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Laurie Penny on the Burqa: a modesty slip for misogyny

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world.

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world.

Slip away the modesty cloth of faux-feminist posturing over the veil, and you'll find an ugly skin of nationalism, male intolerance and misogyny.

In his article "Thinly veiled threat", Mehdi Hasan impressively fails to assume that the debate over the niqab and burqa -- recently outlawed in Belgium, with similar laws tabled across Europe -- is all about him. This sets him apart from nearly every man writing, legislating and proclaiming about this most symbolically loaded piece of clothing.

Hasan's piece is learned and thorough, but it misses perhaps the most fundamental question about the veil debate. The question is not to what extent the veil can be considered oppressive, but whether it is ever justifiable for men to mandate how women should look, dress and behave in the name of preserving a culture.

Male culture has always chosen to define itself by how it permits its women to dress and behave. Footage recorded in 2008 shows a young member of the British National Party expounding upon the right of the average working man in Leeds to "look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street". The speaker declares the practice is "part of British history, and more important than human rights", and laments that "they" -- variously, Muslims, foreigners and feminists -- want to "take it away from us".

Never mind the right of the women in question to wear what they want or, for that matter, to walk down that Leeds street without fear of the entitled harassment made extremely explicit in this speech. This is not about women. This is about men, and how men define themselves against other men.

In the dialect of male-coded cultural violence, whether it takes place on a street in Leeds, in a Middle Eastern valley, or in the minds of a generation raised on sectarian squabbling and distrust, women are valuable only and always as a cultural symbol.

Some years ago I spent a summer on a ward for eating disorders, where I struck up a friendship with a fellow patient called Sara, a Saudi Muslim who wore the hijab and smoked Italian cigarettes. When we were well enough to walk in the hospital gardens, Sara and I would spend long hours talking about how other people always seemed to want to control how we looked. She shared with me the privations of compulsory Islamic dress, and I explained the pressure constantly to appear feminine and sexy that I experienced as a British teenager raised by atheists.

As an experiment, we decided to swap clothes for a fortnight. Sara wore skintight tracksuits and her short, spiky hair uncovered; I wore an abaya with full headscarf that she taught me to fold and tuck.

What was striking was that when we took trips to the shops in our new gladrags, both of us felt immensely liberated: our bodies were finally our own, hers to show off as she pleased, mine to cover if I wanted. For the first time since puberty, I felt that people might be seeing the real me, rather than looking at my body.

This flavour of freedom, which for some women is central to self-respect, is just as valid and important a choice as the freedom to go bare-legged and low-cut. A truly progressive western culture would respect both. But what European governments seem not to have grasped is that the freedom to wear whatever little dress we like is not every woman's idea of the zenith of personal emancipation.

There are hundreds of points of action that feminists across Europe would prioritise above banning the burqa, were anyone to actually ask us. What about increasing public provision of refuges and counselling for the hundreds of thousands of European victims of sexual abuse, forced marriage and domestic violence, rather than focusing state efforts on the fashion choices of a minority of women who wear the full Islamic veil? After all, it's safe to say that any woman who is forced to wear a burqa against her will has problems that will not be solved simply by forbidding the garment.

It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world, whether it wears the face of an imam, an abusive partner or a government minister. The truth is that the way women choose to present themselves is still desperately political, in Islamic culture and wider society.

The Islamic veil is definitively a threat to western values, and will continue to be so as long as the west continues to define its notion of freedom as a measure of exposed and monetised female flesh.

In seeking to restrict women's free choice to dress as they please, whether in a burqa, a bolero or a binbag, European governments are not protecting women but rather mounting a paranoid defence of their own right to determine what constitutes feminine behaviour.