Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Burqa in Democracy: Facing, Gazing & Civil Discourse for Social Justice

The Burqa in Democracy: Facing, Gazing & Speaking To Secure Social Justice

Q. Is wearing the face covering of burqa/niqab, or any other garment covering the face, a socially responsible act by a woman in a public democratic space? I say NO.

Secular Democracy can and must trump patriarchy, religion, culture, tradition, custom, belief in order to deliver Secular Democracy's prime commitment to SOCIAL JUSTICE.

French President Sarkozy recently gave fundamentalist feudal religionists as well as fundamentalist contemporary civil libertarians, a distracting opportunity to argue respectively 1) that face covering is a religious act or 2) face covering is a private individual choice, like free speech, free assembly, etc.

Sarkozy is gravely mistaken and has done serious damage to democratic processes, by his ignorant, dismissive and demeaning mis-characterization of the Burqa/niqab

However, Sarkozy has the right intent but the wrong argument. His comments are logically flawed and fail to defend civil society, in France and elsewhere.


Because Sarkozy, in his speech to France's Parliament in June, completely failed to address the core problem for secular democracy, arising from covering the face in public spaces.

Look, it's not that complicated -- Democracy cannot express with faces covered. Any face covered in public discourse, is an impediment to democracy.

Q. Let's focus on patriarchy and its prescription of face covering for women. Can we see the blatant unequal and oppressive hand of patriarchy in imposing face covering exclusively on women?

Q.Is there even one culture of the 4000+ known distinct cultures in the entire world, that prescribes face-covering for men? NO. Therefore the driving force orchestrating face covering for women, but not for men, is patriarchy, not Culture or religion or ethnicity, or language.

Even Sarkozy's neoliberal argument against the burqa is patriarchal, exposing his unearned privileged membership in male dominant French society.

Patriarchy is a universal impediment to social progress and needs to be challenged everywhere, most especially in the multiple contexts of secular democracy.

Sarkozy is not so much concerned with women's equal empowerment.

Instead, Sarkozy is more concerned with overturning prescriptive cultural beliefs which are private ones, in which the nation-state has no role.

Sarkozy has the right intent but the wrong argument.

Sarkozy is arguing AGAINST religion and culture.

Instead Sarkozy should argue FOR Democracy.

Let me raise some commonsense practical objections to face covering:

How can women equally participate in public discourse in civil society when some of their faces are hidden?

Q. How can others, including other women, who participate in the public sphere with face-covered women, know who they are talking to, read their faces, understand their words, if those same faces are hidden?

Q. Why is it Ok for face-covered women to see the faces of others, including men, but deny others the opportunity to look at their faces while they are participating in the public sphere of secular democracy?

Such women have an unearned advantage, retained for them by their male patriarchal handlers and exploiters, whether these handlers are their fathers, husbands or clerics or the nation-state. The face coverers can see us but we can't see them!
Therefore face-covering women are not the victims, they are the patriarchy--enabled perpetrators of social and political inequality in the secular democratic public sphere.

Face-coverers, Wear your burqa in your kitchen, in bed, in the bath, on the toilet, but once you leave your home and step out on a public road paid for by public funds in a democracy, a road paid for by the productive labor of We the People, show your face!

Face-coverers, You cannot be a beneficiary of secular democracy by hiding your face from others. Your face does not belong to your husband or the Prophet except in the private realm of your private domestic space. In the Public Sphere of Secular Democracy show your face! My taxes require you to show your face! If you live in atheocrayic, feudal nation-state, follow the prescriptions of our patriarchal male handlers. But in secular democracy you owe your face to the public gaze.

Facial identity and social recognition are essential for the workplace,the market place, the ballot box, the driver's licence, the marriage license, the divorce certificate, school attendance, walking in the street, using an ATM, participation in the street protest, taking a plane trip, paying for groceries at the checkout counter, receiving treatment in a hospital -- in short all PUBLIC ACTS in public democratic spaces.

As a public leader of a democracy, the use of face covering in the PUBLIC SPHERE is precisely the arena Sarkozy needed to focus on, NOT private arguably prescriptive religious and cultural aspects. Sarkozy criticized women NOT Patriarchy. Because he is a patriarch and enjoys the privileges of patriarchy.

Quoting Sarkozy (my emphasis added to text):

In our country (France), we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," Sarkozy said to extended applause of lawmakers. {Sarkozy is wrong, the burqa does confer identity} but in the private. domestic realm.

"The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement _ I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic...." {Sarkozy is wrong, covering your face cannot be simplisticaly interpreted to be a sign or debasement the burqa is not any of the things he alludes to here. He is right, the burqa should not be welcome in France (On France's streets and other public discursive spaces but fine in France's kitchens and domestic spaces). Sarkozy cites the wrong reasons for making the burqa "unwelcome."]

In a few months French lawmakers, presumably after due deliberation, will pronounce some form of legislation on the burqa.

I am not holding my breath on what the Sarkozy-led postcolonial, post=imperial French patriarchy in Parliament is about to say or do.

Currently, France has an unenviable record on immigrant opportunity. Therefore, It is not women covering their faces in burqa that are impeding immigrant opportunity, but French racism stemming from France's ugly colonial/imperial history of oppression and grabbing resources of peoples of the Global South, represented by contemporary inequality in France, of access to civil rights, economic parity -- in short, social justice.

I am more interested in the implications of any woman covering her face in the public sphere of democratic societies.

Q. Is wearing the burqa a socially responsible act by a woman in a democratic space. I say NO.

Democratic spaces -- public squares, the marketplace, the school, the parliament, the ballot box, by their very definition depend for their continuation and enrichment on public discourse.

Public discourse, based on a public visible presence, necessarily involves women and men facing [yes facing, language is a powerful vehicle for public expression] one another in persuasive, reasoned argument, to convey and implement the deliberative collective will of civil society.

Such discursive exchanges are the bedrock from which public policy ought to shape and influence the course of a nation-state. Not party mobocracy, not dynastic leadership, but civil society.

It's that simple -- I have to see your face at the same time as you have to see mine -- facing cannot be unequal, asymmetrical, a one way cul de sac, where you can see me but I cant see you, face to face. Facing is gazing, nuanced verbal expression, an indispensable part of public argument on the way to delivering social justice for the Greater Collective Good (GCG).

It's that simple but it's also deeply complex. From an evolutionary perspective, humans come evolutionarily equipped to recognize and seek meaning from faces. That is why human babies gaze at their caregivers. That is also why we can better remmeber a face than a name. Our brains have evolved to optimize facial recognition as a cue to survival of our species. Face covering impedes facial recognition in social transactions. Facial recognition aids democracy!

Democracy demands a higher eligibility threshold for participation, than the clan, the tribe, the guild, the caste, the feudal landlord or warlord, or the theocracy.

Face it -- The Burqa makes facing, gazing, straightforward full frontal DISCUSSION to secure social justice, impossible for women. The burqa or ANY other form of face covering, does not meet the minimum eligibility requirement for participation in the PUBLIC SPHERE of Secular Democracy.

Chithra KarunaKaran
Ethical Democracy As Lived Practice

NYTimes copyright
Burqa Furor Scrambles the Political Debate in France
Published: August 31, 2009
Burqa Furor Scrambles the Political Debate in France
Joel Robine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A woman wearing a niqab passed a bookstore at the annual meeting of the Islamic Organizations Union in Le Bourget, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris in 2005.

Published: August 31, 2009

PARIS — It is a measure of France’s confusion about Islam and its own Muslim citizens that in the political furor here over “banning the burqa,” as the argument goes, the garment at issue is not really the burqa at all, but the niqab.
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Times Topics: France
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Mehdi Fedouach/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Women at the annual meeting of French Muslims organized by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France in Le Bourget, outside Paris, in April.
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Two veiled Muslim women carrying the French flag during a march against Islamophobia and in favour of the veil in schools, in Paris in 2004.

A burqa is the all-enveloping cloak, often blue, with a woven grill over the eyes, that many Afghan women wear, and it is almost never seen in France. The niqab, often black, leaves the eyes uncovered.

Still, a movement against it that started with a Communist mayor near Lyon has gotten traction within France’s ruling center-right party, which claims to be defending French values, and among many on the left, who say they are defending women’s rights. A parliamentary commission will soon meet to investigate whether to ban the burqa — in other words, any cloak that covers most of the face.

The debate is indicative of the deep ambivalence about social customs among even a small minority of France’s Muslim citizens, and of the signal fear that France’s principles of citizens’ rights, equality and secularism are being undermined.

French discomfort with organized religion, dating from the 1789 revolution and the disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church, is aggravated by these foreign customs, which are associated in the Western mind with repression of women.

André Gerin, a Communist Party legislator and mayor of Vénissieux, a Lyon suburb with many Muslims from North Africa, began the affair in late June by initiating a motion, signed by 57 other legislators, calling for the parliamentary commission.

“The burqa is the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Gerin said. “Islamism really threatens us.” In a letter to the government, he wrote: “It is time to take a stand on this issue that concerns thousands of citizens who are worried to see imprisoned, totally veiled women.”

A few days later, President Nicolas Sarkozy said that “the burqa is not welcome on the territory of the French Republic.” He did not say how it would be made unwelcome, however, or whether he intended to extend existing laws that already ban head scarves or any other religious symbol from public schools.

For Mr. Sarkozy, who defends participation in the Afghan war as a matter of women’s rights, “the problem of the burqa is not a religious problem,” he said. “It is a problem of liberty and the dignity of women. It is a sign of servitude and degradation.”

There is a strong suspicion that Mr. Sarkozy, who has supported religious freedom, is playing politics in a time of economic unhappiness and social anxiety. But he also seems to want to restrict more radical and puritanical forms of Islam from gaining further hold here.

The French press has been full of heated opinion pieces, charts about different Islamic veils, stories about public swimming pools and the burqini, an Islamic swimsuit that covers the body and the hair (but not the face). Women wearing the niqab, many of them French converts to Islam, have said that they have freely chosen to cover themselves after marriage. Others say solemnly that to stigmatize or ban the veil would only cause more women to wear it, out of protest.

Last year, Faiza Silmi, now 33, was denied French citizenship in part for wearing the niqab, bringing a legal judgment about personal dress into the home. In an interview with Le Monde, Ms. Silmi said that she chose to wear the niqab after her marriage, even if her own mother thought it was “a little too much.”

“Don’t believe for a moment that I am submissive to my husband!” she said. “I’m the one who takes care of the documents and the money.”

Passions have been so high that when domestic intelligence issued a report saying that only 367 women in France wore a full veil, it seemed to make no difference.

For many French Muslims, the entire discussion is an embarrassment and an incitement to racial and religious hatred.

M’hammed Henniche is the secretary for the private Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis. He is French first of all, he said, and he is appalled.

“There’s nothing but confusion,” he said. “What they’re talking about is the niqab, but I think choosing to use burqa instead is not an accident. They chose a word that is associated with Afghanistan, and that spreads a negative, scary image.

“There are laws in France that force women to show their face, in certain situations, at the town hall, at the bank,” Mr. Henniche added. “Women who wear niqab take it off when they must. But in the streets, everyone is free. They’re spinning this story in order to stigmatize a community.”

Even existing laws are misunderstood, he said, with a woman refused entry to a bank because employees thought a head scarf was illegal. “It’s a dangerous slip, going from a ban in school to a ban in the streets,” he said.

John R. Bowen, who wrote “Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State and Public Space,” has been asked to testify by the parliamentary commission.

“French political discourse is internally conflicted,” said Mr. Bowen, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. There is confusion about different kinds of public space, he said — the street, and places that belong to the state but are not freely open to the public, like schools.

France took from Rousseau the principle that no intermediate group or affiliation should stand between the citizen and the state, which represents the general interest, Mr. Bowen said. But Rousseau also championed the right to form private associations, or clubs. It was not until 1901, however, that the state allowed some unions or associations, Mr. Bowen said, and not until 1981 that foreigners could form them.

Muslim groups then started religious tutoring, seen as promoting Islam, and clubs based on ethnicity or religion are viewed with great suspicion, Mr. Bowen said. “There is a sense that people who are publicly displaying their religious or ethnic characteristics are a slap in the face of French applied political theory.”

Mr. Bowen does not think there will be a law banning the niqab. Nor does Yazid Sabeg, Mr. Sarkozy’s commissioner for diversity and equal opportunity, who said it would be unenforceable.

“Even if they ban the burqa, it will not stop there,” Mr. Henniche, of the Muslim group, said. “There is a permanent demand for legislating against Muslims. This could go really bad, and I’m scared of it. I feel like they’re turning the screws on us.”

Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Paris.