Feminism | Posted by Paul S on 07/27/2009

Gender Equality and Religion: Using the Burqa Ban as a Jumping-Off Point

France: one woman wearing a niqab (burqa) and another dressed in typical Western clothing

France: one woman wearing a niqab (burqa) and the other dressed in typical Western clothing walking together


A little over a month ago, The Huffington Post put up an Associated Press article entitled “Sarkozy: Burqas Are ‘Not Welcome’ In France.” The gist of the article was that French President Nicolas Sarkozy used “some of the strongest language against burqas from a European leader at a time when some Western officials have been seeking to ease tensions with the Muslim world.” Burqas, for those unaware, are a type of Islamic religious garb for women that cover the entire body. Burqas have a nasty reputation for being a hindrance to female equality in the Muslim world, and also apparently in France. Thus, some in that country would like to see them banned from being worn.

I saw this as an affront to the basic human right of freedom of religion, or more importantly, freedom of expression. It was in this spirit that I wrote this in the comments section of the article:

This is absolutely ridiculous. A woman can choose to where [sic] whatever she wants. When a burqa is a symbol of subservience, it is when the woman is forced to wear one.

Sorry about the dumb spelling mistake. And using the word “the” before “woman” doesn’t sound right, deconstructively. My bad.

Anyway, now that I reexamine what I wrote, I think I only agree with about half of what I commented. I still think that the burqa ban is ridiculous, and that a woman has the right to wear whatever she damn well pleases. However, I think I’m going to have to take back the second half. The burqa is still a symbol of subservience, even if a woman is forced to wear it or not. This is because the religious institution it comes from is sexist.

Some of you are probably offended right now. Wait, keep reading.

My beef isn’t with Islam specifically. Rather, it’s with the Abrahamic religions in general. I’m not a Muslim, but I am a member of another Abrahamic religion—Judaism. The sexist commonality, at least for me, came in the realization of the similarities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Most people point to specific verses in the Bible/Qur’an when they think of sexism (and homophobia and heterosexism) in the major monotheistic religions. From the Torah’s story of the fall of humankind from Eden due to woman, the execution of gays, the “impurities” of menstruation and seminal fluid, to the New Testament’s call for wives to “submit” to their husbands, and to the Qur’an’s implorations of women’s modesty. These are all pretty damning (yes, pun intended), but not what I see as the most basic cause of these religions’ problems with sexism.

Really, the dilemma is that all three religions seek to assign gender roles to how people should live. Wives are still sex objects, but only to their husbands. Husbands must fulfill the role of provider for the family. In each religion, this concrete separation evolved into intensely patriarchal systems. Oh, and don’t even think about trying to do anything differently, lest you be stoned to death.

Just like social superstructures imitate economic bases, so do specific aspects of religions imitate their simplest principles. Within the confines of religious law, burqas, as well as other religious clothing mandated only for women, like Jewish sheitels, are oppressive in nature.

The trick is, though, that you have to introduce choice into the matter, which is what feminism is all about. Women who are able to choose what they want to wear are not oppressed in that manner. Even though religious garb still may carry oppression symbolically, the woman who wears it is not necessarily oppressed in this particular area of her life, as long as she has chosen her outfit.

In conclusion: a burqa is still symbolically sexist, but a woman who chooses to wear one is not proclaiming subservience to men. This goes for all religions with gender-clothing. Religions are sexist when they assign gender roles, since overcoming sexism means choosing what role you want regardless of sex. France’s burqa ban eliminates that choice, and is thus a dumb law.

I should never be allowed to ramble. Who knows, I may not agree with this entire post in a month.

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  • Jennifer @ at 12:00 pm, July 27th, 2009

    “Sorry about the dumb spelling mistake.”

    I’m unsure if you view yourself as against ableism, as a feminist, but if you do, you might want to reconsider your use of the word ‘dumb’.

  • MalviLLe @ at 12:01 pm, July 27th, 2009

    I still think that,in front of the daily brutal violence perpetrate in the name of religion against women all over the word(abuses,mutilation..)..the right to wear a burka is not really a problem. After that, I agree with this post, we should defend the women’s right to choose. The only evident problem with burka(niqab) and all the dresses which cover the face completely could be a security problem in some cases I think. This post recalls me the Obama’s Cairo speech:

    “The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.”

    “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.”

    “Now let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.”

    “Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.

    MalviLLe (from Italy..yes, we need more feminists, I know!)

  • Charlie @ at 12:27 pm, July 27th, 2009

    “a woman who chooses to wear one is not proclaiming subservience to men”


    A woman who “choose” to wear burka (which is rarely the case, given they’re many populations that “encourage” strictly the wearing of those outfits) choose to submit to the most extremes, mysogynist and archaic laws of Islam. Do you agree with those laws? I don’t. I don’t want those laws to be applied in my country.

    All moderated islam preachers says that burka has nothing to do with religious belief, it’s simply another form of submission before men.

    In France, those women stay at home, cannot work, go to the pool, speak to non-family…is this REALLY what you think is a “good choice”? Would you let people suicide in front of you because they’ve chosen to? Tolerance isn’t a synonym for blindness…we can accept many “personals choices”, but Burka definately isnt a wise one. And as sure as abusive sects will be sued, burka should be banned.

  • MalviLLe @ at 1:35 pm, July 27th, 2009

    “Would you let people suicide in front of you because they’ve chosen to?” no, I would try to do something to help them,… but for instance I would disagree if France wrote a new law to forbid suicide. you cant legalize/forbid something only because you like/dislike it.
    (sorry for my english!)MalviLLe

  • Charlie @ at 3:16 pm, July 27th, 2009

    “you cant legalize/forbid something only because you like/dislike it.”

    Why is street nudity forbidden so? Only social conventions. Same goes for burka : Inappropriate outfit in a western society.

  • Paul S @ at 9:28 pm, July 27th, 2009

    @Jennifer: I should have realized that “dumb” would be offensive to some. I almost never hear it used in the “can’t speak” sense, but I should have rechecked my use of the word. Will remember for the future!

  • Paul S @ at 9:32 pm, July 27th, 2009

    @Jennifer, again: Just looked up dumb in Merriam-Webster’s online, and it has “usage: There is evidence that, when applied to persons who cannot speak, dumb has come to be considered offensive.”

    From now on, I’m looking up anything that can be used derogatorily. Language is a big part of feminism, and I definitely don’t want to be discriminatory, even unknowingly. I apologize.

  • MalviLLe @ at 7:41 am, July 28th, 2009

    “Why is street nudity forbidden so? Only social conventions”
    I’m not sure. maybe in the interests of hygiene? what about sitting on the same chair previously used by a lot of naked people? It could be a problem if you have to take the bus,to go to the cinema or restaurant..
    “Inappropriate outfit in a western society” yes,I totally agree (-inappropriate- is different from -banned-)

  • Rogue @ at 5:10 pm, July 28th, 2009

    @Charlie, fighting intolerance with intolerance generally isn’t the right path to take.

  • RebJ @ at 8:39 pm, July 28th, 2009

    “When it comes to religious requirements especially, we know that outlawing certain garments in public doesn’t make women shed the offending item of clothing; it just makes women refrain from public interactions.”
    –From an article in Feministe (http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2009/06/22/banning-the-burqa-in-france/)

    If the burqa is a symbol, then outlawing it will not eliminate the beliefs behind it (whatever these beliefs are, I think they pertain to individuals and cannot be generalized). Will burning all the churches in the world stop people from believing in God?

    Maybe the purpose of this ban was to get rid of a physically restrictive garment, not combat religious customs that are perceived as misogynistic:
    “How is a woman in a burqa, which hides her face, her posture and even her hands, supposed to engage in any independent public actions? Would she be able to make a business deal? Would she be able to run for public office? Would she be able to testify in a trial? Would an employer be willing to hire her? The burqa unequivocally denies women equality in the public sphere, regardless of whether they choose to wear it. Further, the burqa perpetuates inequality through future generations, by hindering young women’s academic pursuits. Would a teacher allow a young woman to take a test, when the burqa ensured that she couldn’t be monitored? Would a young woman in a burqa be allowed in the science lab, where her loose flowing clothing would be exposed to open flames or cause her to spill hazardous chemicals? Would a college professor call on a young woman in a burqa, when he could not see her raised hand? The burqa creates such a severe disadvantage in the advancement of women that, even if women don the burqa by choice, they are relegated to the role of second-class citizens as a result.”

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