White Head of State Seeks Muslim Women to…Save?


Just a few days ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy appeared
in front of Parliament and stated his contempt for the burqa and the oppression
of Muslim women. Sarkozy is, apparently, so
committed to ending the subjugation of women
that he desires banning burqas
from France all together.

Now, before all you Muslim women out there write letters to
Sarkozy thanking him for saving you, I think we should first reflect. Is Sarkozy’s
opposition to the burqa really about women? I have a sneaking suspicion that
Sarkozy’s interest, and for that matter the entire world’s interest, in the
rights of Muslim women might actually be about something else besides a
commitment to our liberation.

What might that "something else" be? It’s important to
remember that women have long been used as symbols of culture and values.  How men treat women within a particular
society has become a yardstick which we measure progress toward modernity. For
example, when we ask "How well-educated are the women in your society?" we
might also phrase the question: "Do the men in your society allow women to be
educated?" If we ask, "How good is women’s access to reproductive health?" we
could also wonder: "Do the male religious leaders in your country actually let
women have access to necessary health services?" In societies in which men have
granted women a certain position we give them the gold star of progress. 

Now this isn’t always a bad thing.  The problem isn’t necessarily that we collect
data in relative terms, nor that this data is used to galvanize activists and
bring about change.  The difficulty
arises when an examination of women’s subordination becomes a call for war or
for the marginalization of a particular group. We have seen this dynamic play
out in the past with President Bush’s assertions that rescuing women from the
oppression of Islam was a part of bringing freedom
to Afghanistan
and are seeing it today with President Sarkozy who claims to
be liberating women from the stranglehold of their religious practice (i.e.
Islam).  In the case of both Bush and
Sarkozy, this call to action seems to turn women’s rights discourse into a
strange sort of contest in which contenders insist that "my progress is bigger
than your progress."

Sarkozy seeks to initiate a parliamentary commission to study
the burqa and "methods to combat its spread." 
What will this commission look like?  
Given that France ranks amongst the lowest in percentage of women who are parliamentary
members
of OECD countries (less than 15% of all members of parliament are
women) and that only 7 of the 860 members
of parliament are minorities I would guess that this committee is going to be
largely White and mostly men. 

Other statistics might also help us understand why Sarkozy’s
words about Muslim women in burqas might be about something other than Muslim
women’s best interest.  For example,
although in France only 12% of the population is Muslim (due largely to
migration from Muslim majority countries formerly colonized by France) 60-70%
of those in prison are Muslim

So now we have a bigger picture: Muslims as a "misbehaving"
minority group, an ongoing war on terror and related distaste for all things
Muslim, wide-spread discrimination against Muslims (1 in
3 Muslims in Europe have reported discrimination
), desire to maintain a
culturally homogeneous society, and, finally, a fascination with another man’s
progress.  Put together, the something
else is revealed: by highlighting the oppression of Muslim women Sarkozy is
giving people in France more reasons to do what France is already doing pretty
well-marginalizing its large Muslim minority.

But what if I have it all wrong? What if Sarkozy is really
interested in the well-being of Muslim women? Well then I suggest he start by
dropping his parliamentary commission designed to "smoke-out"
the burqa (borrowing from ex President Bush here) and instead involve Muslim
women in debate and dialogue to ensure that the burqa, when worn, is understood
as symbol of personal choice and not of oppression.

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  • http://forum.piwik.org/index.php?showuser=1225 invalid-0

    nice, but where i can to subscride to this blog?

  • invalid-0

    I love this piece! Great job breaking this down. I love the way you explained rights as relative. Great job aziza!!

  • invalid-0

    Hi. I was with Sarkozy until I read this, I am realizing that dialogue as you suggested might be a better method than ‘smoking out’ oof. He borrows terms from Bush? Also, it is a strange issue for him to champion with his reputation of being a ladies man I think. Ironic.

    • invalid-0

      Hi anon:
      Just to clarify – I was using Bush’s words and applying them to Sarkozy to demonstrate their similarity in perspective. Sarkozy did not say “smoke out”

      Thanks for your comment!
      Aziza

  • invalid-0

    There is so much more to headlines than meets or should i say reds the eyes. Thank you for breaking it down for us.

  • invalid-0

    I still think the burqa is a symbol of oppression set forth by Islamic religious leaders. The Prophet Mohammed stated that a woman was 9 parts sex (or something like that) and therefore she needed to cover herself so that her sexuality did not tempt men. In the Muslim world there is a pervasive myth encouraged by men and women who think that the burqa is “a choice” in that the burqa will prevent rapes and provides women with more freedom because men are not interested in them for the flesh alone. Again, this is a pervasive myth and women who believe in this, encourage this type of thinking and behavior and only YOU submit yourselves to your own oppression.

    • invalid-0

      Hi – I responded to a similar comment below. Thanks so much for your comment!

  • laura-mctighe

    As I was reading your post, I was reminded of the 2002 article by Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others:

    http://www.mirees.it/content/download/5038/52211/file/Do%20Muslim%20Women%20Really%20Need%20Saving.pdf

    Thanks so much for this window into what is going on in France, and for making explicit the connection to the long history of coopting the discourse of women’s liberation for the purpose of colonialism/marginalization.  I completely agree with your closing statement — that if the driving concern here is women’s well-being, then the next step should be to engage Muslim women in debate and dialogue, not to further legislate our lives.  Again, thanks!

    • invalid-0

      Thanks Laura, Will check it out. Thanks for the comment! Aziza

  • invalid-0

    Great article. I haven’t quite known what to make of Sarkozy’s initiative, and this gives me a much richer view of the other side. Thank you.

  • invalid-0

    I’ve never lived in France but my guess is that you have to do more than “misbehave” to go to prison. Countries with large Muslim populations including France often report horrible incidents of women being beaten, raped, killed or burned because they appeared in public WITHOUT a burqua. Gangs of young men attack them for exercising the choice to leave the burqua at home. Some public officials (including apparently Sarkosy) think if they outlaw burquas outright then these gangs will take it up with the police or courts instead of attacking the women or girls. He wants to be able to say to the gangs: “Don’t blame her, she couldn’t legally wear one if she wanted.” I don’t think this is a good way to handle the problem. They have to control their problem with gangs regardless of the criticism that may come with the effort. He’s not trying to marginalize anyone. He’s trying to prevent vicious crimes against residents of France. That’s his job. I don’t think he’s going about it the right way. He needs to focus on the gangs directly, but his intentions are good.

  • invalid-0

    I see your point, and thank you for taking the time to express it. However, I disagree.

    It seems to me that oyu are simply being paranoid about Mr, Sarkozy’s true intentions. I seem to recall France as famously being opposed to the war in Iraq, so to see the country as being akin to the Shrub Administration is too far of a stretch for me.

    I do have a problem with the authorization of outlawing burkas. It should be a personal choice. That said, it seems to me that this isn’t really about a personal choice of the women, but is something that is imposed upon them. I live in an area of the U.S. that has a large Arab population, and I have witnessed groups of women, headed by some male authority figure, walking around in black burkas in extremely hot weather, and realised that they must be absolutely dying in them. This just seemed abusive to me.

    While I am speaking as an outsider to this issue, and not from a base of cultural / social insider knowledge, the reading I have done in connection with this all lead me to the understanding that, overall, the burka is a more than just a symbol of oppression, but a means to opression. While the politics in France may not be idea – are they idea anywhere? – I still applaud Mr Sarkozy for opening-up the political dialogue on this issue.

    • invalid-0

      France was opposed to the Iraq war because they had strong financial ties to Saddam Hussein. There was nothing noble about their opposition.

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for a great article! And Laura, thanks for pointing to Abu-Lughod’s article – it’s a great one, and I’d recommend it to everyone. In response to some of the other commenters, I think that the key issue that Aziza is pointing to is that Sarkozy (and most of us, I’d venture to guess) don’t have the right or the “responsibility” to “protect” Muslim women from the burqa. Sarkozy, as the white, non-Muslim male president of France, is enmeshed in all sorts of power relations with the largely immigrant Muslim women in his country. As Aziza points out, he should be working to empower them and their voices, rather than using his power to do what he thinks is best for them.

  • invalid-0

    Any man lacking the self control to resist attacking unclothed or scantily clad women should be locked up forthwith.

    I have no objection to burqas. Women should be able to wear or not wear whatever they wish.

  • invalid-0

    However, I disagree. It seems to me that oyu are simply being paranoid about Mr, Sarkozy’s true intentions. I seem to recall France as famously being opposed to the war in Iraq, so to see the country as being akin to the Shrub Administration is too far of a stretch for me.

    First of all, the France that opposed the Iraqi War was not led by Sarkozy. Sarkozy represents a significant break from the previous administration, one friendlier to U.S. interests in general. I believe it’s a toss-up whether Sarkozy would have supported the war.

    Secondly, just because a country’s leadership makes one “good” decision, doesn’t mean it necessarily does so in other areas as well. France has had a long and difficult relationship with its Muslim minority population, which this latest move echoes uncomfortably in many ways. It’s not unlike the relationship between the U.S. and its Black minority—you see repercussions of that everywhere.

    It should be a personal choice. That said, it seems to me that this isn’t really about a personal choice of the women, but is something that is imposed upon them.

    This would be going from a frequent cultural imposition, to an across-the-board legal imposition. No improvement in the personal-choice aspect. In fact, you could say it gets worse.

    I live in an area of the U.S. that has a large Arab population, and I have witnessed groups of women, headed by some male authority figure, walking around in black burkas in extremely hot weather, and realised that they must be absolutely dying in them. This just seemed abusive to me.

    I wouldn’t be entirely sure of that. Have you seen how the Bedouin (desert-dwelling Arab ethnic group) dress, now and in the past?

    While I am speaking as an outsider to this issue, and not from a base of cultural / social insider knowledge, the reading I have done in connection with this all lead me to the understanding that, overall, the burka is a more than just a symbol of oppression, but a means to opression.

    Don, you acknowledge that you’re an outsider on this, but you also have to note that the reading you’ve done also represents the perspective of outsiders. The relationship between Muslim women and burqas is more complex than “men force women to wear burqas.” Much as with the hijab, the burqa is an element of their culture that has many meanings, not all of them negative. Some women choose to wear a burqa willingly, and take pride in it as a mark of their heritage.

    While the politics in France may not be idea – are they idea anywhere? – I still applaud Mr Sarkozy for opening-up the political dialogue on this issue.

    He didn’t so much open the political dialogue as state outright the conclusion he wanted. The dialogue is a haphazard result of that. He’s not coming from a position of respect for Muslim women. Ask yourself this: Are there significant numbers of Muslim women asking for this ban? Why not? (They can’t all be under the thumb of oppressive males, after all.) Why is Sarkozy advocating a measure that the very people it is supposed to help are not asking for?

  • invalid-0

    I found this article to be right on what I believe the real reasoning behind this attempt to ban the burqas. This was my first thought when I heard this on the news. I am glad to see well written article!

  • invalid-0

    Since Muslim men are so weak and really, really want to go to Heaven (or whatever they call it), let’s help them out, gals. Blind all Muslim males. Let them be responsible for themselves instead of using women as scapegoats. Just trying to help you reach your goals, guys.

  • invalid-0

    I’m all for giving the Muslim men of France the right to wear burqas. Let’s see how many of them choose to do so. Oh, they have this right? And the total number is… zero.

    Aziza, you propose a false choice between legislation protecting women in powerless situations, and the general concept of involving “Muslim women in debate and dialogue to ensure that the burqa, when worn, is understood as symbol of personal choice and not of oppression.”

    Muslim women – each and every one – needs to be fully empowered, with access to free debate and dialogue, to be able to make this decision BEFORE “freely” choosing the prison of the burqa. You, Aziza, can speak for yourself. And you obviously don’t chose to wear the burqa. You have no right to act as if you speak for women who don’t have this choice, just because you are a Muslim woman.

  • invalid-0

    Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t know that we disagree entirely. You say: “Muslim women – each and every one – needs to be fully empowered, with access to free debate and dialogue, to be able to make this decision BEFORE “freely” choosing the prison of the burqa.”

    I agree that women should be empowered and be able to be in free debate and dialogue before wearing anything that is claimed to be attire for religious purposes.

    Also, I am not claiming to speak for other women. I am simply offering a perspective that I feel is lacking in the mainstream media on this issue: a more nuanced debate about Muslim women and covering as well as the framing of this issue within a broader conversation about discourse on Muslims and Islam. I do bring my own perspective in, because like all women who are Muslim, who grew up Muslim, whose names are Muslim (and who fall into this larger category of women who are identified as a Muslim woman) there are incredible and frustrating stereotypes about Islam and women that many of us are likely engaged in addressing.

    I should also say that I think that the the entire issue of Muslim women and covering is very context specific. And I think that the state has a huge role to play and in each of these contexts a very specific one. (For example where minority rights are protected we must question who gets to speak for the minority group and why? India is a perfect example of this – here is an article I wrote on this topic http://www.bepress.com/mwjhr/vol4/iss1/art7/).

    Finally, I think you might have missed the point of the blog a a bit — my argument was not entirely about the burqa — it is about the ongoing alienation of the Muslim minority in France and quite honestly the alienation of Muslims from around the world.

    Thanks for your comments,
    Aziza

  • invalid-0

    Forcing a woman to Not wear a burqa is just as oppressive as forcing her to wear one. The government would simply be exerting it’s power in the opposite direction, but would still be using women’s bodies as a means to control the populace. Also, if a woman is being forced to wear a burqa by someone, then is forced to take it off by the government, doesn’t that put her in danger by the original oppressor?

  • invalid-0

    Aziza, you wrote: “I am simply offering a perspective that I feel is lacking in the mainstream media on this issue: a more nuanced debate about Muslim women and covering as well as the framing of this issue within a broader conversation about discourse on Muslims and Islam. I do bring my own perspective in, because like all women who are Muslim… there are incredible and frustrating stereotypes about Islam and women that many of us are likely engaged in addressing.”

    I disagree that this perspective is lacking in the media. Certainly it is the dominant perspective presented in mainstream feminism. What concerns me are the priorities reflected in this “feminist” argument: it is the feeling of “insult” from supposed stereotypes that privileged Muslim women – who enjoy relative material and cultural and legal freedoms so long as they defend rather than openly criticize Islamic justified oppression – treat as having the gravest importance, not only more so than the extreme oppression of Muslim women who do not enjoy such freedom, but specifically at their expense.

    There is no unsolved mystery about what women, anywhere, of any religion, would choose if they freely could: basic human rights. For you to argue that a fully empowered woman, with the freedom to engage in public dialogue, the freedom to wear what she choses with no negative consequences imposed by family or community or religious authorities, would chose to wear a burqa day after day, is to argue that some women are not quite human.

    You are fully aware that there are grave consequences indeed for millions of women who would forego the burqa of their own volition. Yet your concern is not over these very real consequences but the negative perceptions of outsiders, who might get the impression that the extreme oppression is a bad thing and that it has something to do with Islam.

    I think you need to look at your role in seeing women and their clothing as symbols rather than as real people who count. The connection is one that feminists made many years ago, but you are subverting here, and acting as if it is the challenge to oppression that is about symbolism, rather than the lives of real human beings.

    Whatever Sarkozy’s motive, the action is right. That he is “white” is not an argument that the action (or his motive) is racist. In fact to imply that there is a correlation, using the descripton of a man’s skin color as a code word for “racist” and “clueless” is itself racist.

    I do think that the concern over bias against Muslims is legitimate, but it has been used in manipulative ways to fend off criticism of the most extreme forms of oppression. That is reactionary and devasting to the efforts to win basic human rights for women, which many Muslim women around the world are putting their lives on the line to do. By contrast, this argument makes you safer than ever, at their expense. I’m sorry to sound harsh on that point, but it is their voices that are silenced and marginalized, not yours, and you and others need to reflect on your participation in that.

  • invalid-0

    Hi Anonymous-
    Thanks again for your comments. I am going to clarify some of the key messages from my blog:

    1) We cannot try to understand Sarkozy’s words without context – especially in a state whose agents act in a racist manner (see this just yesterday in the NYtimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/world/europe/30france.html?_r=1&ref=world and remember also the riots only a few years ago: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/nov/12/race.france). This blog highlights the irony that Sarkozy suddenly wants to protect Muslim women given that France has a very tumultuous relationship with its Muslim minority.

    2) Many Muslim women have sacrificed everything including their lives to fight for their rights including the right not to wear burqa, many Muslim women often defend Islam externally while fighting oppression from within religious infrastructures because they experience the world as Muslims and women and hold both these identities important, many other women who were raised Muslim reject Islam entirely as oppressive and so on. These are all very complicated interactions between an individual’s own realities — this blog does not speak to that struggle. This blog highlights the potential motivations behind Sarkozy’s most recent comments.

    3) Certainly, Muslim women in France will have a complicated, nuanced, and personal reaction to Sarkozy’s comments — I am arguing that their voices be heard rather than a parliamentary panel of largely White men as Sarkozy proposes.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Best, Aziza

  • invalid-0

    Interesting on all points. I wonder if the author will tackle the issue on burquas and women being invisible. To state it another way, if a person’s face is covered, that person is not treated as a person because the face is what conveys our identities (e.g, that’s not Fatima over there, just a woman who is covered because she is the cause of adultry, sexual promiscuity, etc etc). I also wonder if educated muslim women can understand that burquas are harmful to them and their daughters just as female circumcision is. It is all about men dominating and controlling women. A woman in a burqua is no one because her face is not visible. This is not a slam against cultural differances, it’s me, a woman, wanting women to no longer be dominated, controlled, mutilated, silent, or invalidated in any part of the world.

  • invalid-0

    I AGREE!

  • invalid-0

    It’s about culture. Sarkozy has every right to impose French cultural hegemony in FRANCE. If Muslim immigrants refuse to assimilate, they are free to LEAVE, who needs them.

    Ultimately it’s about power, your gains come at MY loss, multiculturalism is scam – taking from person A to pay off Person B.

    So tell me Aziza, what exactly does France get in exchange for accepting YOUR cultural practices hmmm? What do I get out of it?

    You are demanding quite a bit and yet offering nothing of value in return. Life is a zero-sum game and I’m all about winning -better the ethnic minorities lose their culture than for me to lose mine.

    There is no “us” or “ours”, that’s a bunch of rubbish as well.