Sunday, 18 July 2010

Burkhas, state bans, and womens' rights in other cultures

In a rare display of common sense prevailing over authoritarianism, Tory immigration minister Damian Green has said it would be "undesirable" for Britain to follow in the footsteps of France and vote on a burkha ban.

Talking to the Sunday Telegraph, he said that this would run contrary to the conventions of a “tolerant and mutually respectful society.” Though that idea was somewhat undermined by his desire to send a "message around the world that Britain is no longer a soft touch on immigration."

Green's views on immigration aside, as I needn't rehash my opinions on the idea that Britain was ever a "soft touch" on immigration, whether or not to ban the burkha is an interesting question.

Views are rather polarised on this subject. On the conservative and nationalist right, the broad consensus is for a full ban on burkhas, and often goes beyond that to other forms of Islamic dress and even architecture. Whereas liberals, multiculturalists, and Islamic conservatives feel that wearing the burkha is a right or even (in the case of the more hardline amongst the latter group) an obligation.

Which is not to mention the extremes on both sides, fascists and Islamists.

For my part, I find myself in agreement with the assesment offered by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown;
White liberals frame this sinister development in terms of free choice and tolerance. Some write letters to this paper: What is the problem? It is all part of the rich diversity of our nation. They can rise to this challenge, show they are superhuman when it comes to liberty and forbearance. 

They might not be quite so sanguine if their own daughters decided to be fully veiled or their sons became fanatic Islamicists and imposed purdah in the family. Such converts are springing up in Muslim families all over the land. Veils predate Islam and were never an injunction (modesty of attire for men and women is). Cultural protectionism has long been extended to those who came from old colonies, in part to atone for imperial hauteur. Redress was necessary then, not now. 

What about legitimate fears that to criticise vulnerable ethnic and racial groups validates the racism they face? Racism is an evil but should never be used as an alibi to acquit oppressions within black and Asian or religious communities. That cry was used to deter us from exposing forced marriages and dowry deaths and black-upon-black violence. 

Right-wing think tanks and President Sarkozy of France scapegoat Muslims for political gain and British fascists have turned self-inflicted "ethnic" wounds into scarlet propaganda. They do what they always have done. Self-censorship will not stop them but it does stop us from dealing with home-grown problems or articulating objections to reactionary life choices like the burqa. Muslim women who show their hair are becoming an endangered species. We must fight back. Our covered-up sisters do not understand history, politics, struggles, their faith or equality. As Rahila Gupta, campaigner against domestic violence, writes: "This is a cloth that comes soaked in blood. We cannot debate the burqa or the hijab without reference to women in Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where the wearing of it are heavily policed and any slippages are met with violence." What happened to solidarity? 

Violent enforcement is evident in Britain too. A fully veiled young chemistry graduate once came to my home, her body covered in cuts, tears, bites, bruises, all happily hidden from view. Security and social cohesion are all threatened by this trend – which is growing exponentially. 

As for the pathetic excuse that covering up protects women from male lasciviousness – it hasn't stopped rapists in the most conservative Muslim nations. And what a slur on decent Muslim men, portrayed as sexual predators who cannot look upon a woman without wanting her. 

We communicate with each other with our faces. To deny that interaction is to deny our shared humanity. Unreasonable community or nationalistic expectations disconnect essential bonds. Governments should not accommodate such demands. Naturists can't parade on the streets, go to school or take up jobs unless they cover their nakedness. Why should burqaed women get special consideration? 

Their veils are walls, keeping them in and us out.

Yes, it is undoubtedly true that "whether opted for by the woman or pushed on her by others, the inherent message of the veiled woman is that femininity is treacherous." I also agree that "the overwhelming argument against the burka ... is that there is such a thing as society."

However, it does not follow from this that the state should have the right to dictate what people can and cannot wear. We need to fight for public consensus, not state sanction.

Alibhai-Brown gives an example of this herself;
A traditional Pakistani friend of mine – who always wears the shalwar kameez – recently refused service from a burka-ed librarian in one of our big libraries. The next time she went in, the face was no longer hidden.
Imposing rules from above inspires an attitude of defiance, as was the case when the headscarf became the symbol of the Iranian revolution. Overtly racist violence or intimidation, such as tearing the veil from peoples' faces, creates a fear which sees the oppressed close ranks with their oppressor against external aggressors.

Raising public awareness, especially in tandem with liberal, reformist, or secular muslim groups, is none of these things. It is about consciousness raising, defiance against patriarchy, and solidarity with women.

In a secular society, people are free to practice the religion of their choosing, but also to not practice religion as they see fit. In a truly free society, the one restriction on liberty is that you cannot harm others or limit their freedoms, because basic human rights are universal.

We cannot shrug off these principles, or our opposition to patriarchy, coercion, and authoritarianism, in the name of "diversity" or "tolerance."