Sarkozy vs the burqa: Does he know what he’s talking about?

This just in:

President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Monday that the Islamic burqa is not welcome in France, branding the face-covering, body-length gown as a symbol of subservience that suppresses women’s identities and turns them into “prisoners behind a screen.”

Is this true?  The answer is not obvious either way.

Most of the commentary I’ve seen on this has focused on the perceived conflict between “religious freedom” and “sexual equality”.  Some have correctly pointed out that wearing a burqa is in fact not an obligation of Islamic law.  The French Muslim immigrants who wear it are following the custom of their home cultures.  I think the people who point this out think it is an argument in favor of a ban, since it means that free exercise of religion is less of an issue.  In fact, it means that we should be much more cautious than we have been in telling people from foreign cultures what their customs mean.

Sarkozy claims that the purpose of the burqa is to degrade women.  This is one possibility; sometimes we cover something because we regard it as unseemly.  He says that it efaces (literally) recognition of the woman’s identity.  This is also possible; one’s face does potently express one’s personality.  However, is this the only possibility?  If we look at our own culture, we see that it is not.  We don’t just hide things because they are too bad for public view; sometimes we hide things because they are too good for public view, i.e. because we regard them as sacred.  The Jews didn’t keep people out the the Holy of Holies because they were ashamed of it.

In my discussion of tradition, I have discussed cultural standards of modesty, referring them to reverence rather than shame:

All cultures have codes of modesty which require that some parts of the body by covered in public and that the conjugal act by protected by some veil of privacy.  Its meaning is to recognize the dignity of persons as separate centers of subjectivity.  Through modesty, we acknowledge that each person is a “secret world” unto himself and that he can reveal himself through his body in a unique way in the marital act.  Ironically, it is the very fact of concealment which trains us to recognize this dimension of depth in each person.  Clothes remind my eyes how little of a person I can really see.  The sharing of subjectivity by the participants is of the essence of sex, so the outsider’s viewpoint is inherently degrading and must be excluded.  Thus we exclude outside viewers.

Concealment of the body is a culture’s way of symbolizing the “dimension of depth” to each person; it is a sign of respect, not shame.  In fact, in the sad annals of political tyranny, it is forced nakedness which has more often been used to degrade prisoners.

So, does the burqa honor or degrade women?  There can be no universal answer to this question.  We can only ask whether it honors or degrades them in the context of a particular culture.  And so we have to look at that culture and see how this custom functions in that culture, something Mr. Sarkozy felt no need to do before pronouncing judgement.  Where these women come from, are there any exceptions to the burqa rule?  Do especially honored women get to show more of their body?  If so, it would be a sign that the rule is degrading.  Are women ever punished by being forbidden to cover their faces?  If so, it would be a sign that the rule confers dignity.

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  But I worry when people don’t even bother to ask them.  What if tomorrow some French feminist claims that the rule that women cover their breasts is degrading?  Couldn’t she use many of the same arguments that Sarkozy is using?  If we want to defend our own culture, we must learn to show more understanding towards others.

One Response

  1. […] Dispatches from the North is back By bonald In most ways, the end of summer break is bad news for those of us in the academic world.  One good thing, though, is that my favorite European traditionalist bog, Dispatches from the North, has become active again.  Already, rkirk has gotten to work taking apart bad arguments for banning the burqa, as well as considering good ones.  (By the way, I addressed this issue myself here.) […]

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