Thursday, August 18, 2016

France: Banning the Burkini is an assault on Muslim Women

I was concerned that we do not have a piece up here dealing with the banning at French beaches of the Burkini, a full body bathing suit for Muslim women that leaves only the face and hands bare. Five towns have banned them and three more are about to do so the media reports. This is occurring despite, "some of the mayors considering the bans admit to never having seen one.", the New York Times reports.

I believe workers and socialists like myself must oppose this ban. No state or religion or has the right to tell a woman/person what they must wear.  In our society the corporate media is relentless in its pressure on women and young girls telling them how they should look what they should wear if they want to be successful or get the right partner or job. We all face this ideological onslaught. Do western women wear their bikini's by choice or through media pressure? I saw some 10 year old the other day dressed like an adult woman, with makeup and all. What's free about that? I was in France before and saw monks and nuns walking around in ancient garb as well as ultra-orthadox Jews. How secular is that? This is clearly an assault on Muslim women.

I republish below a piece by Wendy that she put on this blog some time ago and it's still as relevant now as it was then.  RM

by Wendy Forrest

Lawmakers in France are very close to imposing a legal ban on the veil worn by only a few thousand Muslim women in the country.

A parliamentary panel anticipates that by the end of 2010 their recommendations will become law. What are some of these recommendations?

“Mass transport, hospitals, post offices …and all public services will be off- limits to all Muslim women wearing face-covering veils if a parliamentary panel’s recommendations become law.” (Toronto Globe and Mail January 2010.)

It gets worse! She will probably be denied state aid such as unemployment insurance, social welfare benefits and be prohibited from entering a university classroom. Another recommendation is to deny “resident cards and citizenship to women who wear all-encompassing veils.”

This just about covers it-no health care, no education, no social benefits, no mobility, no immigrant and citizenship rights-no legal status!!

If these recommendations become law the result is nothing other than an assault on the bodies, minds and emotions of these Muslim women trapped within the claws of two patriarchal prohibitions, religious and ‘secular.” I am not an apologist for the oppression of women living within and impacted severely on a moment by moment basis by any patriarchal institution, religion, custom or practice, the extreme opposite is the case-I am outraged and disgusted. Nor do I subscribe to the mantra of cultural relativism as a way of analyzing or understanding social relations, practices or institutions. But there is a huge and essential difference between how we understand “difference” regarding cultural and religious institutional practices  and how we regulate cultural and religious norms and practices-how we treat them in law.

If a Muslim woman wears the veil as an act of ‘faith,” and does not, like me, view all institutionalized forms of religion as patriarchal and oppressive to women, neither I nor any state has the right to force her to take that intellectual journey-let alone act against her faith. Too often we witness economic , religious, political and social agendas played out on the bodies and lives of women in unique ways and it is all the more destructive and dirty when concealed behind the lofty, and in this case, abstract premises of support for “enlightened secularism” and state “security.”

What a mockery of the ideas of “choice” for these women and, I will add, choice generally for all women and peoples enslaved under the ideological constructs of institutionalized religion, racism, sexism , heterosexism etc.

What do France’s lawmakers propose these women do? I believe that wearing the veil represents a deep prohibition and regulation of choice inscribed upon women’s bodies, upon their choice regarding what parts of their bodies they can expose publicly. I also believe that the wearing of burka and niqab can severely restrict women’s economic and occupational choices. Operating a backhoe, working in an auto factory or being a firefighter for instance is extremely unsafe and virtually impossible if veiled and encumbered by certain clothing proscribed by religion or culture. I also know that there are many similar prohibitions in secular societies that have a similar effect on women’s choices----prohibitions that affect women’s bodies, size, shape, mobility, sexual, social and economic “choices.” The question has never been and will never be whether or not individual women have choices regarding these restrictions and prohibitions that exclude, marginalize and even cripple them. Anyone who thinks this way is mad. The penalties for women who dare to defy all forms of oppression unique to gender are harsh and always have been.  

“Witches" were drowned and burnt because they dared challenge patriarchal laws and practices, because they dared provide women with control over their reproductive choices. Millions of women throughout the ages to this day have been and still are denied reproductive choices, including the right to abortions, and because of this they die or live lives of shame and poverty. The Catholic and Protestant religion historically have enslaved women in their homes, denied them economic freedoms, by restricting and denying women reproductive choices for centuries. In “secular” capitalist societies, eating disorders maim and kill girls and women who desperately starve their bodies in order to conform to fashion and be “desired” by men.

Young women-----just babies really------are forced into the sex trade in countries like Thailand and the Philippines to be mauled and treated like pieces of meat by men from the “enlightened secular capitalist” countries---the little money they make is sent back to their hungry poor families in the countryside, families literally destroyed by neo-liberal economic policies. The sexual slave trade and literal imprisonment of women is illegal yet still rampant and tolerated in Europe, Canada and the US. Neo-liberal economic policies force thousands of women in Chile for instance to work in the cut flower factories where they suffer miscarriages and their children are born deformed because of the use of potent pesticides designed to deteriorate as the flowers move north. The rape of women in war is a common, tolerated, sometimes promoted practice in many countries throughout history and to this day.
It is insulting to speak about individual “choice” for women in these situations.

What is a Muslim woman in France whose religion and culture requires her to wear a veil to do if these recommendations become law?  What are her choices in fact when she is caught between at least two institutional mandates---between the laws of her nation and the laws of tradition, culture and religion----all of them patriarchal? What penalties will be imposed on her if she refuses to remove or lift her veil? Will she actually be denied the right to citizenship, to use public transit, access social services, education and health care –in fact will she even be a legitimate person if she refuses to remove or lift the veil? And if she does conform to these “secular” laws, remove or lift her veil in order to survive, care for her children, receive health care and move about the towns and cities to buy food and go about the daily necessary business of life –what happens if she is forced to break the custom, traditions and laws of her religion and her culture? No one should be forced to make that choice. The argument around security and identification of women is completely bogus. Most Muslim women who wear the veil subscribe to identification protocol and there should be provision for these women to lift their veils for identification in an environment that is safe, in front of women officials only for instance. Women passing through customs are not “patted down” by male customs officers but by female officers. The same rights should be granted women wearing niqab or burka.

Will she be marginalized from her family, friends and community? Will she be excluded and subjected to know what kinds of harsh penalties in her day to day existence? How will her children fare? What sort of choices are these? No choice at all really.

This is madness and a conscious refusal to consider the complexities of women's lives; women whose choices are constrained by the practices and mandates of patriarchal religious and secular institutions-a classic dilemma with cruel implications and repercussion no matter her choice.

This is just one more example of politics being played out on the bodies and lives of women.
Are these laws even implementable? Will women who refuse to remove their veils be sent to jail? Will hospitals turn them away; will they be denied money for food and other necessities of life? Will transit drivers kick them off the subways and buses?

Women of all religions and cultures can and are forced to conform to patriarchal norms and restrictions. But we cannot and will not be “forced” to be ‘free “ of these restrictions and choices under conditions where we are not safe and comfortable to do so and where we as working women have not been permitted to make the laws and rules that govern our bodies and our lives. If the penalties for being “liberated” are as great or greater than the cost of being oppressed, if the social, psychological and sometimes even physical choices carry the risk of equal or worse abuse and oppression then this is a mockery of choice.

Muslim women in France must be allowed to collectively work towards the right to exercise genuine choice over all aspects of their lives, including whether or not to wear the veil. Can you just imagine the uproar among “secular “ women or Catholic or Protestant women if the state banned high heels.  It is estimated that there are perhaps only 2000 women in France that wear the niqab or burka. Statistics have shown that sometimes irreparable damage is caused by wearing high heels. Tens of thousands of women wear this ridiculous footwear in France. What if insurance companies or publicly funded health care refused to pay for health care for these women, whose feet are and skeletal systems are damaged by footwear whose sole purpose is to eroticize female legs and make them more attractive to men. Imagine the profits lost by the fashion industry. And what if politicians and health industry profiteers decided they simply could not afford to pay these costs and made the wearing of high heels illegal, if a woman wearing high heels could not become a citizen or receive health care or travel on public transit? A silly comparison----I think not. The objectification and restrictions imposed on women's bodies by the fashion industries who rake in billions of dollars of profit is a key function of patriarchy operative in capitalist societies. The majority of “secular” women insist on the right to choose what to wear and whether or not they objectify and constrain their bodies, sometimes even ultimately abuse and cripple their bodies. Do we force them to be “liberated?”

Defending the right of women to make choices regarding their bodies, their clothing and their “faith” does not undermine secularism. Forcing women or any group to renounce the customs and traditions of their faith or religion and penalizing them in law, denying them the rights of full citizenship, goes way beyond mere insensitivity to the complexities of women’s lives. Unfortunately none of this is about bettering these women’ lives.

The government of France is using Muslim women to deflect from deeper economic and political issues such as the economic crisis, deep cuts to the spending in the public sector, attacks on workers jobs, benefits and working conditions. They are using Muslim women to inflame more distrust and hatred of Muslim working people and immigrants at a time when they are being to rise up and protest the poverty and racism they are forced to endure.

All working people in France, trade unions and women’s organizations must fight against this and all forms of blatant racism and sexism.

How can we even begin to speak of choice here?

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