When “anti-sexism” is Islamophobia

July 21, 2009

I AM writing in response to Readers' Views articles by David Feldman ("The burqa should be banned") and Michael Quirk ("Islamic dress degrading to women") that defend French President Nicolas Sarkozy's threat to ban the burqa.

Feldman and Quirk are wrong to accept mainstream rhetoric that such a move would be anti-sexist and defend French secularism.

Sarkozy is a well-known racist who a few years ago called Muslim youth in the suburban rebellions "scum." So his pretence of concern for Muslim women is very thin. In fact, his inflammatory comments lie in a long tradition of racist attacks leveled in the name of women's rights.

Such postures have been the props of colonialism, war and racist oppression since the dawn of the modern era--a dynamic feminist academic Gayatri Spivak condemned as "white men saving brown women from brown men."

This is another version of the "white man's burden," and through it, women (and men) have been Christianized, "civilized," removed from economic power, removed from their families, and over and over subjected to the exploits of imperialism and capitalism. Knowing this history doesn't automatically tell us how to respond to Sarkozy's comments, but it should make us wary of accepting the women's liberation justification at face value.

In fact, there is nothing liberating about being told by the state what you can and cannot wear, nor in being banned from public places dressed however you are comfortable. Whether or not we assume Muslim women wear religious clothing under duress (an idea which rather paints them as passive victims than agents in their own fate), such bans simply add to the pressures women live under.

Indeed, the idea that this tiny minority of French Muslims who choose the burqa is responsible for perpetuating sexism or restricting religious freedom in France is both mistaken and dangerous. Let's be clear--the individual choice of clothing a woman makes restricts no one's freedom nor interferes with anyone's life, much less with the running of the state.

Feldman is quick to pronounce on the burqa's negative meanings. He should take time to read the many sympathetic accounts in which Muslim women explain what it means to them.

And, yes, it is clothing marked by the sexism of the societies it is rooted in. So is a nun's habit, and so is most of my wardrobe. We live in a sexist world. But condemning women for what they choose to wear, suggesting that they should just "liberate themselves," amounts to blaming the victim.

UNFORTUNATELY, MOST of the left has ceded this ground, defending these racist (and sexist) attacks in the name of secularism. This misunderstands what secularism under capitalism should actually aspire to: freedom of religion and non-interference of religious institutions in the running of the state.

Curbing the political influence of the Catholic Church, whose entrenched power runs back to feudalism, is secularism. Passing laws restricting adherence to an oppressed religion is not. Far from enhancing secularism, the latter restricts religious freedom and thereby perpetuates the French government's preference for the dominant religion.

These debates are not new on the left; Marx himself took them up in his earliest writings. Referring to the political revolutions that ushered in capitalism, Marx argued, "Man emancipates himself politically from religion by banishing it from the sphere of public law to that of private law"--i.e., by making it a matter of private conscience. In introducing laws dictating what actions particular religious people must take, the French government is re-introducing religious questions--questions of conscience--back into public law. It is thus guilty of behaving not as a secular state but as a religious one.

The core of Marx's argument is that people cannot be freed from any limiting religious ideas they might hold to by law or any other mandate. "We do not assert that [religious people] must overcome their religious narrowness in order to get rid of their secular restrictions, we assert that they will overcome their religious narrowness once they get rid of their secular restrictions."

Those of us fighting for liberation must never demand that people reject religious beliefs to join the battle against sexism and racism. We must welcome whoever will ally with us in digging up these secular problems, root and branch.

It is not up to Feldman nor Quirk nor me to decide what kind of clothing represents "such an extreme case" and too "degrading to women" for any woman by her own conscience to choose to wear it. And it is certainly not up to the state.

As we chant in defense of abortion rights, we must stand firm against all the bans on Muslim clothing and say, "women themselves must decide their fate." This puts us on the strongest ground to oppose racism, defend secularism and fight for women's liberation.
Rachel Morgain, Crystal Creek, Australia

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