Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt demonstrates why we need to move beyond cultural relativism vs. universalism

We must be able to recognize the oppressive nature of the burqa without increasing the burden of racist misogyny upon the women who wear it.

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson takes off a burqa she wore wore to question time in the Senate chamber.

Last month, Australian politician Pauline Hanson from the right-wing One Nation party entered the Senate wearing a burqa. When she rose to speak, she removed it dramatically, saying “this is not what should belong in this Parliament.” Then she argued for the burqa to be banned, citing Australia’s “security” interests (though in a later radio interview, she alluded to its oppressive character for women).

Hanson is well known for her racist, xeonophobic views. She first came to prominence in the 1990s, when she called for “multiculturalism” to be abolished and denounced Asian immigration, saying, “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.” More recently she has focused her polemic on Muslims. Alongside the burqa ban, her political platform currently includes the opposition to halal certification, an end to the construction of mosques, and a call for a Royal Commission into Islam.

Hanson’s most recent stunt has been roundly condemned; initially within the Senate itself and subsequently by many others. However, at least one commentator, while criticizing Hanson’s actions, took the opportunity to point out that wearing the burqa is a practice based on the notion that women are “a source of evil” and that it is required of women in certain fundamentalist versions of Islam, where women are under the complete control of their husbands.

This article caused some debate among feminists online. As often happens when a controversy over the hijab, niqab, or burqa arises, women were torn. They recognized that Hanson is racist and that her stunt was clearly designed to inflame racial tension in Australia, and they also recognized that that the burqa is indeed a patriarchal practice that oppresses women.

However, the burqa is not the only oppressive patriarchal practice that Hanson engaged in in parliament that day: she was also wearing makeup. The practice of spending significant amounts of time and money — from adolescence to old age — applying toxic substances to one’s face in an attempt to attain unrealistic standards of beauty defined according to the preferences of white males is commonplace in Western society. The effects of this on women’s physical and mental health are surely significant, and surely more widespread than those of the burqa, which is only worn by a very small segment of the population. Yet strangely, it is rarely spoken about. The same goes for high heels, hair removal, cosmetic surgery and a range of other “harmful cultural practices in the West,” as Sheila Jeffreys calls them in her book Beauty and Misogyny.

If it is oppressive to cover one’s face with a piece of fabric, it is surely oppressive to cover one’s face with multiple layers of chemicals, in an attempt to “fix” invented “flaws” and become the “pretty thing to look at” women are meant to be, under patriarchy. Wearing makeup or high heels is not necessarily any less problematic than wearing the hijab or the burqa; it is just more normalized, and therefore less noticeable. Just as women do not make the “choice” to wear the burqa in a vacuum, neither do women make the “choice” to wear makeup in a vacuum.

So, while fighting the wearing of makeup may not be the first priority for Western feminists in a world where male partner violence, sexual harassment, and rape are a permanent feature of women’s lives, fighting the wearing of the veil may not be the first priority for feminists from Muslim backgrounds. Indeed, for some of these women, wearing the veil may be a compromise they have made with their families to allow them to leave the house, go to the beach, go to university, travel abroad, and so on. Preventing them from wearing the veil may in fact prevent them from engaging in these activities at all.

Hanson’s failure to make links between the burqa and the patriarchal practices imposed on women in the West is unfortunately not unusual. In a world organized by both misogyny and racism, critiques of practices that affect women of colour are more easily heard than critiques of practices that affect white women. Indeed, as in the case of Hanson’s speech, these critiques are frequently instrumentalized for racist purposes.

This leaves feminists in a predicament: how can we recognize the oppressive nature of the burqa without increasing the burden of racist misogyny put upon the women who wear it? We find ourselves trapped between, on one hand, a cultural relativism that defines any practice chosen by any woman under any circumstances as positive, and on the other, a “universalist” feminism that opposes Islamic head-coverings without making links to Western patriarchal practices and without considering the effects of these arguments in Western contexts, where such arguments fall almost immediately into racism.

Cultural relativism is the idea that beliefs, customs, and morality are not absolute, but exist in relation to the particular culture from which they originate. That is, the value of any particular cultural practice should not be judged in relation to practices from other cultures or in isolation, but solely in relation to the culture it comes from. A logical consequence of this idea is that every person’s ideas and conceptions are shaped by the culture they come from and therefore no one is competent to judge any practice from a culture other than their own.

This ideology was originally proposed in reaction to the Eurocentrism of 19th-century anthropologists and ethnographers. More recently, cultural relativism has become a major issue in feminism.

Feminists from from Western backgrounds, like everyone, absorb ideas from the societies in which they live and this sometimes leads them to make racist, ethnocentric judgements about cultural practices in other parts of the world. Western feminists, like all feminists, should carefully examine their beliefs to try to avoid this as much as possible.

However, at the same time, the ideology of cultural relativism has been used as a weapon against feminists, forbidding us from recognizing and criticizing patriarchal practices that happen outside our own cultures. For example, cultural relativist arguments are used when feminists point out that Islamic head-coverings constitute a patriarchal practice that is harmful to women. In response to this argument, cultural relativists will say that Westerners cannot judge this practice because we are limited by the prejudices of our own culture, and that so long as women wearing the veil have chosen to do so there is no problem with it. Not coincidentally, these are usually the same people who argue that Western women are expressing their agency when they “choose” to engage in harmful beauty practices such as wearing makeup, high heels, and having plastic surgery, or when women “choose” prostitution.

On the other hand, many feminists find it difficult to deny the oppressive nature of the burqa. Along with the niqab, hijab, and head coverings worn by women in the Christian and Jewish traditions (think, for example, of Mother Teresa, never seen without her characteristic blue and white veil), the burqa has its origins in the idea that women are impure and create sexual chaos when we are visible to men. It is understandable that feminists want to critique the burqa, and feel troubled that some women wear it.

But, what are the effects of this critique in a country like Australia? Australian Muslims make up a small minority of the population (according to the 2016 census, only 2.6 per cent of Australia’s population are Muslim, up from 2.2 per cent in 2011) and are under constant attack, not only from far right racists such as Pauline Hanson, but in a myriad of less overt ways by less extreme segments of society. Incidents of physical and verbal aggression against Muslims — particularly Muslim women wearing the veil — are reported frequently. Considering this context, feminist arguments against the burqa may not have the effects intended.

Australian feminists trying to decide how to react to Hanson’s stunt may find it useful to consider France as an example. Statements like Hanson’s, which in Australia could come only from the extreme right, are commonly made in France by center, left wing, and feminist commentators. In France, no one — not even the most anti-feminist of anti-feminists — would deny the oppressive character of the burqa and other Islamic head-coverings.

From the early 1990s, commentators from across the political spectrum began calling for various forms of a ban on Islamic head-coverings, focusing first on schools. This resulted in the 2004 law against the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in public schools (commonly known as “the law against the wearing of the veil”), and the 2010 law prohibiting the wearing of clothing covering one’s face in public spaces (commonly known as the “law against the wearing of the niqab”). These laws, while supposedly targeting a broad range of head- and face-coverings, are in fact the end result of several decades of deep political and public hostility against women and girls wearing the hijab and niqab.

The rhetoric employed by the government and other institutions (whether right or left wing), and proliferated by the media, is consistently one of “women’s rights” and “equality,” linked to that of “laïcité” (the French version of secularism). Equality and laïcité are considered to be pillars of the French Republic, making up part of its “universal” values (the origin of the specifically French version of universalism, sometimes known as “republican universalism”). As Christine Delphy argues, this leaves France in the strange position of having “feminist” male politicians who suddenly become deeply concerned about women as soon as Islamic head-coverings are mentioned. Strangely, these same politicians have never shown much concern for equal pay, male partner violence, sexual harassment, or rape.

It is all well and good to associate secularism and feminism: the church has never been a friend to women. However, in France laïcité and women’s rights have not exactly gone hand in hand. For example, between WWI and WWII, the Radical Socialist party (which had one of the most hardline secularist standpoints) consistently prevented suffrage for women because they believed that women would vote for religious candidates.

Nonetheless, the association between women’s rights and laïcité has become so commonplace that, today, pro-laïcité activists are automatically portrayed as feminist by the mainstream media, no matter how misogynist their ideas. So, it seems clear that the laïcité argument in favour of veil laws and burqa bans is not so much about protecting women’s rights as it is targeting France’s Muslim population.

This observation is further supported by the fact that an entire region of France is exempt from the principle of laïcité for historical reasons. In Alsace-Moselle, on the German border, religious education is compulsory in public schools, and priests and rabbis are paid by the state. And, throughout the whole country, private schools (most of which are Catholic) receive state subsidies.

Feminist arguments that correctly point out the patriarchal nature of religion have been co-opted and inconsistently applied in order to further marginalize an already oppressed minority. And within this minority, of course, the greatest violence is reserved for women.

Since the implementation of the 2004 and 2010 laws, France has continued to legitimize and normalize various forms of violence against women and girls who wear the hijab or niqab. Most obviously, this consists of suspending or expelling  girls who wear the hijab from public schools and fining women who wear the niqab. These victim-blaming outcomes seem inconsistent with the arguments made by proponents of these laws, who say that women who wear the niqab and the hijab are victims of an oppressive patriarchal practice.

Beyond that, these laws and their accompanying discourse have legitimized many other forms of targeted misogynist racism against women from Muslim backgrounds. Physical and verbal aggression in public places of women wearing the veil is common. These women have been excluded from certain feminist and leftist groups; not allowed to enter banks; forbidden from swimming; refused service in restaurants; banned from accompanying their children on school excursions; criticized for running for political office; discriminated against in the job market, and on and on. In one particularly shocking case we are personally aware of, a doctor refused to give an abortion to a young woman wearing a veil.

Even worse, some are now calling for the extension of these laws to universities and to public space more generally, as demonstrated by the burkini ban controversy in 2016. The burkini debacle was an extension of what had already been happening for years in France — women and girls perceived to be Muslim were targeted simply for wearing a long garment in certain contexts. This was a continuation and intensification of the practice of suspending girls from Muslim backgrounds from school or other public places for wearing skirts judged to be too long, or head coverings including bandanas or headbands. Theoretically, this could include even a wool hat in winter. This Islamophobic craze has reached such heights that women from Muslim backgrounds are often advised not to mention the fact that they speak Arabic on their CV, whether or not they wear the hijab or niqab, in order to avoid being discriminated against when applying for jobs.

On a more subtle level, these laws and the discourse attached to them are used to imply that male violence is something that happens elsewhere. When no links are made to broader feminist arguments, the argument that the veil and the burqa are patriarchal practices that oppress women can be easily manipulated to promote the idea that violence against women does not exist in France or other Western countries. As a result, this discourse doesn’t only increase the racist misogyny directed at Muslim women, but it also implies that white women don’t suffer at the hands of men, and that men from Western cultures are not violent and do not hurt women. It is a discourse that harms all women.

It appears, then, that feminists are faced with an unappetizing choice between a completely uncritical cultural relativism and a context-insensitive universalism. In France, a majority of feminists choose universalism. In English-speaking countries, a majority of feminists choose cultural relativism. In both cases, these choices have serious consequences for women, whether from Muslim backgrounds or not. Some feminists, more sensitive to these consequences, choose to remain silent on this issue, not knowing what position to take and fearing they’ll cause more problems by speaking up.

While remaining silent is an understandable and in many ways sensible decision, we believe that these three options are not the only ones: a genuinely feminist approach to Islamic head-coverings in Western countries remains to be defined. A good place to begin, as always, is in thinking about where men’s interests lie. Both cultural relativism and the universalist critique of the veil à la française serve men’s — specifically, white men’s — interests in a number of ways.

Liberal and queer activists, by promoting cultural relativism and arguments based on freedom of choice, participate in the silencing of feminists (particularly white women) by accusing them of racism and Islamophobia whenever they attempt to critique a practice from a culture other than their own. For women of colour, the cultural relativist message that no cultural practice should be judged fails to provide women with the tools they need to identify or counter violence within their own communities.

Many women of colour are repelled by mainstream feminism because of the unexamined racism of feminists who make universalist arguments against the veil. Feminism then becomes seen as something only for white, middle-class women. As a result, many women of colour move towards anti-racist activism because at least in these spaces the racism that we experience in our everyday lives is taken seriously. At the same time, these anti-racist groups — deeply misogynist, like all activist groups involving men — never miss an opportunity to denounce the “treachery” of feminists of colour who choose to fight alongside their white sisters (all the while, continuing to center their understanding of racism and anti-racism around men’s experiences).

Universalist arguments serve men’s interests too.

First, white men from the dominant political class take advantage of this debate to single out men from Muslim backgrounds, making them out to be the true patriarchs, letting themselves off the hook in the process. They further claim that the only women who are oppressed are those coming from such backgrounds and that it is absolutely necessary to liberate these women by de-veiling them. This promotes the idea that white women are totally liberated and that there is no need for them to fight for their rights. In reaction to this obvious racism, women from Muslim backgrounds and other women of colour are led to identify with the men from their ethnic background, making it all the more difficult for them to denounce male violence within their communities.

Second, it serves white men’s interest in gaining sexual access to all women’s bodies. In contemporary Western patriarchal culture, the permanent sexual accessibility of women’s bodies to men is symbolized by imposing a specific set of harmful cultural practices onto women: makeup, high heels, revealing clothing, and so on. As a result, the veil is intolerable to white, Western men because it communicates the message that the women wearing it are not sexually accessible to them — they are the property of brown men. The issue of the veil is fundamentally an issue of men fighting over sexual access to women.

As a result, when Western feminists speak out against the veil in Western contexts, no matter how well intentioned, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of working for white men’s interests — their interest in gaining sexual access to brown women as well as white women, and their interest in gaining control over brown men by stealing “their” women from them. This allows men to divide us according to men’s own standards: how sexually accessible we are to them.

Context is important. Wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa in Australia or in France is not equivalent to wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Algeria. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Algeria, Muslims hold power and comprise the majority of the population. In this context, fighting against the imposition of these garments by the state or by broad social pressure makes sense as a feminist goal. In Australia and France, Muslims are an oppressed minority and women from Muslim backgrounds are doubly targeted by racism and misogyny. In this context, singling out these garments has very different effects.

In France, the political left, center, and right — all deeply male-dominated and misogynist — are united in supporting the forcible de-veiling of women. This offers us a clue: if men want it, it is not likely designed to liberate women. This should give Australian feminists — and others from countries dominated by cultural relativism — pause. Cultural relativism is a trap for women, but so is French-style universalism.

Catherine Weiss and Ferial Yahiaoui are feminist activists and women of colour from Australia and Algeria respectively, currently living in France.

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  • You’ve summarized the issues well, but there aren’t any suggestions on how to get out of the morass. You’ve thought about it a lot, so why the absence of ideas?

    I’d say the solution is to hold two concepts at the same time. Racism is bad, barely recognized misogyny is at least as bad. It’s not like racial equality depends on misogyny, or some damn thing. Although if you hear people talk, it’s easy to feel that they must think so.

    The opposite is true. They’re both different faces of bigotry, and until all bigotry becomes unthinkable it can come back in any or all of its horrible forms at any time.

  • narrismo

    I appreciate how you’ve successfully identified what the real conversation should be – calling out and shaming those who continue to push these vehicles of oppression, ie the men in these societies. Australian society is moving to one where asking questions outside of what is “acceptable” is shouted down, and to question the teachings of Muslim “scholars” (as they are sometimes called) is attacked as “bigoted”.

    It’s unfortunate that you have failed to identify that Pauline in many respects is an enemy of women. She is a cheerleader for MRA causes, seeking to undermine women’s rights in parental and custody issues within family law; attacking the ABC and trying to make it more Murdochian; and has called the women’s marchers “clowns”. (those are 3 recent examples)

  • northernTNT

    There are moderate religious persons, there are fundamentalist religious persons. There should be no requirement to accommodate fundamentalism. There are thousand of non-head-hiding Muslim women all over the world, it is the fundamentalists who insist on religious attire taking precedence over local civic expectations.
    This is not just about women, it is about males too. J.Singh has stated that he is ok with Sharia, because he is ok with religious fundamentalism.
    Displays of religious fundamentalism are not personal choices, they are tools of proselytisation and grooming and oppression and sexualisation. We already have enough crappy stuff happening without adding yet another layer of it.

    • FierceMild

      “Displays of religious fundamentalism are not personal choices, they are tools of proselytisation and grooming and oppression and sexualization.”

      That is completely true.

  • Lucia Lola

    It’s fair to point out that western society’s expectation of women applies a strong pressure to conform to misogynistic ideals, but, and I mean this respectfully, to equate it to the forced wearing of a burqa is a bit much.

    I appreciate the tiny steps needed, I do. It’s why when my young niece asked about a woman who was wearing one at our local carnival (particularly why since it was hot out), I explained best I could but made a point in that at least she was out here, enjoying herself. Being allowed to, that is. Still, seeing her covered from head to toe, entirely covered (eyes as well), my heart ached. I also felt an uncomfortable shot of fear. It’s oppression, pure and simple, and my visceral reaction was to want to rescue her. To want to yell at everyone around me for seeming to accept it. Of course all that wasn’t the reality of what I was seeing, but it sure felt like it.

    I will continue to work on my ignorance but I will also continue to be vigilant in how my country and government proceeds. I understand needing to be sensitive to this, particularly in supporting groups who want to change this within their culture and they should be allowed to lead in this regard, but no, it’s not equal to the bullshit western society puts women through. Both abhorrent, yes, but not equal in terms of how to address them.

    Thank you for this article. I’ll read through it again (and again) as I’m sure there’s a lot to absorb that I’ve missed the first time.

    • Liz

      I thought they got at the point that makeup and burqa aren’t exactly the same in this paragraph (sorry for the extended quote):

      “Second, it serves white men’s interest in gaining sexual access to all women’s bodies. In contemporary Western patriarchal culture, the permanent sexual accessibility of women’s bodies to men is symbolized by imposing a specific set of harmful cultural practices onto women: makeup, high heels, revealing clothing, and so on. As a result, the veil is intolerable to white, Western men because it communicates the message that the women wearing it are not sexually accessible to them — they are the property of brown men. The issue of the veil is fundamentally an issue of men fighting over sexual access to women.”

      That distinction was not clear to me before, but I can see it now.

      • melissa

        “Western men because it communicates the message that the women wearing it are not sexually accessible to them — they are the property of brown men.”

        Surely the latter part,the “PROPERTY of brown men” part should be wholly offensive to feminists as well? Why does what western white men supposedly feel about this even matter here? This is the false dichotomy the writer creates, where women either have to live as public property for western men or private property for brown men. This is what almost every libfem apologist does. While they never manage to coherently challenge objectification in the west, they sure love to praise archaic, patriarchal “modesty”/”purity” cultures as some new, better alternative choice for some women, in opposition to being objectified. As if the sight of a woman’s hair, or merely the visibility of our faces are by default suppose to make us “immodest”, and publicize ones sexuality. While this will never applied to men.

        The result of all this is just whataboutery that keeps you from addressing specific misogynistic bs applied to women. There’s the “what about Saudia Arabia..” argument used to deflect when talking about western misogyny and this is just the other sides “what about westerners..” argument deflecting from condemning misogyny that’s not coming from white men.

    • melissa

      ” I mean this respectfully, to equate it to the forced wearing of a burqa is a bit much.”… It really is.

      ” I explained best I could but made a point in that at least she was out here, enjoying herself. Being allowed to, that is.”

      The fact that a woman WOULDN’T be allowed to have a normal life if she didn’t stay head to toe covered and segregated like that in society, on its own should be enough for people to understand just how grossly oppressive these ideas are to women. Your reaction isn’t misinterpreting reality, the apologist liberal medias like the Huffpo that glorify and normalize this stuff as “empowerment” is. (

      • radwonka

        I wasn’t allowed to have a “normal life” because i’m not a porn doll, but ok, thanks anyways

    • radwonka

      “Still, seeing her covered from head to toe, entirely covered (eyes as well), my heart ached.”

      being naked and pornified is not better TBH

  • gotta_fries

    It is totally ridiculous to compare nikab/burka with makeup, and it shows that the author has not pondered the issue at all. Through I disagree, a more apt comparation would be makeup with hijab or nikab with an enclosed nun convent.

    I will enumerate just a few basic physical things, without talking about the ideology that promotes nikab:

    – Erasure of individual identity; face is the most individual feature. This dissolves any individual female in a “female” class.
    – Barrier to communication; most of effective communication needs to see the face of the other person. Covering it you make sure that females cannot communicate in the society.
    – If two females meet by chance in public, they will not recognize each other and will lose this opportunity to make stronger bonds

    • ExceptionallyAnonymous

      Totally agree

    • Littona
    • Christine

      @gotta_fries I believe, on the contrary, the authors have pondered the issue in depth.

      I don’t think it is particularly apt to compare the hijab/niqab/burqa with life in an enclosed convent because (unless I am ignorant of the reality someplace outside North America) there aren’t many girls being forced (or pressured by their culture at large) to become nuns in 2017.

      I take your points about the physical problems with veiling one’s face and I would tend to agree with you that being forced (or being under insurmountable pressure) to do so would be worse than to live under the modern Western style of patriarchy.

      I wonder, though, whether you have really pondered the meaning of makeup and the myriad other accoutrements, practices and attitudes that women are expected to embrace or put up with in the West.

      It’s not just the expectation that we wear makeup that is keeping women down (although it’s pretty disturbing that a woman working in an office isn’t considered “professional” if she’s not wearing makeup). There is also the fact that we are judged on how our bodies look all the time. There is the fact that we can’t take a walk without seeing billboards featuring starving women, often in their underwear, whom we are compared against. There is the fact that what we say is not necessarily listened to and if it happens to be heard, it isn’t taken seriously. There is the fact that our culture is obsessed with pornography. I am sure you have noticed plenty of these things. Do they not add up to an oppressive system, different from, but on a par with, being forced to wear the burqa?

      Not one woman has been elected Prime Minister in my country (Kim Campbell was P.M., but that was only because the standing P.M. stepped down. She wasn’t reelected). Benazir Bhutto was elected P.M. of Pakistan twice. So, apparently, Muslim majority countries aren’t getting everything wrong.

      • gotta_fries

        I just focused in the veil/makeup because it was the most obvious and really, I wanted not to be lured to talk about the ideology of muslim sexism.

        I said i didnt agree with the comparation of full veil/burka with enclosed convent, but it would be understandable at least it has some elements on common. Full societal isolation and erasure of females of public life. Of course, I didnt add up, as you point the cloistered convent is currently not existent and back in the day it was not expected for all females (but it was convenient for menacing or getting rid of females) . The veil is also more practical for a male because his women can do chores for him and continue to be sexually available. That means that you last point is totally correct, muslim males got a lot of things right.

        You have a better undestanding of “West” oppressive system towards females than me, but you manage to hid well your understanding of the muslim oppressive system. I can say that because all the things you are telling me (porn, beauty standards) exists in full force in muslim societies. The difference is that are justified with double-moral (even more tilted to the male than the older christian one, see for example polygamy, paradise-brothel for males, etc) and not with postmodernism/neoliberalism.
        An analysis the stops in billboards and advertisements, is a very superficial analysis.

        We can go back to the face veil?

    • Elise

      Erasure of individual identity: make-up is used to conform to a standard of beauty, erasing the specific features of each individual face
      Barrier to communication: make-up increases the belief that women should be valued on their looks and not on what is beneath the make-up like their individual opinions

      • FierceMild

        All true, but it is not an enforced religious law that women wear makeup.

  • ExceptionallyAnonymous

    I am utterly utterly utterly disappointed with this article. Once again the concerns of feminists from Muslim countries are ignored. Once again we are not made to fight next to each other. Once again, this cultural relativism of east and west divide. No, we want to be living in the same freedom as you.

    No, the full face veil is not the equivalent of makeup or heels. It’s an unjust comparison. Yes, makeup and heels are harmful practices but they simply cannot compare to the act of denying women a face every single time they are out. What people forget is that the veil, in all its forms, is absolute.
    Marnia Lazreg tells this story about her mum. As a kid she was playing outside when a boy started beating her. She ran to the house asking for help from her mother. But her mother was so conditioned to going out with the veil, that she couldn’t leave the house. So she took a big piece of decoration and threw it from the doorstep. It hit her own daughter, leaving the boy free. She still has a mark on her face.

    The veil covers every cell of your skin. You’re stuck. You can’t see the sun, you can’t feel the wind.

    It establishes the most pernicious and visible form of sexual segregation.
    As Chadortt Djavann (Iranian, anti-veil campaigner, because instead of dividing us between east and west you could try to find common requests) puts it: what if the veil was reserved to African Americans ? People would see the segregation and the horror of it then.

    And as she carries on, no, the veil has the same meaning whether you’re say in France or in say Turkey. It is the same desire to erase and possess women. Only a number of selected men (including god!) are allowed to see their women. The rest cannot see them. Ultimately, as these writers from Algeria would know, veil and non-veil cannot coexist. One wins. In Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, etc, in the (often earlier) 50s, 60s, 70s, and more there was no veil. We had got to this point. Now Islamist chauvinist and lefties alike have revived it.

    No you don’t play the game of the white man if you oppose all sorts of veils (and I refuse to give it some foreign name: it is time to desacralise it). The white man who benefits from the veil is the white man who accepts it. It makes his points true: “look at those foreigners, they’re so different from us. They don’t have rights! Look at their men, so nasty. Rejoice with what you have ladies!”. I believe this is what the writers of this text are actually doing. I found the part where they said that at least women can go out when wearing particularly painful. So what? There is a category of women who shouldn’t be able to leave the house? Just because they’re foreigners it’s ok for them? This is the real racism. Believing that people can contend with less rights just because they come from elsewhere.

    The movement to unveil started from Muslim countries. The Egyptian Qasim Amin is probably the first to theorise it. Then came Nawal El Saadawi, Wassyla Tamzali, Chadortt Djavann, Mona Eltahawy, Djemila Benhabib…
    Was Ataturk (founding father of Turkey) racist when he banned the full face veil? Was Nasser (Egyptian president) an idiot when he ridiculed the veil?

    Your correlation with the veil and the Muslim population is irritating. As Djemila Benhabib puts it: we (Muslims, minorities) do not want this! We do not want this! Some of us have fled their countries to run away from it! Some of us have died not to wear it! Remember in Saudi Arabia in 2002 when they let girls burn alive in their school?! Otherwise the rescue officers would have seen them unveiled and they being veiled is more important than their life.

    No, the veil is and remains the same symbol of oppression wherever it travels. And as Mona Eltahawy puts it: defending it here contributes to its acceptance elsewhere. Once you have turned into some neutral symbol how can you possibly argue that it’s a problem in Iran?

    I beg my fellow feminists, I beg readers from FC. Please do not fall for this. Please, let’s oppose the veil together, please do not let us alone in this fight.

    (If you want to read a longer analysis on the veil, which in fact is a deeply patriarchal symbol before being adopted by all religions -also if you want to make a theological debate, there is no prescription to wear the veil in Islam, you can read this article: ) Unfortunately, it make the same mistake of talking about “European feminists” and not neoliberal ones, but the arguments in it still stand and summarise the debate.)

    • Lucia Lola

      Thank you. Your post is incredibly powerful.

    • Omzig Online

      I don’t think any of us believe for a second that the niqab or the burqa is empowering, or a positive practice for Muslim women. Even when a woman speaks of her manner of dress in terms of her “modesty,” it is always in the context of the male gaze. We all collectively want women around the world to adopt dressing and grooming habits that are completely divorced from male expectations. But what would you have us do? This is an honest question, not a rhetorical one.

      I would like to support my Muslim sisters in a way that is not harmful. I was mortified by those pictures of male policemen surrounding a Muslim woman on a French beach and forcing her to strip down in public. Surely this is not the answer that will lead women’s liberation. So what will?

      Forcing Muslim woman to cover themselves is oppressive, yes. But banning them from covering – or worse, forcing them to strip – could humiliate them. Knowing how we all internalize the male gaze and our culture’s expectations, how can the women reading Feminist Current support Muslim women to dress as they please?

    • Sashimi73

      Thank you for sharing your post. I will never forget it as I work for feminism.

  • ExceptionallyAnonymous

    The veil must be unapologetically and unequivocally opposed.

  • Littona

    Why are we applauding The Scarlet Servant, but all of a sudden when the women who are garbed in dehumanizing clothes are not white, we must be cautious and slow and basically silent about denouncing it? When someone, even a woman, tells you that the freedom and reflections that are good for white women are not good for women of colour, s/he’s not protecting the interests of women of colour.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I don’t think the authors suggest we shouldn’t denounce it, I think they are concerned about the impact of a ban on real women’s lives. I compare the argument to the one we make about prostitution: we want to end the practice, but without harming, criminalizing, stigmatizing prostituted women.

    • ExceptionallyAnonymous

      I totally agree with you Littona. It’s completely unfair that there should be a category of women (Like in the Scarlett Servant/handmaid’s tale) who should contend with limited rights (ie. It’s ok if some women can’t leave the house unless they’re erased from the public sphere first).

  • kallaikoi

    As a woman identified as turkish in Germany due to my coloring, I can say that people underestimate the pressure muslim women receive from muslim men to wear veil/similar and not to go outside their homes alone. I was constantly harassed.

  • rosearan

    This article did my head in. On the one hand, it was this and on the other hand it was that. While we should allow for this, on the other hand we should allow for that. Take a stand on this, but on the other hand we should take a stand on that. Speak up for this or that, but on the other hand, don’t get taken in by those whose agenda wants us to speak up for this or that.

    When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Opinion polls throughout the West show that the vast majority reject the burqa and niqab and find them offensive, and a lesser majority want them banned.

    The article concentrates on France, but Belgium, Austria, parts of Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands and Switzerland have also banned or restricted them. So too have the Muslim dominant countries – Chad, Egypt, Congo, Gabon, Morocco, Syria and Tajisktan.

    Let’s stop dithering around and leave moral equivalents about makeup, high heels and pubic hair shaving for another forum. Ditto the argument that the West has destroyed many Muslim countries, leaving much of their populations little choice but to flee to the West for survival. Double ditto that it is a woman’s choice about what she wears.

    The burqa and niqab rob a woman of her public identity and personality. That is, and always will be, the fundamental argument.

    • ExceptionallyAnonymous

      THANK YOU.

      I made a similar comment but unfortunately it hasn’t been published yet.

      • radwonka

        we got it

  • melissa

    I’m sorry this is not a completely fair comparison. Also during the whole burkini debacle some ex Muslims called out some of the false equivalencies made by progressives…

    “…And though I’ve seen it a hundred times (and seen the hijab compared to western beauty standards a thousand times), it still manages to knock the breath out of me with how severe and audacious a false equivalence it is.

    In short, this is how thoroughly they are not the same:

    When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriagiability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

    When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.

    When there are severe legal, social, and extrajudicial forces holding a woman’s safety, wellbeing, and livelihood hostage to her adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

    It’s a slap in the face, so hurtful and insulting a comparison it makes it hard for me to breathe looking at it…”

    ”…Sanctioned modesty is very, very much a pressing and relevant issue in Muslim communities in the West. Women suffering from this are largely invisible, closeted, and unheard, and unfortunately unless one is immersed in the problem, or has access to safe ex-Muslim or reformist Muslim spaces, one is not liable be exposed to this problem, its mechanics, to understand how deep it runs. The Muslim women who have visibility and whose voices are elevated and endorsed by their communities? They are not the ones dissenting to their community’s norms. Is that not intuitive?”


    From the article…
    *But, what are the effects of this critique in a country like Australia? Australian Muslims make up a small minority of the population (according to the 2016 census, only 2.6 per cent of Australia’s population are Muslim, up from 2.2 per cent in 2011) and are under constant attack, not only from far right racists such as Pauline Hanson, but in a myriad of less overt ways by less extreme segments of society. Incidents of physical and verbal aggression against Muslims — particularly Muslim women wearing the veil — are reported frequently. Considering this context, feminist arguments against the burqa may not have the effects intended.*

    This is line of argument is not all that far off from how criticism of sex work or even transgenderism by feminists is claimed as how feminists are helping to cause more violence against sex workers or trans people. You just cant keep pinning the blame for racism and violence on feminists for speaking out against misogynistic practices/ideas. Misogynistic practices are misogynistic practices wherever the location, however small, or oppressed the group its originating from. I wonder how far you’d drag this argument? How about with FGM or wife beating? Should that be left alone? Treated differently when done amongst minority groups? Because just recently there were two Muslim women in burqas, in the west-who also happens to be teachers- demonstrating joyfully in a YT video how a husband “properly” beats his wife. ( ) . Are everyone who were expressing outrage against MVAW causing racism and bigotry, just because inevitability *some* criticism will also come from racists?

    *Most obviously, this consists of suspending or expelling girls who wear the hijab from public schools and fining women who wear the niqab. These victim-blaming outcomes seem inconsistent with the arguments made by proponents of these laws, who say that women who wear the niqab and the hijab are victims of an oppressive patriarchal practice.*

    Since we’re all about context. France not allowing religious symbolism in schools is nothing new or unique to Muslims. You can’t pin this on bigotry. And the niqab covers your entire face. Is it that outrageous that some might not want people that might as well be coming to work with a balaclava on everyday? Not to mention this isn’t even something western countries are dealing with alone. Muslim majority countries like Turkey, Tunisia,Chad etc also had bans on things like the burqa/niqab(The author doesn’t even really distinguish between ‘hijab’ which is head covering, and niqab which is full face covering ). Yet its somehow western feminists burdened with humoring, and accommodating some of the most extreme, misogynistic displays of misogyny and fundamentalist, patriarchal religions?

    And what does the author propose as a solution? Specially when feminist/progressive media, huge fashion/sports brands are glorify,normalizing, celebrating things like the hijba/niqab/burqa while drowning out any criticism from moderate Muslims(the minorities among minorities)?Should feminists just shut up, and lets misogynists of all stripes take over the discourse? Because that seems to be the only way we won’t be aligned with racist/conservatives by some people. Similar thing with opposing sex work. Just because conservatives oppose it too for the wrong reasons, we’re repeatedly painted as doing and having the same effect as anti-woman, anti-sex conservatives. Or when the conversation is derailed by saying “oh but what about oppression elsewhere, in other professions”? , “What about traditional marriages? Isn’t that also sexist too?”. What good does that do exactly?

    While i can appreciate a lot of the nuances in the article, its making the same counteractive, derailing arguments that too often is used my libfems to keep people from ever addressing misogynistic practices/traditions/ institutions.

    • ExceptionallyAnonymous

      Thank you very much.

    • FierceMild

      This is a very well-reasoned and thought provoking comment. Thank you.

    • radwonka

      hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison”

      aren’t women supposed to be porn dolls tho? (I hate religions, but “non religious” feminity is really not better either imho)

    • Alienigena

      “When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.”

      But as the authors point out a proportion of women who live in the west are choosing to wear the burqa when there aren’t the same theocratic impositions on their choice of clothing.

      “Context is important. Wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa in Australia or in France is not equivalent to wearing the hijab, niqab, or burqa in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Algeria.” (from the article)

      If it is not equivalent then shouldn’t there be some pushback from women whose families expect them to wear the covering. National or provincial (state) laws in the west should support a woman if she decides not wear the burqa in contravention of her family’s wishes. If we expect non-muslim women in the west to stand up for themselves (and quite frankly non-muslim women face violence from family members for a variety of reasons) then why do we not expect muslim women to do the same? I think it is at times an unfair expectation given how some of us have been raised to fear violence against ourselves or our loved ones if we speak up. But western women can fear violence from men for seemingly trivial reasons too, e.g. appearing to laugh or laughing at an abusive partner.

      I realize that women in certain parts of the world are considered the repositories of their families honour (e.g. peasant culture in Mediterranean including Greece (up to and including 1960s)) and that not wearing the covering may be seen as dishonouring the family. But then we get into discussion of honour killings and stereotyping of muslims.

      If we are expected not to make assumptions about muslims (e.g. about level of violence in families who live in the west) why do we have to assume that muslim women living in the west are more subject to male violence than non-muslim women? In my family my father could be set off by a variety of triggers, some of them ludicrous (alcohol consumption, illness of family members, talking during dinner, a bad day at work, etc.).

  • Gundog

    Good luck convincing society about makeup and fashion. I just read an article where a professor said suggesting a woman’s back pain might be caused by her wearing high heels was a microaggression.

  • ExceptionallyAnonymous

    Yes the veil exists in many religions and even before the monotheistic religions appeared. Your comment is very sensible. It doesn’t matter where the veil is worn, the meaning does not change. Submission, domination, erasure.

  • Jani

    I live in London UK which is a multi cultural city. Although I have always been critical of the practice of veiling because it is rooted in the subjugation of women, I believe in being respectful to people of all faiths and cultures and I would never support banning the wearing of the burqa/niqab or indeed the nun’s habit. I don’t believe in fighting oppression with oppression.

    Over the past 20 years or so, it has become fairly commonplace to see veiled women in London whereas before it would have been fairly unusual. I don’t know if this is genuinely because of changing demographics but it’s certainly an interesting parallel with the increasingly sexualised portrayals of “Western” women in the visual culture.

    As the comments here have brought to my attention, the unrealistic beauty standards and the pressure to pursue these standards is both oppressive yet strangely invisible. Why do women wear shoes that hurt their feet and limit their mobility? Why do women take painkillers and then have their pubic hair ripped out by the roots every month? Why do we just accept this unquestioningly? There are so few dissenting voices and those that take a stance are shouted down and marginalised. So our Westernised “freedom” isn’t freedom at all. It’s more to do with being conforming to consumerism and all the unnecessary crap it calls “choice”. I’m not going to compare this with veiling practices because veiling goes a lot deeper than consumer choice and fashion statements, but I can’t help but wonder at the increasingly visual presence of the hijab and niqab on the streets coinciding with the growing pressures on secular women to (quite literally) buy into oppressive and often highly sexualised “beauty” and fashion standards.

  • AM

    “This offers us a clue: if men want it, it is not likely designed to liberate women.”
    Which men though? Some white men(more conservatives and less liberals) do, but Muslim men don’t, So what do we make of that? And some men will support abortion rights and various other issues feminists advocate for. Does the logic then follow that those are not liberating to women?
    ” Cultural relativism is a trap for women, but so is French-style universalism.”
    I was under the impression that universalism was French version of radical feminism.

  • Stevie Mac

    As a white male, I don’t care if women stop wearing high heels and make up. I think high heels are stupid. I wish my mother would stop wearing them because I don’t want her to fall over and hurt her hip again. But good luck getting women to stop doing those things. They choose to. They compete with each other. They WANT to be attractive to men just like men want to be attractive to women. That stuff is probably more important to them than it is to us. If women en masse decided to stop wearing make up, I don’t think you’ get that much resistance from men. Women didn’t wear make up or high heels for most of human history and I’m sure we were perfectly enthusiastic about having sex with them.

    btw the beauty standards of white males? Like Asian and black men don’t respond in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons.

    • FierceMild

      Dude, it’s not about what you, or any other individual white male, think or want. A societal standard is not the same as Stevie Mac’s standard. That’s the trouble, you’re conflating yourself with the entire social-political order of the western world. Hubris much?

      • Sashimi73

        Comments like his make me wonder if we should stage a collective fashion magazine and high heels burning and/or destroy them in a wood chipper, publicly.

        • FierceMild

          Let’s do it! I’d love it if we could get underwritten by, I don’t know, Birkenstock or Keen and do a commercial.

    • Marla

      “If women en masse decided to stop wearing make up, I don’t think you’ get that much resistance from men.”

      Thanks for the tip, asshole. Have any more far-fetched, pseudo-intellectual statements to make?

    • M. Zoidberg

      >>”They compete with each other. They WANT to be attractive to men.”

      Because men dangle money and power over women, and since money and power are in limited supply, some women are forced to appeal to men’s boners in order to get access to both.

      >>”If women en masse decided to stop wearing make up, I don’t think you’ get that much resistance from men.”

      I’d love to know what planet you’re on where men don’t already enforce the pornified appearance of women through Hollywood, advertisements, the fashion industry, whatever is left of print media, and the internet. Women who don’t spend hours every day painting, waxing, bleaching, shaving, straightening, softening, and strapping-together their bodies, are perceived as lazy, slovenly, unkempt, dowdy, frumpy, etc… and opportunities for advancement or betterment of some of these women are tossed out the window because the men providing those opportunities didn’t feel their dicks move. Ask any woman over 50 who doesn’t buy into the beauty industry, about when she realised that she had become invisible to most men. My mom and her friends have stories for days…

      • FierceMild

        You know what, Zoidberg, I have a feeling you really ‘let yourself go.’ Did you ‘not even try’ recently? I’ve been told that my lack of makeup is a sign that I lack self respect on more than one occasion. Thank goodness we have good ole Stevie Mackers to soothe our feminine fears and quiet our needless upset feelings.

      • Stevie Mac

        “Because men dangle money and power over women, and since money and power are in limited supply, some women are forced to appeal to men’s boners in order to get access to both.”

        Women compete with women for men in the same way men compete with men for women. Because we are a biological organisms that are driven to find the best mate to pass on our genes. Just as women make themselves more beautiful to attract high value, high status men (which is exactly what they want to do), men are driven to seek higher social status and wealth to attract those women.

        The advertising industry might be influencing us all to pursue things that aren’t conducive to our highest good but it is successful precisely because it is appealing to some strong instincts and drives.

        Women are capable in the west of succeeding economically on their own merits. They often make their own decisions to have children and a work life balance that allows them to spend time with them, rather than seeking the most power and money possible (again, making their own decisions according to their own natures and wishes).

        Men and women aren’t the same and all inequality isn’t the result of oppression and discrimination. I dont think women are helpless victims in the west.

        As for the resistance thing, that wasn’t my strongest point but I feel I wouldn’t personally care that much and a lot of ordinary men wouldn’t.

        • meh

          You’re wrong. It’s been explained to you why you are wrong and it should NEVER have had to be explained to you. Stop commenting on topics you know nothing about, you can have your own feelpinions but not your own facts.

          I would never dream of going into a quantum physics lecture and demanding they explain angles of incidence to me. That is the equivalent of what you are doing. You are wasting our time and resources derailing and mansplaining you are forcing intelligent people to reinvent the wheel to explain basic concepts to a deliberate dumb arse.

          NOW FUCK OFF.

        • M. Zoidberg

          I’m a little conflicted here: on the one hand, I don’t want to waste anymore of my time, but on the other, I didn’t want you to think that your magnificent reply sent me hurtling back to my lobster shack.

          So, the following is entertainment for my sisters and allies. Enjoy or cringe at my wall. (The very last sentence is specifically for you, Mac.)

          >>”Just as women make themselves more beautiful to attract high value [men?], high status men (which is exactly what they want to do), men are driven to seek higher social status and wealth to attract those women.”

          Yeah, men built that system, and they commandeered all resources. Suddenly, with no food or protection, women were completely “free” to compete with each other for elements of survival, “expressing their beauty,” i.e. appealing to the male gaze, and the majestic and divine boner so that they might live to adulthood.

          Women wear makeup, get surgeries, and sport torture devices for the reasons I already said, AND because it protects women from male violence.
          Women are sometimes treated better and protected if they do a good job playing the role of the submissive beauty—not a hair out of place—and completely willing to put the needs of men above her own.

          Men earn money so that they can get their penises into attractive girls. Lol!
          According to man-o-sphere men, not getting pussy is life threatening, as in a woman’s life is threatened by yet another Elliot Rodger analogue because too many men think pussy is a fundamental right they’re not receiving.

          >>”Women are capable in the west of succeeding economically on their own merits.”

          No shit.

          >>”They often make their own decisions to have children and a work life balance that allows them to spend time with them, rather than seeking the most power and money possible (again, making their own decisions according to their own natures and wishes).”

          No, Women succeed despite men.

          Men degrade, harass, stalk, beat, and rape women in staggering numbers every day, and their courts protect them from being prosecuted as well. But as long as we are still alive, so many women get up every day and do the menial, bullshit, back-breaking work that men expect us to do for free to keep the world spinning (on top of all the work to keep ourselves looking like painted monkeys for men who would punish us otherwise.)

          So, yeah, women succeed despite men. Despite being paid less for the same work (and being told it’s not a big deal). We succeed despite stores charging women more for toiletries. Women succeed despite being demoted or let-go once they return from maternity leave.

          We’re told time and time again by men just like you that we can have it all if we work hard. Oh, wait, no, because women’s time isn’t infinite.

          Women succeed despite being told by men on the internet day after day that we are inferior, half-wit, partially-evolved, blow-job machines that need to make men sandwiches or gtfo.

          Y’know, you sound like one of those concerned trolls that says, “C’mon, women, you just have a victim’s mentality. If you started thinking all positively (i.e. ignoring reality), everything would be sparkle-sparkle, and all your problems would go away!”

          To reiterate meh: FUCK. RIGHT. OFF!

  • Wren

    I won’t comment on what’s happening in other countries regarding head coverings, but I work with refugees in the U.S. so I can offer some observations. But I’m only talking about the hijab and the burka (body covering). I absolutely cannot and never will even entertain the defense of the niqab. It is completely indefensible and represents the most degrading level of misogyny.

    Muslim women students who wear hijabs do not assimilate well. They are less likely to attend ESL classes, less likely to find employment, and far less likely to continue to college. It’s not impossible, of course, and it’s not the blame of a piece of fabric on their head; it’s because they are not as encouraged to succeed by their family. The head scarf unfortunately represents a home dynamic that restricts the woman’s future. This is the pattern I’ve observed from teaching hundreds of Muslim refugees and immigrants.

    An interesting contrast is the success of Iraqi Kurdish refugee families who’ve been in my classes, and the unwavering support they give to their daughters. The women don’t wear hijabs. I had one family where both the older son and daughter were in classes in my school and are now working in the community and working towards their GED. The sister is working at Walmart, which isn’t a great career, but she’s only 19 and she’s in customer service and free and whenever I see her she’s happy and hopeful and determined to go to college. I ran into another former Iraqi student and she’s already in community college and told me “I will be a doctor. It is my dream.” These are students who came only one year ago. They are remarkable.

    It’s possible that they had a better English foundation, but it doesn’t fully explain their extraordinary success. Young Muslim women wearing hijabs talk about finding a husband, while the Muslim women without head scarves talk about college, and their families are behind them 100%.

  • melissa

    ” I do feel that in our patriarchal world, almost all men treat women as either personal property or public property. ”

    Ok, but I’m not sure that rejecting archaic modesty wear means by default becoming public property to men. If that was the case you’d get men saying similar things about nuns, Mormons, orthodox jews or fundamentalists Christians of all kinds too, surely?

    Its more likely the case that the selectiveness here for some is just tribalism/racism , and for others noticing how fundamentalism of all other religions is already recognized by progressives as backwards/sexist, while the same isn’t currently being applied to Islamic fundamentalists, specially by people that claim to be on the side of women’s rights. And even if every man opposing Islamic wear only wanted to see more women as public property, i still don’t see why this would have any bearing on how we speak of or deal with these misogynistic practices. By that reasoning we’d have to soften up criticism of objectification,porn, prostitution too since so many conservative men are appalled by these things, and prefer a world where women conformed to religious/ conservative roles of being “good women” for them. Radfems won’t typically do this. We recognize this false choice means nothing. And it doesn’t change a thing about how we treat obvious misogynistic ideas, that conservative dudes might also oppose, but for all the wrong reasons. Its a broken clock being right twice a day.

    ” It’s the same old battleground over what women should and must do, but I thought they were getting at the real problem is men on both sides saying what women should or must do. ”

    Yeah, but i don’t think what men supposedly think here matter at all. Again,when we see something like prostitution as oppressive, we stridently oppose it, regardless of what different groups of men are feeling about it. Similarly if some men are opposing patriarchal religious misogyny for all the wrong reasons now, i don’t see how it makes any significant difference to us at all. Its not like we let the other side off the hook. And as far as i know, a lot of the feminists that oppose the burqa also oppose prostitution/porn and support the ‘Nordic Model’, so they’re priorities and aims don’t look too misguided to me tbh. I’m unclear as to what the author is suggesting that feminists be doing instead.

  • Morag999

    The authors seem to be advocating that feminists take a middle ground that simply does not exist. One can either support, or oppose, the veiling of girls and women. It’s pretty much a black/white issue. So, the authors are able to make a very clear and strong case against cultural relativism, but a very muddled and weak case against universalism. That’s not surprising, because when it comes to women’s fundamental human rights, universalism IS the antidote to cultural relativism.

    Will male supremacists — men of many nationalities and colours, believers and atheists, Christian or Muslim, on the left or on the right, racist or anti-racist, from either the East or the West — will these patriarchs make a confusing mess of feminist discourse and try turn it around for their own benefit and agenda? Of course. But that’s a given. We all know this and expect this. That’s not an excuse for us to cede that territory to them, via our silence and handwringing over “Islamophobia,” and thereby let them have total control the conversation.

    Here’s a conversation that I found educational and edifying. It’s between two feminists/secularists, Maryam Namazie and Marieme Helie Lucas (both women are from Muslim backgrounds and both live in Europe):

    “The veil is nothing but the flag of the Muslim far right”

  • Meghan Murphy

    I appreciate your perspective on this, for sure. Do you not think, though, that these kinds of bans do or can harm already marginalized women by subjecting them to harassment and discrimination? I would like an alternate solution offered as well, and wish there were a way to address this without harming Muslim women…

    In general, I don’t argue for bans on women’s participation in harmful patriarchal practices, including cosmetic surgery, stilettos, dieting, self-objectification, etc. As I’ve already said, when we talk about things like the sex trade, our aim is to target the industries and individual men, not the women who actually sell sex. In most cases, I feel a feminist approach to patriarchal practices does not come in the form of banning women from doing certain things. I’m not able to offer a solution, here, but feel this is how we should be approaching this issue as well — by addressing the *source* of the issue, rather than targeting individual women impacted.

    • FierceMild

      I see what you’re saying, but like many other women, I must point out that while cosmetic surgery, stilettos, dieting, and self objectification are horrible and the pressure to be a porn doll is very real, nowhere is it the law that a woman must not leave the house without her heels or lipstick. And the only places I know of with mandatory surgery are those practicing FGM.

      I know that choices to engage in Western beauty standards, and choices made to wear the veil are all made under duress. Yet the difference between the threat of being unfuckable and the threat of eternal damnation and unworthiness in the eyes of your god as well as social and familial pressure to submit are far different. I know. I have experienced both.

      • Meghan Murphy

        I am not arguing they are the same, what I am trying to get at is the best approach to addressing this in places where it is *not* the law that women can’t leave the house without a veil, burqa, niqab, etc.

        • FierceMild

          I see; that’s exactly where I was missing your point. To that point though, that’s where the pressure of eternal damnation in combination with shunning makes the difference. It’s a layer of spiritual abuse that casts itself forward into eternity. Women deemed unattractive because they refuse to submit to beauty practices might undergo a type of informal shunning, but they aren’t threatened with actual eternal hellfire. It’s an added dimension of coercion that is difficult for those not brought up steeped in religion to get a full sense of.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I agree that the level of coercion is not equal. Forcing someone to do something by law is not the same as social pressure. That said, when a woman is not being forced by law, but by the men in her family, how do we approach that? I’m asking genuinely. I’m not sure what the best way forward is.

          • FierceMild

            So this is part of the reason I’m bringing up spiritual abuse. I have been in an exactly analogous position regarding religiously enforced modesty. The hingepin is the specific belief that the covering in question is the will of god. Without that belief spiritual dictate firmly in place many of these women would fight the wearing of the veil themselves. Amplifying the voices of Muslim women who do not wear the veil is a place to start.

            But the fact remains that all women who defy the male-made standards of dress within their community put themselves into physical danger. This is the same kind of act as defying a violent partner. It strips them of a source of control and they will retaliate. That’s why I think the ban is the safest way to handle this in terms of getting rid of an oppressive practice in a manner that won’t physically endanger those oppressed by it. Optimally the order to abandon the veil would be put in place by the same people who demand its use; the religious leaders.

  • Meghan Murphy

    But we don’t support a ban on makeup and high heels…

    “Do we ever hear things like ‘we need to find a way to support our BDSM sisters?’ No, because we understand that BDSM is intrinsically harmful and we try to explain in what way it is.

    The law is not there to repress but to protect. Forcing people to fasten their seat belt is not a breach of their liberty, it is a way to protect it. We need to use the law, in a way or another. Did we ever say that the laws to prohibit pornography were shameful of women in pornography? No because we believe they deserve better options in life.”

    Yes but we don’t criminalize women whose boyfriends pressure them into participating in BDSM… And we don’t fine women who are paid to participate in porn films. And we don’t target prostituted women, in terms of legislation. We say, if women genuinely ‘choose’ to sell sex, these women are not our problem — our problem are the men who pay for sex. Our problem is with cultural pressure to wear makeup and high heels and the industries that sell these products to women — we don’t want to go around harassing women with breast implants, etc.

    I’m genuinely interested in this conversation and interested in the perspectives of feminists, here, to be clear. But I’m skeptical of the ‘ban’ approach and don’t feel it’s something I could support, due to its impact on women.

  • FierceMild

    Yes, absolutely! And there are white christian men who then denounce feminists as fascists who attack the religious freedom of other women in yet another bid to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!!

  • Omzig Online

    I think I may not have communicated my thoughts well enough. I already stated my support for a Muslim woman’s right to refuse the veil. I was seeking your insight to brainstorm ways that we can support this fundamental right without harming women that feel pressured by their husbands or families to continue to wear the burqa. Naturally, I think we agree that there should be no legal requirement for women to wear the veil. This is a good starting point, like you suggested.

    That said, I’m afraid I have to disagree with your position on a total ban on the burqa because it criminalizes women -and ONLY women – for being oppressed. In many cases, women are instructed by their husbands, their fathers, or their brothers to cover themselves, and they could face severe punishment at the hands of their male relatives if they don’t. Yet a total ban could cause these same women to be arrested and jailed for simply avoiding abuse and condemnation. This would be a perversion of justice, not liberation.

    Instead, it seems like we could focus on ways to change male behavior, as they are the ones responsible for the oppression of Muslim women. For instance, I would love to see husbands that forcibly impose the burqa on their wives to be charged with spousal abuse. Or men that mistreat an unveiled Muslim woman in public could be charged with assault or harassment.

    I realize, though, that implementing these kinds of policies requires systemic change, because the both the lawmakers and the police officers enforcing the law are virtually all male. But it seems like a better place to start, rather than inflicting punitive measures on an already vulnerable group of women.

  • meh

    To sum up what most of seem to agree is the case – you cannot must not and will not compare the niqab to make up, high heels and other forms of western systemic abuse against women. They are not in the same category and they must not be treated as though they are. The only discussion of the two together must be to point out repeatedly why they are not the same level of oppression, not allow any apologists to try to minimise the horrific abuse of the niqab and all the while continuously and relentlessly oppose the utterly dehumanising torture that is the niqab.

  • Virginia Holmes

    who let the bloody libfems in?

  • M. Zoidberg

    But—but, Omzig, reading history is hard, and I’d rather quote the Redpill image macros that pop-up on my Facebook feed instead. Those are totes legit because they give answers about why women are actually wrong about everything in two sentences or less!

    /s (Obviously. Mac is grinding my gears a bit with his wilful stupidity :-p)

  • FierceMild

    Just quickly I’ll say that your comment seems to presuppose that women subjected to the veil are freed from the pornofication, expense, and humiliation of makeup, heels, and a culture of female decoration. They aren’t. They are subject to the veil
    In public and the rest in private.

  • Morag999

 authors do not absolutely deny the oppressive nature of the veil, they 
just try to remind us that the reasons why we consider it as a paroxystic expression of patriarchy are fueled by racist biases and they also draw our attention on the consequences this biased obsession can have for women of Colour.”

    Let me get this straight.

    The reason why we oppose the veiling of women and girls (some as young as 5-years-old) is fuelled by racism?

    Our racism and biases lead us conclude that girls and women are harmed by the blatantly misogynist, oppressive, right-wing practice of veiling?

    Therefore, it’s not possible that we condemn the blatantly misogynist, oppressive, right-wing practice of veiling females BECAUSE it’s a blatantly oppressive, right-wing practice which harms females?

    And caring about other women, whose situation is different, and in some ways worse, to our own, is an “obsession” rather than, you know … “feminism”?

    If only bigots oppose the veil, opposing the veil automatically makes one a bigot?

    I suppose that means that all the women in the world who have, and are, trying to escape the veil, are motivated by biases and bigotry. All the women of colour who unveil themselves — who stick their necks out, bravely defying the orders of violent men and their violent systems — are racist against themselves.

    This narrative does not support the women who are the activists and leaders against the fundamentalist practice of veiling women. In fact, it erases those women and their work. This narrative, instead, supports Islamists. It supports the men who intend to keep girls and women inferior, and under their control.

    • zirreael

      +1! Not to mention that, if we are talking about race, veiling isn’t a strictly Muslim/Arabic phenomenon; this is just the most well-known incarnation of it. Conservative Orthodox Christians in my own country (who are very much white) are fans of headscarves, for instance.

    • Lau

      I never said that the women fighting the veil were bigots, whether they are themselves Muslim or not. As the authors, I consider it as a patriarcal practice and my daily struggle is aimed at giving every women in the world a life free from it as much as free from pornography or cosmetic industry.
      But I think we cannot look at just one side of the picture, and, as long as we will live in a patriarcal and racist system, we need to go beyond the simplist idea that each one of these women is wearing it out of fear of being murdered by her familiy. Of course I support all the women fighting to unveil themselves – and I agree with you, they are very numerous – but I think unveiling is not an end in itslef. Many of our grandmothers or great-grandmothers had to wear similar garnments and we know that the mini-skirt did not emancipate them – nor us.

      Besides, as I said, we need to acknowledge the structural reasons why some women do “chose” to wear it in France, sometimes against their family’s will. Not to say “oh it’s their choice, we don’t have to say anything because feminism is about women making their own choices”, of course, but to understand the roots of this practice and to bring deeper support to theses women too.

      In a way, it reminds me about Dworkin’s work about right-wing women. Women are only offered shitty options of survival, and the veil is just one of them. I want all of that shit disappear and I don’t think it can happen through particularizing that much one form of patriarcal oppression.

  • Lucia Lola

    Brilliant share. Thank you.

  • Sashimi73

    I would’ve thought this would have been the best solution. Work, education, exit possibilities for women who do not want to wear the veil/be oppressed would provide a way out. Also opportunities to be with other women who do not want to wear the veil.

  • Sashimi73

    “What I would suggest for instance, in the case of the burkini is to forbid NAKED males accompanying the veiled women from entering the beach. You’re talking about being hurt from seeing a woman unveiling. I am talking about being hurt from having disgusting men checking me out while their wives are boiling under the sun. I am talking about men sipping drinks in short and polos while their wives must use straws like kids because they can’t show their mouths.”

    This is great. I like this. In fact, I would propose we ban men who do not agree with equal rights for women from public or work spaces. Why allow predators and attackers into our spaces?

  • FierceMild

    The problem with that is that veiling itself is not violent, unlike prostitution. So women will be facing the choice of putting on an extra piece of clothing (that brings them closer to their god) or losing their entire family and everything they’ve ever known.

  • FierceMild

    I find your position perplexing. These are women and girls suffering vitamin D deficiency because they can never let the sun touch their skin. They haven’t felt the wind on their bodies since preschool age. The can’t lift their heads to watch birds in flight lest it expose their hair. It is a personal, portable cage they live their lives inside of. Not metaphorically, literally. And they are also subjected to the same. Beauty ideals and standards that the rest of us struggle under.

  • FierceMild

    I think this is one of those subjects that would really benefit from face-to-face engagement. It’s sooooooooo difficult to explain the internal state of religious fundamentalist women to those who are, well, normal.

  • FierceMild

    Nooooooooow I understand you! I really couldn’t quite get what you were after for a bit. I don’t FB and wasn’t aware that this is a topic having a moment.

    • Lau

      I am happy that, even in this context and without knowing each other, we found a way to understand each other’s point better =)

  • ptittle

    “If it is oppressive to cover one’s face with a piece of fabric, it is surely oppressive to cover one’s face with multiple layers of chemicals … Wearing makeup or high heels is not necessarily any less problematic than wearing the hijab or the burqa; it is just more normalized, and therefore less noticeable.”

    Yes. YES!! Just as oppressive. Just more normalized in the West, now.

  • meh

    It’s fantastic.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I agree and get the impression the authors do also?