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

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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