Monday, August 22, 2016

My thoughts on the Burkini Ban

Over the past week and a half, municipal governments across France have banned the Burkini, a full body swimsuit with a head covering that allows Muslim women (and others who prefer to be less exposed) from beaches. On Wednesday, the French Prime Minister Manuel Walls, denounced the garb as part of the "enslavement of women". Many people have commented, tweeted and blogged about this. These are some of my thoughts:

1) The ban achieves nothing. It does not affect the patriarchal forces that seek to control the lives and choices of Muslim women. Neither does it prevent radicalization in Muslim communities across Europe. It's simply a way for politicians to use the anxieties of their (non-Muslim) citizens to gain political capital by seeming to prevent extremist Islamist mass violence (Why extremist? See the work of Shadi Hamid that shows violence is NOT the norm for Islamist movements, specifically in the Middle East) without actually addressing any of the core causes of this violence (because that requires work and also there is no consensus among scholars of terrorism and radicalization on what these core motivators are).

2)Burkini is different from the Burqa. The conflation between these two is a result of the ill-thought name of this type of swimsuit (Dear Aheba Zanetti, the creator of the Burkini, could you have not thought of a less polarizing name? I know you were trying to be humorous, but you really failed.) The Burkini allows (primarily Muslim) women to go to the beach and participate in outdoor activities that they may feel unable to do. It's the actual opposite of segregation that European politicians bemoan of, as it allows religious Muslim women to become more integrated in public spaces such as beaches and swimming pools.

3) There is a long misogynistic history of fetishizing Muslim women's bodies by both Muslim and non-Muslims (especially men).

I am suspicious (and very tired) of non-Muslims (especially men), who denounce the Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa because of it is patriarchal and misogynist by legislatively restricting clothing options for Muslim women (and or supporting these restrictions) without dismantling the misogyny and patriarchy that promotes modesty culture; reducing the complexity and humanity of Muslim women to their dress "choices" (more on "choices" later) and marginalizing racialized Muslim communities in Western societies even further. Banning women from wearing patriarchal clothing does not result in their emancipation. Challenging the patriarchy/misogyny rooted in modesty culture without patronizing, fetishizing, speaking over and for Muslim women does. So, please let Muslim women be the prominent voices in these issues. We are burqa wearers, niqabis, hijabis, non-Hijabis, ex-Hijabis, ex-Niqabis, "modest" and "immodest" with varying levels of religious (non) beliefs. We agree and (vehemently) disagree with each other, but this debate within our communities is necessary to uproot modesty culture that negatively affects all of us. When you presume to speak for us (and often over us) or use a specific clothing as the archetype of an "authentic" (usually western Hijabis) or a "liberated" (usually a non-western non-Hijabi) Muslim woman, this enforces the oppressive modesty culture in our communities. When a Hijabi woman is held up as the archetypal Muslim woman, this intensifies social pressure on non-Hijabis in our communities/Muslim majority societies to wear the Hijab. When a non-Hijabi woman is considered as the archetypal "liberated" Muslim woman, not only does it perpetuate the notion that liberation or oppression of Muslim women is exclusively linked to their clothing, but it adds to the discrimination that Hijabi women face at work and in the public sphere (yes, Hijabi women face more discrimination, harassment and violence than non-Hijabi women in Western societies). This also results in additional social pressure on non-Hijabi women to veil because many Muslim communities will aggressively promote Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa as a counter response. It also intensifies social pressure for non-Hijabi women who want to veil but are actively prevented by their families/spouses from doing so (yes, these women also exist). Regardless of how we cover our bodies, Muslim women face gender based discrimination in access to education, healthcare and employment, in addition to FGM, honor killings, acid attacks, domestic and sexual violence. Policing our clothing "choices" does not eliminate these issues.

I am equally suspicious (and very tired) of Muslim men who promote modesty culture and police/pressure women's bodies. We should not (and will not) bear the burden of your sexual desire. Your sexual attraction is your problem. Stop categorizing us as moral and immoral based on what we wear. We refuse to be reduced to our clothing. We are tired of being the topic of conversations that we are actively prevented from participating in. Stop speaking for and over us. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves. If you really care about our rights, stop promoting, supporting and condoning FGM, honor killings, gender based discrimination, domestic and sexual violence in our communities and societies.

4) Clothing "choices" that Muslim women make are constrained primarily by the beliefs of the woman making the "choice" and the expediency that it will provide. As Bina Shah writes:

In Pakistan, where I live, there is no law — as in Saudi Arabia or Iran — about what women should wear. Dress codes are left to be defined by institutions, organizations, families. They veer on the conservative most of the time, except in certain bastions of Westernized society. Society still dictates that women should not leave the house unless properly — decently — clothed. This means a woman can be entrapped in her house, if she doesn’t choose to wear the burqa.

Therefore you see hundreds of thousands of Pakistani women choosing to wear a burqa because it is a matter of expediency. They wear the burqas to their jobs in the malls, in schools, in houses as domestic workers, to beauty salons. When they get to their destinations they take off the burqa and wear a uniform. Then they put the burqa back on before going home.

So that women can be empowered financially, or get their educations, the burqa, or the burkini, becomes the vehicle of expediency. The mistake we make is to mistake it as the actual agency of women. If it were truly so, we wouldn’t see the images of Syrian women burning their burqas as soon as their villages were liberated by ISIS. We would see thousands of women rushing to don burqas for no other reason than faith alone.

Muslim women make decisions on how to cover or not cover based on the contexts that they are situated in. For many Muslim women living in Western societies, the Hijab is an expression of their faith and they wear it as such. For others, it is an expression of their Muslim identity; a way to assert difference from the dominant social group. For others still, it is a way for them to gain financial and social independence while navigating the overwhelming patriarchy in their families and communities. Banning veils from the public sphere in Western societies will only limit Muslim women in socially coercive situations from gaining financial and social independence which will allow them to remove themselves from their oppressive contexts or challenge them in the future. In many Muslim majority societies where modesty culture and conservative values prevail, the Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa become tools that Muslim women use to circumvent and challenge patriarchal control of their lives.

5)Banning the Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa without confronting the patriarchy and misogyny that created modesty culture in the first place hasn't lead to the emancipation of Muslim women in Muslim majority societies. Instead, it has actually led to scaling back of women's rights. The Islamic Revolution of Iran, a reaction to the forced secularization of Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi (which included banning the Chador in public) resulted in the enforcement of modesty culture on Iranian women by law. The forced secularization of Turkey, by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and subsequently the Turkish military, paved the way for the conservative Islamist AKP party to gain power and actively promote modesty culture on Turkish women. Neither the white revolution of Reza Shah Pahlavi nor the secularization of Ataturk challenged the underlying misogyny and patriarchy of modesty culture. If modesty culture had been challenged publicly and the lies that patriarchy perpetuates about women and their role in society had been dismantled,Islamists would have been unable  to impose regressive norms for women without significant push back from these societies.