PARIS, France—The other day I asked you what you thought of the burqa in France. A woman wearing a niqab had walked by, we were stopped at a traffic light, and I’d wanted to practice my French.
You were clearly agitated. You started gesticulating at the woman walking by, and you spoke heatedly about her. When you saw what must have been the puzzled look on my face, you gave me the disclaimer that you were an Iraqi Muslim yourself and therefore understood Muslim culture much better than most. Fair enough. But then you said that, as a French citizen, the primary reason you supported the burqa ban is that the burqa is the “subjugation of women, no two ways about it.” And in France, I think you added, women are simply not subjugated.
I’m not so sure about that, either in France or in the West at large.
If you’d looked at the other women walking down the Boulevard St. Germain that day, you would have seen what I saw—a host of female bodies squeezed into uncomfortably tight jeans and sky-high stilettos. True, no veil covered the faces on those bodies, and they were visible for all to see. But, as many of those faces were painted with makeup and enhanced with various cosmetic improvements, can you actually call them the faces of the free?
I would echo what Martha Nussbaum wrote just two days before the French lower house voted 335 to one to ban any face-covering veil in a country that prides itself on progressivism: “Every time I undress in the locker room of my gym, I see women bearing the scars of liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants,” she said. “Isn’t much of this done in order to conform to a male norm of female beauty that casts women as sex objects?”
But, you said, no woman would choose to wear a burqa if she actually had the ability to choose. In my mind, if it’s really the “subjugation of women” you care so much about, you should also concern yourself with that huge percentage of non-Muslim French (and Western) women who are themselves subjected to an ideal of beauty articulated and enforced by men, one that you should oppose with equal vehemence. You, however, seem to care only about the burqa and not about the Botox.
This, ultimately, is the part of your thinking that is most deeply troubling. You hold a different standard to two groups of women—the so-called “liberated” French women with cosmetic surgery on the one hand and the (very small number of) Muslim women who opt to observe tradition on the other. In other words, it seems as though it isn’t the “subjugation” of these burqa-wearing women that you really care about—it’s their difference, their “otherness.”
You said you were a Muslim yourself, and—I must admit—I’m a bit surprised that you don’t seem to dismiss out of hand the viewpoint that has for so long marginalized minorities like yourself in nation-states like France. Also, it seems a bit upsetting that, as someone with a worldview much broader than the narrow confines of modern French society, you nevertheless accept automatically the current French nationalism that, in the words of former Harvard professor Judith Surkis, “upholds woman’s bodily dignity as a core value and ideal, but only at the expense of women’s volition, agency, and legal rights.” Not to mention the inherent xenophobia involved in policing the “bodily dignity” of only one group of women.
I wish I’d had the words to disagree in person.
James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.