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July 07, 2009

Classic Interviews: "What's With the Burqa?" - Part I

By: Bernard Chazelle

President Sarkozy said he didn't "welcome the burqa" in France. A congressional committee is investigating the matter. It wouldn't be the first time such a bill is proposed and fails. I interviewed myself about this pressing issue. Here's a rough transcript.

Is Sarkozy playing politics?

The socialists came to power in France by "creating" the extreme right. Kaiser Sarkoko's electoral success is premised on co-opting the nativists. France has serious issues to deal with: the growing trend of a few thousand burqa fashionistas is not one of them.

Do you favor a law banning the burqa?

No. If it could be proven that wearing the burqa was always coerced, then a ban would be mandatory. But that's plainly not the case.

Are you against a ban because it's a religious symbol?

It's not a religious symbol. The hijab is religious. The burqa is not. It predates Islam. Not that it matters to me. I don't grant religion any special protection. I oppose a ban because the attack on freedom would overwhelm any potential (dubious) benefits. Simply put, it's none of the government's business to tell people what (not) to wear.

Sorry to digress, but does that mean you oppose the 2004 French law against "conspicuous religious symbols" in public schools?

No. It's a silly law. But it's basically fine. It's a completely different issue though. The problem with the hijab is entirely a religious one. The notion of keeping religion out of public schools might seem a bizarre abstract French fixation, but I could go on and on about its benefits (hint: France assimilated more immigrants than any country in Europe, it emancipated the Jews way before anyone else, etc; yes it's all got to do with the anti-religious stand of French public schools).

So you're saying the burqa is bad for women?

Yes. Many things are bad for women: spousal abuse; sexual violence; job discrimination; Seventeen; Maureen Dowd; etc. The burqa is bad for women and for society. Bad for women because it condemns them to a life at the bottom of the social ladder, with no voice and no power. Women are erased from the public sphere. They are socially negated. It's bad for society because it teaches children that it's normatively fine for women to be invisible and voiceless, with nothing remotely equivalent for men.

So you keep it legal but you call it repugnant?

Precisely. Like prostitution: it should be legal but discouraged. Same with pot and cigarettes: Legalize them but advise people to stay away from them. Also, note that I call it repugnant in France because I am French. As such, I am entitled to a certain vision of France. But I am not entitled to a certain vision of Afghanistan, so I have no right to barge into that country and lecture the natives about the errors of their ways.

Some say women should be free to do whatever they want. Do you agree?

Yes, I do. Women should be free to become poets, doctors, or presidents. They should be free to give sex for money or jump off high cliffs, too. They should be free to wear the burqa. My point is that granting freedom does not mean granting approval. Not to mention that the case for freedom can be dodgy. Many Iraqi female refugees in Lebanon have "freely chosen" to become prostitutes. But it takes a Cato Institute intern to call that freedom. This callous and callow fixation on negative freedoms in America is also a liberal disease we can talk about later if you want. It is well known that if you keep telling certain groups they're inferior they might end up "freely" believing it. Polls have shown that many women in Saudi Arabia, for example, "freely" believe they're genetically unfit to drive a car. So even if they were free to drive, many of them (not all of course) would "freely" choose not to drive. What kind of freedom is that?

Michelle Goldberg says that most burqa-clad women do not feel oppressed. Could well be. So what? The oppressed learn to adjust to their oppression just to survive. It's amazing and sad to hear a young woman make that argument. Throughout history, most women denied an education and forced to devote their lives to the service of others didn't call themselves oppressed. Does that mean they were not and all was well. No. The burqa keeps the woman inferior. It defines her entirely (the irony) as a sexual object. But we can talk about the freedom not to be free later, if you want. All I am saying is: I don't deny your freedom to imprison yourself. But I disapprove of it.

But by telling burqa-clad women they're not welcome, aren't you victimizing them twice?

Of course, they are welcome. Burqa-clad women deserve respect and compassion. Many of them are simply rebelling against an oppressive environment and the burqa is a fashion statement. Think of hip hop artists wearing baggy jeans (which were originally prison garb). One must tread with care and help women find better ways of rebelling. In France the way to do it is to take to the streets, kidnap CEOs, destroy GM crops, call for general strikes, and generally scare the living daylights out of the government. That's how you do it. You don't wear burqas and hide in silence. The burqa-clad woman has no public voice. The truth is, the elites would love it if all the underclass could be wearing burqas and be voiceless. The burqa is the wet dream of the powerful.

Are these women oppressed by their families?

Who is not? There is a big French v/ Anglo-American divide here it is important to understand. For the French left, historically, the two most oppressive institutions have been the church and the family. Only later in the 19th century, the corporation was added to that evil group. Note who's not on the list. Yes, the state. The French turn to the state to save them from church/family/corporation. The French revolution was the victory of the state over the church and the family (the nobility incarnating the last 2). In the US, the ordering is exactly reversed: the state is the enemy, but church/family/corporations are your friend. The French don't grasp that concept. You can't understand what's going about the hijab and the burqa in France if you don't get that. The hijab battle is to keep "church" out of the state; the burqa snafu is to keep the "oppressive family" out of public life. Andre Gide's famous cri du coeur "Familles, je vous hais" ("families, I hate you") is probably incomprehensible to Americans. But the notion of the nuclear family as a totalitarian unit resonates deeply in France. True or not, behind every burqa lies a tyrannical parent. That's how it's perceived anyway.

Does the sexism bother you?

You mean the standard argument that the burqa is there to protect women from predatory men? Have you noticed this miraculous coincidence that in all these ancient cultures the guys never have any constraints imposed on them whatsoever. It's always the women who are anointed with the sacred task of upholding the cultural norms of purity. Lucky them! Women are always the holy guardians of purity. The "sexual protection" argument in favor of the burqa prompted this outburst from a woman on French TV: "If men cannot contain their sexual urges, they should not ask women to cover up: they should cut off their balls!" Past the initial squirm, I'm with the angry lady.

On this poetic note, perhaps we should stop. In our next segment, I'll ask you why you think the burqa is much ado about nothing, why the problem will go away on its own and everyone should take a deep breath, why American multiculturalism is the last refuge of the privileged class, and why the burqa raises a very very very [inaudible] fascinating philosophical question.

pack o burqas.jpg

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 7, 2009 12:31 PM

Splendid writing....

Posted by: Ajit at July 7, 2009 02:52 PM

It's also worth pointing out that if the burqa is banned, many women will be made (by their husbands and families) to stay at home rather than go outside without one, thus further imprisoning and isolating them.

Posted by: Gavel Down at July 7, 2009 03:51 PM

It's also worth pointing out that if the burqa is banned, many women will be made (by their husbands and families) to stay at home rather than go outside without one, thus further imprisoning and isolating them.

Posted by: Gavel Down at July 7, 2009 03:51 PM

Perhaps the answer to Sarkozy's problem is the "Honduran Solution".

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 7, 2009 04:29 PM

There's also the question of apparent hypocrisy, especially since armed bands of burkha-clad thugs terrorizing those who disagree with them haven't been a big issue.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at July 7, 2009 11:49 PM