Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Culture wars and "forced liberation"

So. The Burqopocalypse is upon us in France. Their lower house, the National Assembly, passed a sweeping ban on Muslim face veils by the absurd margin of 335 to 1. Considering how rarely 335 French people ever agree on anything, I'd say this shows how popular the ban on such clothing is in France.

And not just in France either; Egyptian Mona Eltahawy loves the idea:
I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you -- and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman's right to choose to wear a burqa because it's her natural right. But I often tell them that what they're doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman's right to do anything. We're talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them. And yet there is basically one right that we are fighting for these women to have, and that is the right to cover their faces.
But this law is only incidentally a positive blow for women's rights. It's really a more sinister campaign against Muslims and for "French values," as Eltahawy herself admits:
But what really disturbs me about the European context is that the ban is driven almost solely by xenophobic right wingers who I know very well don't give a toss about women's rights. What they're doing is they're hijacking an issue that they know is very emotive and very easy to sell to Europeans who are scared about immigration, Europeans who are scared about the economy, Europeans who don't understand people who look and sound different than them.
First, let's be honest about the burqa. It's a misogynistic tradition that is only tangentially related to Islam. The Qur'an's dress code says nothing about forcing women to cover themselves head to toe - hell, the traditional headscarf (hijab) isn't even required by the Qur'an! The burqa is an imposition of the unsavory heavily woman-hating aspects of Arab culture and not of Islam itself. Which brings us to culture, the real reason for the burqa ban, as voiced by the parliamentary report that led to it:
"The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable," the report on Tuesday said. "We must condemn this excess."
The law is not about women's rights per se - it's about defining what is and is not "French." Living your life in a certain approved way is important to the health of the republic. And here you see a couple of things: first, why this CNN article reports that majorities in Western Europe favor a burqa ban while two-thirds of Americans do not, and second, the similarities Eurosnobs have with right-wing Americans.

We Americans, by and large, view our country less as a culture and more as a collection of high-minded ideals - free speech, freedom of religion, equality before the law, etc. The only people who talk about "culture" as a requirement to be American are right-wing windbags who prattle on about what it means to be a "real American," and how that usually involves not living like a liberal. This is because American culture is far from static - we've been spending 230 years being influenced by everyone from the native Americans and the English colonists to the Irish and Italians to the Mexicans and Indians. We eat eggs and sausage for breakfast, tacos for lunch, and chicken tikka masala for dinner and think absolutely nothing of it. By contrast, Western Europe has a lot narrower range of influences and is thus a lot more culturally homogeneous. (So what's interesting is that our right-wing culture warriors have more in common with Western Europeans than they'd care to admit - you listen to Sarkozy or any other French politician talk about the burqa ban, and you could just as easily be listening to Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney.)

And that, in a nutshell, is why I prefer America to its European allies and would even if I hadn't been born here. In America, our natural inclination is to provide everyone with the freedom to define their own lives, to accept or reject elements of our culture on their own terms. Instead of forcing women to drop the burqa, which smacks of the cultural imperialism of a colonial power exerted upon foreigners at home, we present a burqa-free life as an option to be accepted or rejected on an individual basis. The liberation that comes from dumping misogyny on your own terms is more difficult to reach, yes, but far more valuable than the forced liberation the French offer.

Forced liberation is, after all, a paradox, one that will be seen in Muslim immigrants' minds as more forced and less liberation. The French, by attempting to enforce "culture," have managed to make equality seem like oppression, while simply allowing women to wear the burqa if they choose but confronting them with options would make equality seem like an appealing, liberating choice (to the women, at least). And that's the tragedy of the European model... and the beauty of the American one.

1 comment:

Miguel said...

Well it's not like the United States does not engage in "forced liberation". Our government just uses bombs instead of legislation.