms of certain (debatable) standards of common decency. A reasonable exception in terms of face coverings would be in places where security requires that the face be revealed, such as in banks, airports, and casinos.

However, the burqa is not just a sartorial option. It embodies the ideology of hijab which views female sexuality and the female body as corrupting and therefore dangerous. Women must therefore be covered in public to protect themselves, men, and society as a whole from the morally degrading influence of their bodies.

Coincidentally, I recently read Women and Islam (also known as The Veil and the Male Elite) by Fatima Mernissi. She provides a historical analysis of hijab and the status of women in Islam, pointing out that Muhammad believed very strongly in sexual equality and his behaviour reflected this. His wives were active in political and religious life, and he often turned to them for guidance. Muhammad also had an open attitude to sexuality and sexual practice (within marriage anyway). Mernissi often notes the fact that Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha had quarters leading directly off from the mosque, and Muhammad often went straight from her bedroom to his prayers.

Unfortunately, most of Muhammad’s Companions did not share his egalitarian attitude and did not want to follow his example in the way they treated their wives. They had come from misogynist cultures, and while they accepted most of Islamic doctrine, they objected to its interference in their relationships with women, especially such things as a woman’s right to inherit. In pre-Islamic Arab cultures, women were often treated as objects and constituted part of a man’s wealth. Because Islam treated women as individuals and gave them the right to inherit, the new religion robbed male Arabs of a large portion of their wealth and thus their power. It’s not hard to understand why they objected strongly to women’s rights, and consequently, how the hijab achieved such power within Islamic societies.

Mernissi analyses the famous hijab verse in the Qur’an, stating that it was not an injunction on women to cover up, but rather about creating privacy for Muhammad and his wives. The verse was recited at a time when Medina was on the brink of civil war and in addition many people had questions about the new religion. As God’s messenger, Muhammad was constantly harassed by the public, even in his home, hence the need for some privacy.

The demand that women cover themselves was made in a similar social context. The city was very unstable, trying to cope with conversion to a new religion that promised a better life but had also brought the threat of war to the city gate. Women were being harassed in the streets, sometimes as part of a political campaign against Muhammad. The men who harassed women claimed that they thought they were slaves. Muhammad’s Companions suggested the women cover themselves as a sign of status for the sake of protection. Muhammad was opposed to this, as it contradicted both sexual and social equality. Unfortunately though, he was getting old, he had serious social problems on his hands, so he gave in to his Companions.

Mernissi argues that this was the downfall of women’s rights in Islamic society. The hijab actually legitimates the sexual harassment of women, because it becomes a woman’s responsibility to cover up, not a man’s responsibility to treat women with respect. The unveiled woman becomes a legitimate target for sexual harassment and abuse. In addition, the pre-Islamic, pagan fears of female sexuality as corrupting or polluting survived and dominated the religion’s more egalitarian ideas. The hijab also legitimates the abuse of slaves, which again is a pre-Islamic, unegalitarian belief. Ironically, Mernissi says, the veiled woman has become the symbol of Islam, and yet hijab represents the failure of Islam to overcome pagan beliefs or instill social equality.

Mernissi’s book was a very informative perspective on hijab, but even with this in mind the question of the burqa ban is difficult to answer. There are women who want to wear burqas and whatever their beliefs, I believe in individual choice and I won’t say flat out that they should not be allowed to wear them.

I think what’s more important is that hijab ceases to be a moral requirement or obligation for women in Islam. My conviction is that hijab is a tool of sexual discrimination that itself is veiled in excuses about protecting women and preserving their purity. I have heard many Muslims, male and female, argue that the scarf and the veil protect women from the gaze of men who see them as sexual objects. However, that very idea of the protective veil implies that a woman IS a sexual object. They need to cover themselves because their bodies can ONLY be interpreted in sexual terms. In addition the idea of a protective veil implies that men have so little control over their sexual impulses that the sight of a woman’s hair, or the definition of her figure in fitted clothing drives them into a sexual frenzy. Any crime they then commit against unveiled women could be excused by a lack of control over their actions – a case of temporary insanity caused by the victim herself.

This is a problem that exists within Islam and Islamic society and it should be addressed as such. What is needed is a reform in the way Islam views female bodies and female sexuality. I doubt that a legal ban on the burqa could achieve this. Whether it is appropriate or not, the burqa is considered a symbol of Islam. Banning it will no doubt be interpreted as an attack on Muslims and their religion, and an issue that should be about women’s rights could easily be overshadowed by a debate on religious tolerance. This is not to say that the ban is simply wrong. It’s a criticism of what many see as an oppressive religious practice, and no religion should be protected from legitimate critique. Lets just hope that this particular critique marks the beginning of reform in Islam rather than reinforcing the “us vs. them” mentality that many already adopt.