As of today, the French ban on the burqa and niqab has gone into effect (and boy, internet, have we been having feelings about it for months or what! ) One part of the law — the part designating that forcing a woman or child to wear a niqab or burqa is punishable by fine or even prison — can be seen as reasonable, as something enforcing one’s own right to their own body, clothing, appearance, and presentation. But fining those who wear the garments at all and banning the items entirely based on the fact that “The French Republic lives in a bare-headed fashion” (quoth the Prime Minister) is more than a bit problematic.
Granted, French and American politics differ, as do their social traditions and cultural situations and histories of relations with Islam nations. But in any context I’d argue that there is something absurd or at least slightly off-base about attacking a religion for its “misogynistic dress” when we have issues legislating in favor of women’s healthcare (readers! I must correct myself! not even issues legislating in favor of! issues with not legislating against! FFS, people!) or even discussing the wage gap (problems, I may note, that are not limited to America.) Is targeting the dress of an already targeted, highly profiled religious group already subject to prejudice and mistreatment as a result of that dress the best way to fight for women’s rights?
Folks accuse those criticizing the ban of internalized misogyny and of using liberalism to defend a cruel tradition, but this disregards the entire other level on which this ban is truly operating. Because, let’s be honest: this is not actually about women’s rights, or the right of all French ladies to wear cute striped teeshirts and cigarette jeans and ballet flats with their hair down or whatever French ladies are supposed to be wearing. This is about xenophobia and prejudice and anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide based on the actions and beliefs of radically overrepresented extremists. Is it really necessary to legalize prejudice like this? As a legal decision in the name of civil rights, in the name of women’s rights, is this most logical path?
For just one moment, please, let us disregard all of the possible arguments about “modest” dress and the various types of hijab — is it misogynist, is it religious, is it empowering, is it degrading, is it comfortable, is it the woman’s choice, is it subversive, are the women happy, are the women unhappy, what even is it, what does it mean, what are the different types, why do people do it, etc, etc, ad nauseam. Regardless of all that, the fact that it is legal to penalize someone for their clothing feels on one petty level a lot like that time when “baggy jeans” were banned at my junior high school except with, you know, the tiny additions of racism, prejudice, hatred, terrifying legalized local enforcement of questionable international politics, and that little thing about everyone ever feels entitled to police women’s bodies in whatever way they please. If we are, truly, concerned about the fact that these women’s bodies are subject to regulation by their religion, is adding another level of body police and body politic really the way to help them? Regardless of whether they even need or want that help at all? They have voices too — I would like to hear more from them.
And, really, let us again bring up one small point: how different on a conceptual level is the slut-shaming of “Western society” — essentially an implicit, unspoken order to cover up or face the consequences — from the contested burqa itself? If we are truly discussing misogyny — why not discuss misogyny directly, rather than by targeting a specific garment and a specific group? Why not pass laws teaching men to not abuse, harass, rape, and kill women, rather than letting men regulate the bodies of those women in the name of “their best interest?”