I did not get a chance to attend the French Club’s recent event “Neither Whores nor Submissive,” a lecture and discussion about France’s ban on face coverings, featuring French activist and politician Fadela Amara. However, based on what I have read and heard about this event—and about Amara—it seems that it was yet another retelling of the same tired points that people misguidedly employ when they fight to rescue the Muslim woman from her oppressors.
I am disgusted by the abuse of women anywhere. As a Muslim male, I am particularly offended when the Islamic tradition is perverted to suit a cultural tradition such that men justify the oppression of women according to rights supposedly given to them by their religion. There is a lot of work, I believe, to be done across cultures and faith groups in the way of women receiving their right to be treated with dignity and respect. I believe that Muslims need to either start or continue concerted efforts to ensure that women receive their due and that any abuse or infringement upon a woman’s sense of agency is viewed as unacceptable. I also believe, however, that laws that overreach in attempting to solve these problems often serve to marginalize an acceptable result instead of the unacceptable cause, resulting in alienation among the communities these laws target.
While I personally am not in favor of the face covering, I acknowledge that this is my personal belief based on my understanding of Islam and of what is necessary in today’s society, and I believe that the decision to wear it should be reserved for each woman. Furthermore, I believe that a woman who is covering can and should accommodate security measures where it is necessary. The accommodation, however, must be mutual between the state and the individual.
Amara does not seem to believe in such accommodation. In addition to supporting the ban on face coverings, she was a major proponent of the French ban on visible religious symbols from public schools, which, perhaps most controversially, banned girls from wearing headscarves in school. The context of the face covering ban thus demonstrates that this is not truly a matter of security, nor is it a matter of preserving anyone’s dignity. For the far-right, it is a matter of marginalizing an undesirable religious group, and for people of Amara’s ilk, it is a matter of imposing their views of freedom and liberty in a manner that undermines those very principles.
If we were looking to preserve the agency of the Muslim woman, we ought to pursue this in a sincere manner, without unduly injecting our personal biases. France’s “burqa ban” includes stipulations that punish individuals who force someone to cover up in a certain way. I think this is good: If we determine that inappropriate levels of pressure are leaving women without a choice in their actions, then we ought to alleviate that pressure. However, we must leave space for individuals to choose freely in the first place. The burqa ban instead fights paternalism with paternalism.
In making the ridiculous claim that women who wear the face covering by choice do not exist, Amara makes plain her biased assumption that a woman in possession of all her liberty and intellect could not choose to cover up. The law Amara supports denies women the choice to cover as they wish, and she justifies this on the basis of her own beliefs on how a woman should think. The irony would be laughable if it were not so insulting to the intelligence of Muslim women.
To tell a Muslim woman that her headscarf or face covering is nothing more than an archaic symbol of male dominance is to deny its original purpose and instead claim that its most perverted instance is its only instance. It is to tell every intelligent, free-thinking Muslim female, across schools, universities, places of work, and beyond, that she is stupid and infantile if she makes a choice that she believes best preserves her modesty. It is to tell her that she is foolish to attempt to make her mind and her personality the focal point of social and professional interaction, particularly in a world where women are objectified even in societies that trumpet themselves as beacons of progressivism. It is to tell her, “Oh, hush, silly woman, and let us liberate you.”
The chauvinist that oppresses a woman and forces her to adhere to a particular standard has trampled on her rights and ought to inspire our disgust. This is true whether the oppressor is her husband or a politician, and whether it is about something we, as individuals, approve of or not.
Zahed Haseeb is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy and economics.