Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gender Equality and Religion: Using the Burqa Ban as a Jumping-Off Point

A little over a month ago, The Huffington Post put up an Associated Press article entitled “Sarkozy: Burqas Are ‘Not Welcome’ In France.” The gist of the article was that French President Nicolas Sarkozy used “some of the strongest language against burqas from a European leader at a time when some Western officials have been seeking to ease tensions with the Muslim world.” Burqas, for those unaware, are a type of Islamic religious garb for women that cover the entire body. Burqas have a nasty reputation for being a hindrance to female equality in the Muslim world, and also apparently in France. Thus, some in that country would like to see them banned from being worn.

I saw this as an affront to the basic human right of freedom of religion, or more importantly, freedom of expression. It was in this spirit that I wrote this in the comments section of the article:

This is absolutely ridiculous. A woman can choose to where [sic] whatever she wants. When a burqa is a symbol of subservience, it is when the woman is forced to wear one.

Sorry about the dumb spelling mistake. And using the word “the” before “woman” doesn’t sound right, deconstructively. My bad.

Anyway, now that I reexamine what I wrote, I think I only agree with about half of what I commented. I still think that the burqa ban is ridiculous, and that a woman has the right to wear whatever she damn well pleases. However, I think I’m going to have to take back the second half. The burqa is still a symbol of subservience, even if a woman is forced to wear it or not. This is because the religious institution it comes from is sexist.

Some of you are probably offended right now. Wait, keep reading.

My beef isn’t with Islam specifically. Rather, it’s with the Abrahamic religions in general. I’m not a Muslim, but I am a member of another Abrahamic religion—Judaism. The sexist commonality, at least for me, came in the realization of the similarities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Most people point to specific verses in the Bible/Qur’an when they think of sexism (and homophobia and heterosexism) in the major monotheistic religions. From the Torah’s story of the fall of humankind from Eden due to woman, the execution of gays, the “impurities” of menstruation and seminal fluid, to the New Testament’s call for wives to “submit” to their husbands, and to the Qur’an’s implorations of women’s modesty. These are all pretty damning (yes, pun intended), but not what I see as the most basic cause of these religions’ problems with sexism.

Really, the dilemma is that all three religions seek to assign gender roles to how people should live. Wives are still sex objects, but only to their husbands. Husbands must fulfill the role of provider for the family. In each religion, this concrete separation evolved into intensely patriarchal systems. Oh, and don’t even think about trying to do anything differently, lest you be stoned to death.

Just like social superstructures imitate economic bases, so do specific aspects of religions imitate their simplest principles. Within the confines of religious law, burqas, as well as other religious clothing mandated only for women, like Jewish sheitels, are oppressive in nature.

The trick is, though, that you have to introduce choice into the matter, which is what feminism is all about. Women who are able to choose what they want to wear are not oppressed in that manner. Even though religious garb still may carry oppression symbolically, the woman who wears it is not necessarily oppressed in this particular area of her life, as long as she has chosen her outfit.

In conclusion: a burqa is still symbolically sexist, but a woman who chooses to wear one is not proclaiming subservience to men. This goes for all religions with gender-clothing. Religions are sexist when they assign gender roles, since overcoming sexism means choosing what role you want regardless of sex. France’s burqa ban eliminates that choice, and is thus a dumb law. I should never be allowed to ramble.

Hopefully no one is too mad over what I’ve written. Who knows, I may not agree with this entire post in a month.

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