Friday, September 17, 2010

Waging Culture Wars on Women’s Bodies

by Asma Afsaruddin

Center for the Study of Islam and Democacry
September 2010

The recent passage of the bill banning the burqa in the French Senate and the heated discussion preceding it have brought into relief a time-honored (masculine) practice of waging culture wars on the bodies of women. In this case, the bodies are those of veiled Muslim women serving as ideological sites for passionate French debates about national identity and cultural authenticity.

For all the female emancipatory rhetoric which heavily cloaks (pun intended) this piece of legislation, the paternalism of those who are agitating for it is unmistakable. After all, it is mostly male French legislators who are in the process of deciding, without the consent of and consultation with the women involved, what is good for them. If, as has been argued correctly in my opinion, no one has the right to force women to wear the burqa, then to be consistent, it should similarly be argued that no one has the right to force them to desist - both smack of unconscionable paternalism and condescension. In the current highly-charged French atmosphere, the former is deemed offensive, the latter not - even though both measures deny the women themselves any agency and rob them of their voices, a situation that these legislators are supposed to be against. French president Sarkozy, of all people, has tied the ban to an attempt to protect “the dignity of women” and prevent their “oppression.”