Two days ago I found myself inadvertently caught up in a ‘debate’ with a regular face at my workplace. I say debate in inverted commas purely because when you are serving someone coffee and eggs on toast, hoping for a good tip and you’ve a long queue of other jaded, city bankers calling, “MISS…” and snapping their fingers at you, there’s really only so much vigour you can throw into a conversation. The only reason that I was drawn into it anyway was because he was reading an article about banning the burqa. As I placed cutlery in front of him, full of vitriol, he spat – which took me by surprise as he looked like quite a nice fellow – “They should ban the burqa, it is a complete and utter disgrace – don’t you think!??”
Probably, I should have just smiled and gone away to make him his double expresso, but instead said, “Well. Um…not necessarily.” He looked incredulously at me. “It’s SO disrespectful. If you went to Iran or wherever, you’d have to wear a veil and cover up – they should have to dress as we dress!”
I answered with some kind of paraphrase of my opinion about civil rights. See, we’re supposed to be a democratic country. Which means that technically an individual should have the freedom to do, say and wear what they like. Therefore an argument consisting of, “Well they would force us to dress their way, so we’re gonna force them, too! SO NYEEER!” really doesn’t fly.
He rolled his eyes. “I thought that you, as a woman, would agree with me on this one.”
At that point I was bustled away by my boss to serve the line of jittery people awaiting their cappuccinos, and didn’t get another chance to continue the conversation. As a feminist living in the west who has never worn a burqa as part of my culture, of course I find the symbol of one to be against my own ideals. I think that the concept of taking away a women’s visibility is, quite frankly, pretty disturbing. But as far as I can see, outright banning of it is not going to solve any problems. Many women choose to wear them, and I fail to see how telling a woman what she can and cannot wear is helping to remove the shackles of patriarchy. And come to think of this, if we are in the spirit of banning symbols of patriarchy, then why aren’t we also talking about banning high heels, corsets or ‘lad’s mags’ and other symbols which litter our society and which, one could definitely argue, also symbolise patriarchy?
“Well, we have a choice about those things,” I hear you say, “Some women who wear the burqa don’t have a choice, and the ones who do freely choose to wear them are simply being influenced by their patriarchal culture.” Most times I have chosen to wear heels, it is because I am influenced by my patriarchal culture. It’s certainly not because I get off on the blistering pain they give me. It’s because, just for the night, I desperately want my legs to look like the ones plastered and airbrushed onto magazines and movie screens. I can’t imagine that we are going to be talking about banning heels any time soon, or any of the obvious, garish images and western symbols of patriarchy that are continuously vomited into our faces every day. This is because the issue surrounding the ban-the-burqa issue is not about feminism – nor is it about women’s rights or symbols of patriarchy. It is about taking away more of our fundamental freedoms. It is about banning anything that is unknown and scary to us, and stripping us more and more of our basic rights.
To grab support for this, the media will fall back onto women’s rights because they know that this will get people on their side; people who have never before identified with feminism will be outraged. Women and men up and down the country will be standing up and screaming for The Rights of Women To…be told what to wear. Some people who are veterans of feminism may be duped into following it too, as they will be so desperate for some media coverage of women’s rights.
As Laurie Penny wrote in this excellent post, the rights of women will always be used for political gain. When Maggie Thatcher came into power in 1975, my mother (an active feminist campaigner) remembers one of her left wing male friends sneering at her, “I suppose that you’re really happy about this!” – a statement which almost made her eyes pop out of her head as of course nothing could have been further from the truth. But of course, it is always going to happen. Mister Double Expresso at the cafe, chiding me for my very “un-feminist” attitude toward burqas whilst folding up his copy of the Daily Mail, is just one example – but we must challenge people as much as possible on these issues, and not allow our opinions to be swept along with popular opinion. We can’t afford to let our beliefs pigeonhole us into supporting something that actually symbolises everything we want to fight against.
It’s easier said than done, but I believe we can try.
– Siobhan Knox