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July 08, 2009

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

By: Bernard Chazelle

I am back with myself to resume this fascinating interview of me.

You said the burqa was repugnant but France should relax. Isn't that a contradiction?

The burqa is so absurd in a French context it's evolutionarily doomed. It can't last. When freedom is accessible, you access it. Unlike in Afghanistan, where women have no option, burqa-clad women in France will constantly be reminded of the huge sacrifices they are making. That's unsustainable. Simple laws of anthropology tell you the burqa will be gone within a generation. Unless there is a law banning it, of course. Then it might take 2 generations. Right now, it's a fad that betrays a deeper social ill that needs to be diagnosed and addressed. The burqa is the symptom of a disease. Fight the disease, not the symptom.

You said the burqa is not Muslim, but only Muslims wear it, so aren't you, whether you like it or not, dissing the Muslims?

I am. But Westerners shouldn't be too smug. They have their own "burqas." The miniskirt, for example, is called by some a sign of female liberation. But is it really? A woman with a miniskirt cannot, for a second, forget what she is wearing (in every move she makes). What's liberating about that? Bourdieu compared it to the "soutane," the clerical cassock designed to remind the priest constantly of his "calling." Westerners are awfully good at patting themselves on the back: everything they invent is empowering and liberating. A closer look shows a different picture. We have our own mini "burqas" everywhere. Young girls growing up in our culture, in particular, suffer tremendous pressure (much more than boys), much of it commercially driven, to conform to canonical standards. And if you deviate epsilon from the norm then you're made to feel like dirt. The magazine Seventeen is every bit as much an agent of "freedom" as the burqa.

You seem to agree with American liberals that no law should ban the burqa. But many of them go further than you and insist that, as multiculturalists, it's not up to them to pick and choose which cultural norms to like or dislike.

Oh, really? I went to Yale only 8 years after the first women were admitted to the college. I don't recall feminists arguing that Yale's 300-year old white protestant tradition of male exclusivity deserved respect as a cultural norm. What I heard was "To hell with that cultural norm." And to the argument that Yale's policy was hurtful to women outside Yale, I'll say that wearing the burqa is hurtful to all women, since it demonstrates the hypothesis that women are publicly dispensable. So let's decrypt this. Elite "multiculturalists" are awfully good at respecting cultural norms that negatively affect the unwashed masses. But when it affects their own power, hear them scream bloody murder. They'll say "Who am I to tell them that the burqa is a bad tradition?" But then who are you to tell Yale to go co-ed? If you're going to do one, then do both. To me, allowing poor women in the ghetto to acquire a measure of agency and mastery (both of them denied by the burqa) is every bit as worthy a goal as allowing Hillary to run for president. I believe in both. But when I hear a "multiculturalist" argument why we shouldn't worry about the burqa, then I suspect that class self-interest is at work, and I am rarely disappointed.

This is from someone named Jill on a blog called "Feministe." About the burqa, she writes:

Empowering women doesn’t come from limiting what women can and cannot wear in public. It comes in part from giving women — all women — wide access to the public sphere.

But to deny women access to the public sphere is the very purpose of the burqa. So, Jill is really saying:

Empowering women doesn’t come from denying them the possibility of being denied wide access to the public sphere. It comes in part from giving women — all women — wide access to the public sphere.

See if you can make any sense of that statement. What I see is class interest disguised as cosmopolitan humanism.

You mentioned something philosophically unique about the burqa. What's that?

The burqa is fascinating because in some weird way it confers upon the woman who wears it an unfair advantage. Let's start at the beginning. In the public sphere, your freedom is constrained only by your obligation not to impinge on the freedom of others. Actually there's more to it. There's the requirement of fair exchange. I should pay for what I buy. I should say hello back if you say hello to me. It's not just politeness. Not replying is itself a reply, like a silent "get lost." In fact the word hello is not traded for semantics ('hello' means nothing); It's the tone that's being traded, for it alone conveys the meaning sought, ie, all is well or something's wrong, etc. That plus the facial expressions, which say even more than the tone and certainly the word. Perhaps you know the anthropology of hand shaking? You extend your hand to show you are not carrying a weapon. So if I extend, say, my foot back, and not my hand, I am cheating you in that transaction. Like in a game of poker. Social life is full of the expectation of such "fair" normative exchanges. All these meaningless hellos translate signs into value. Fairness, and even symmetry, are essential because only reciprocity gives meaning to these signs. Unlike say, orders. If I shout to you "get lost," I don't want to hear back from you. But when I smile, I want a smile back. Symmetry is a requirement.

The burqa violates all that. Good-bye fairness and symmetry. It's like cheating at poker. The woman now holds an unfair advantage. She can see me, so she can tell if I am happy, sad, tired, etc. But I have no idea about her emotions. Her visible invisibility breaks the "rules of the road." A philosopher might say: But what if she covered her eyes to be blind? Then, indeed, symmetry would be restored and that would be ok. She'd be merely eccentric, and one should claim for anyone the right to be eccentric. But the burqa goes beyond eccentricity. It breaks a fundamental equilibrium of the public sphere. And, crucially, its only possible resolution is to erase the woman altogether. She no longer exists. Some people have compared the burqa-clad women to partygoers wearing masks. That's a faulty analogy because there everyone wears a mask: the invisibility is mutual. It's the one-way invisibility that makes the burqa special.

This philosophical point is just that: philosophical. It has no bearing on the politics of the issue. But it forces us to reexamine our assumptions about social life. The burqa-clad woman, in essence, privatizes the common space. We all do that to some extent. Sometimes I walk around town in my own little bubble, paying no attention to my surroundings. But I don't hide myself. Suppose all women hid themselves. Then men would not only dominate social life but they would define the very meaning of that concept. Women, as social beings in the public space, would disappear. To privatize public space and deny the expectation of fair exchange comes at a high price. It is a serious affront on human dignity and, simply, unacceptable. But, patience, the burqa will go away on its own. No need to panic.

Thanks, that's a wrap.


— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at July 8, 2009 11:31 AM

If women are the "weaker sex" then why are you against them having an "unfair" advantage? Personally, I think they might be weaker, but are given so many advantages in life by USA culture that guys are emasculated. Forget burkas, I say we make them shave their heads.

Man, I just can't stand a girl without a baldy!

Posted by: tim at July 8, 2009 01:41 PM

Where is the WOMAN'S opinion on this?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 8, 2009 02:30 PM

I dunno.

Posted by: the WOMAN at July 8, 2009 04:55 PM

Having grown up in a secular country but with religious population, I saw women in burquas everywhere. There were denominational schools ( Catholic, Muslim, Jain etc ) where boys and girls were segregated and to me as a school kid, it did not seem out of place.
But there were college students in my class who wore burquas when out on the street but removed them when in the class room. It just seemed so very normal, for a segment of the population which I considered relativley conservative ( like a Hindu woman covering her head with her sari when she was with her in-laws or Christian women covering their heads when going to church on Sundays ). However none of my Muslim friends wore a burqua and do not remember seeing anyone in a Hijab.

However, few years ago, on a visit to my family, I was shocked to see a friend wearing a burqua for the first time. She had never worn it. She is an artist, a designer and had love marriage. Apparently, her husband had become THE assistant to their spirtual leader, who decided on how his followers should live and she was required to wear the burqua. What was amazing was, when I went shopping with her, she took out her burqua in the shop, bought expensive fabrics for burquas ( she was going to design them and get them made for some women who were getting married--a fashion statement as Prof Chazelle mentioned ) and then put her burqua on before leaving the shop. Now, my friend has apparently TOTAL FREEDOM to do anything she wants, go wherever she wants, meet anyone she wants BUT when out on the street, she has to wear the burqua.This is just one person's story but it can be multiplied thousands of times. This is NOT Total Freedom for me but for her, she has not rejected it.

Prof Chazelle, your "interviews" are great and I had never thought of 'burquas' the way you have described them. However, when you stated, "But, patience, the burqa will go away on its own," were you referring to their disappearing from the western society only? They have not disappeared from secular India ( with second largest Muslim population ) and I do not claim to be an expert but I do not believe they will be disappearing soon. Is it because it is such a regular part of the society and seems so normal that does not merit a second glance? Something similar is, without any relation to level of education, economic class or gender, a significant part of the population thinks, it is normal to not question the societal norm of arranged marriage. Individuals grow up with the idea that that is the only way though some wish it to be otherwise.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 8, 2009 07:29 PM

One little thing.
I have a hard time completely seeing the burqa as cutting people off from the public sphere because of something I read once (I know, I know) that said that some folks did a study to verify anecdotes and found that indeed, people who grow up seeing people covered a lot learn different ways of recognizing people they know and, well, do a better job of distinguishing who's who in a crowd of covered women than an outsider would. So I do think maybe just like you talk about people who can't understand French opinions about the burqa because there are French opinion "givens" in general that they don't understand...I feel like maybe in the same way, both of your articles are rather off the mark the whole time because of this "given" that isn't in the back of your mind. (That is, the lifelong "given" that it's quite possible for people to be recognized while wearing the burqa out in public.)

Another thing to remember about double standards is that it's not JUST "accepting your oppression" to live your life according to the standard set for your sub-group. It's...more complicated than that. I just posted about Sarkozy's comment on my blog, myself, and there I wrote that just because I think men and women shouldn't have different sexual behavior expectations put on them doesn't mean I approve of the one given to men. I live, sexually, as I feel would be a good way for PEOPLE to live (sexually). And that is pretty darned close to my culture's expectations of white, upper-middle-class, young female sexual behavior. Of course I picked that for myself because it was the path of least resistence. I don't deny that. But...that doesn't mean I'm not fighting to change my culture's standards. But one can't tell whether or not I'm fighting to change my culture's standards by looking at the fact that I 90% chose the path of least cultural disapproval for my own behaviors. One just. can't. tell. by. that.


Posted by: Katie at July 8, 2009 07:53 PM

Rupa Shah & Katie: THANK YOU BOTH, I live in Wyoming and everybody does pretty much what they want and they damn sure wear what they want, women and men. Women are commonly HUNTERS in this society of which some have the better gun collections. Its against OUR 1890 State Constitution to discriminate against women although I noticed they STILL get paid less. I suppose The Ledbetter Act changes all that.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at July 8, 2009 08:31 PM

The Sherbini killing had nothing to with Sarko's slime but it might be an indication of popular feelings in Europe about Muslims and explain why Sarko thinks he has a winning issue. Of course it also works the other way. In a story on the Sherbini killing in the Guardian :

because it occurred just days after Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major policy speech denouncing the burka, many Egyptians believe the death of Sherbini is part of a broader trend of European intolerance towards Muslims
Posted by: empty at July 9, 2009 12:29 AM

When the Muslims realize the obvious superiority of the Christian version of the Abrahamic god, everything will get better.

It shouldn't be too long now.

Posted by: mcthfg at July 9, 2009 01:38 AM

So, it looks like there's no way to tell if the wearer of the burqa is male or female... seems to me to be a great opportunity for gender/fashionfuck. If women won't take them off, then men should put them on!

Posted by: Currence at July 9, 2009 11:31 AM

Dear Professor Chazelle,
overall, you gave a very fair and balanced commentary. But I don't find any reason why the burqa will go away on its own. The freedom that exists in Western societies does not automatically "percolate" into the life of Muslim women (or men, for that matter). On the contrary, after almost 50 years of Turkish immigration into Germany, Turkish families in Germany are often more stringent than in Turkey. Hardly a year goes by without another case of a "honor killing" of a woman (=daughter, sister) who fails to comply by her family's standards. Whether the situation in France is similar and a ban of the burqa would remedy this situation is not clear, but it certainly does not promote integration.

Posted by: Peter Hinow at July 9, 2009 12:35 PM

"But Westerners shouldn't be too smug. They have their own 'burqas.'"
Original image here.

Posted by: roy belmont at July 9, 2009 04:38 PM


Actually that murder stunned Germans because you just don´t commit a crime like that in front of a court. It just isn´t/wasn´t done....
That guy will face a life sentence.
Not to mention that probably nobody involved even heard Sarkozy´s speech.

While murdering a Christian priest in Turkey or a nun in Somalia, of course, is just an action of a Muslim extremist? And in no way describes the feelings of Muslims?

Quite simply put, I´ve had it. Why is this murder that important?
I notice that no Muslim country was that bothered by (Muslim) honor killings in Europe. Obviously that was a-okay somehow.

Any country - regardless of religion - which wants to judge us...
Prove to us that you are treating religious minorities better than we do in Europe?

I´ve had it.

Posted by: Detlef at July 9, 2009 05:40 PM

roy belmont:
Thanks a ton for the link to the Library of Congress...great material on the website.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 9, 2009 05:52 PM

Detlef, you are right. All those honor killings in German courts have totally not been covered.

The point of the post was that while Sarkozy might be aiming to win support from the racist right with a wink and a nod, as evidenced by the quote from the Guardian, he might get more tightly tied to the racist lunatic fringe than he might consider useful to his political ambitions. Or maybe it not possible to be too tightly tied to the lunatic racist fringe nowadays.

detlef: Not to mention that probably nobody involved even heard Sarkozy´s speech.
empty: The Sherbini killing had nothing to with Sarko's slime

How on earth should we resolve these contradictions?

Posted by: empty at July 9, 2009 06:24 PM

Any speech or action by an elected official or an ordinary citizen which causes animosity against an individual or a group of people leading to violence against them is just not acceptable. It is not a matter of Muslim countries not being bothered by honour killing ( I am sure they are but our MSM do not provide that kind of information ). It is about what kind of society we want to live in and it is not about judging your country but imho we should be the judge if we have indeed created such a society. What happened in Seattle yesterday would certainly not be acceptable to anyone.

"Man says threats against Muslims were to 'defend America' "

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 9, 2009 06:31 PM

I don't think a ban on the burqa would work. How would they enforce it?

Posted by: Jenny at July 11, 2009 09:10 PM

Honor killings are outlawed in the Middle East IIRC.

Posted by: Härj at July 12, 2009 09:07 PM

There is an excellent post on 'Honour Killing' on
"Obsidian Wings"

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 13, 2009 04:15 PM

A very good article by an excellent British columnist, supporting Prof Chazelles's point of view.

"Wearing the burqa is neither Islamic nor socially acceptable"
To deny face-to-face interaction is to deny our shared humanity.
By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Posted by: Rupa Shah at July 13, 2009 10:27 PM