Just a few days ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy appeared
in front of Parliament and stated his contempt for the burqa and the oppression
of Muslim women. Sarkozy is, apparently, so
committed to ending the subjugation of women that he desires banning burqas
from France all together.
Now, before all you Muslim women out there write letters to
Sarkozy thanking him for saving you, I think we should first reflect. Is Sarkozy’s
opposition to the burqa really about women? I have a sneaking suspicion that
Sarkozy’s interest, and for that matter the entire world’s interest, in the
rights of Muslim women might actually be about something else besides a
commitment to our liberation.
What might that "something else" be? It’s important to
remember that women have long been used as symbols of culture and values. How men treat women within a particular
society has become a yardstick which we measure progress toward modernity. For
example, when we ask "How well-educated are the women in your society?" we
might also phrase the question: "Do the men in your society allow women to be
educated?" If we ask, "How good is women’s access to reproductive health?" we
could also wonder: "Do the male religious leaders in your country actually let
women have access to necessary health services?" In societies in which men have
granted women a certain position we give them the gold star of progress.
Now this isn’t always a bad thing. The problem isn’t necessarily that we collect
data in relative terms, nor that this data is used to galvanize activists and
bring about change. The difficulty
arises when an examination of women’s subordination becomes a call for war or
for the marginalization of a particular group. We have seen this dynamic play
out in the past with President Bush’s assertions that rescuing women from the
oppression of Islam was a part of bringing freedom
to Afghanistan and are seeing it today with President Sarkozy who claims to
be liberating women from the stranglehold of their religious practice (i.e.
Islam). In the case of both Bush and
Sarkozy, this call to action seems to turn women’s rights discourse into a
strange sort of contest in which contenders insist that "my progress is bigger
than your progress."
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Sarkozy seeks to initiate a parliamentary commission to study
the burqa and "methods to combat its spread."
What will this commission look like?
Given that France ranks amongst the lowest in percentage of women who are parliamentary
members of OECD countries (less than 15% of all members of parliament are
women) and that only 7 of the 860 members
of parliament are minorities I would guess that this committee is going to be
largely White and mostly men.
Other statistics might also help us understand why Sarkozy’s
words about Muslim women in burqas might be about something other than Muslim
women’s best interest. For example,
although in France only 12% of the population is Muslim (due largely to
migration from Muslim majority countries formerly colonized by France) 60-70%
of those in prison are Muslim.
So now we have a bigger picture: Muslims as a "misbehaving"
minority group, an ongoing war on terror and related distaste for all things
Muslim, wide-spread discrimination against Muslims (1 in
3 Muslims in Europe have reported discrimination), desire to maintain a
culturally homogeneous society, and, finally, a fascination with another man’s
progress. Put together, the something
else is revealed: by highlighting the oppression of Muslim women Sarkozy is
giving people in France more reasons to do what France is already doing pretty
well-marginalizing its large Muslim minority.
But what if I have it all wrong? What if Sarkozy is really
interested in the well-being of Muslim women? Well then I suggest he start by
dropping his parliamentary commission designed to "smoke-out"
the burqa (borrowing from ex President Bush here) and instead involve Muslim
women in debate and dialogue to ensure that the burqa, when worn, is understood
as symbol of personal choice and not of oppression.