The Netherlands, Feminism, and the Burqa
Let me preface this discussion by saying I have no sympathy for the burqa. I believe it is not only not required in Islam, but that Islam actively discourages it. I believe it is harmful to women -- in terms of their ability to function on a day to day basis, and in terms of the social expectations it engenders and reflects, and in terms of the effects of those social expectations on women's self-esteem, quality of life, educational and vocational opportunities, etc, etc, etc. To me, burqas are the flipside of Playboy -- in both cases women are completely sexualized -- one with the intent to exploit that sexuality and the other with the intent of supressing it. Neither one is a healthy position. We need to develop a middle ground, a moderate way, that allows women to enjoy their sexuality while sparing them from being essentialized as merely bodies either for men's enjoyment or for procreation.
Having said that... as I've said before on this blog, I believe that every woman should be able to choose to wear what she wants to wear (whether it be bikini or burqa), especially if she believes it is a religious requirement. Self-determination is such a central platform of feminism, I don't see how a feminist can say, you should be in control of your own life, unless, of course, you want to make certain choices, in which case the government has the right to tell you what you can and cannot wear. Just as I oppose governments telling women what they must wear, so to, I don't think the government has any place telling women what they cannot wear.
This came to the fore recently because there's been a proposal in The Netherlands that would allow Amsterdam to deny welfare payments to women who wear a burqa, or niqab (variations on the face veil), especially if wearing it prevents them from getting a job. (see report below). This follows in the footsteps of Utrecht, who voted last year to reduce the benefits by 10% for unemployed women if they refused to stop wearing a face veil and if that prevented them from finding a job. (see second report below!)
This proposal created a huge and volitale discussion on one of my progressive Muslim groups. Some were very happy to support not only this legislation, but a complete ban on the burqa and face veiling. Anything to eradicate a hated practice, they said.
I couldn't agree with this at all. Yes, I'd love to see burqas disappear (and with them all the prejudicial attitudes and treatment of women that comes along with burqas). But, if we believe freedom of religion is a universal human right, then we have to extend that to all people, even if they make some choices we don't like. Some Muslim women sincerely believe the burqa to be mandated by Islam; their choice should be protected by law. We can't simply grant freedom of religion to those we agree with. That's not freedom at all.How
we combat something matters. Not every solution to every problem is a good solution. Do we in the name of liberation trample on freedom of religion? I think that is self-contradictory -- if a woman isn't free to pratice her religion as she sees fit, then how free is she really?
But, then again, does championing freedom of religion mean that we are enabling the oppression of women, for certainly many religions are oppressive of women. What of polygamy? FGM? Slavery, which so many religions allow. What if their religious beliefs are, like the Southern Baptists, that the wife should be submissive to the will of the husband? Is education enough? That is my usual answer -- win their minds, their hearts and their souls with persuassive writing, with passionate arguments.
But somtimes, it sure doesn't feel like enough! I try to draw a line at any action, religiously mandated or not, which would result in an individual harming another individual -- like FGM --or which negates the basic human rights or other individuals -- like slavery. But what of emotional harm? Is polygamy an emotionally harmful arrangement that should be outlawed, or can there be situations in which polygamy is beneficial to the women? What if both polygamy and polyandry are allowed, does that make any difference? Or would it just allow for men to exploit women and women to exploit men? And, what of the emotional and social toll of burqas? Is the damage to women enough that we should advocate for the government to step in, paternalistically, and say, we know what is best for you, and so we are going to ban this?
I don't think so, but this is partially because I come from a culture where wearing a burqa is very much a matter of choice, and a choice that is not easy to make, one which requires a good deal of inner strength. It is, largely, free of the prejudicial social millieu that make burqas in places like Afghanistan so objectionable. Would I support a burqa ban in Afghanistan, I might well do so, given the context. In America, I wouldn't, but in Afghanistan it might not be a bad idea.
This long debate raised some other issues for me that we didn't discuss. The primary being how can a feminist support proposals to cut welfare payments to women who insist upon wearing a face veil and therefore cannot get jobs. It is punishing the most vulnerable segment of society -- poor women -- for having the gall to make their own choices. Heck, there are probably some who did not make their own choice, but who have family or spouses who have pressured them into wearing it, which would be a double whammy -- punishing them for something they had no choice about! This seems so antithetical to feminist principles, and yet, staunch feminists were applauding the notion.
Again, I come back to the idea that how one fights oppression matters. If in the struggle to liberate women, you enact laws that are prejudicial against them, how is that liberation? Especially when those laws impact one social class of women (and probably one ethnic background of women) disproportionately. Class, race, gender, they are inextricably linked. And I don't see how feminists can support something that hits one class more than another, especially when it is the poor class -- the women who most need help and support.
Do I think they should abandon their burqas so as to get a job? Heck yes! But the way to encourage that can't be taking away welfare payments if they insist it is their religious obligation to wear it, even if we disagree with them.
Ahmed Aboutaleb, a member of the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA) and a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, has proposed legislation that would allow Amsterdam to end welfare payments
to women whose wearing a burqa is the reason she can't find a job. "Nobody wants to hire someone with a burqa," Aboutaleb told the Dutch women's magazine Opzij. "In that case, I say: off with the burqa and apply for work. If you don't want to do that, that's fine, but you don't get a benefit payment." He added, in reference to a Muslim woman who refused to shake hands with men at work. "She has to realize that her behavior is building enormous obstacles for her in almost every situation. This woman must recognize that she is sidelining herself and that she runs the risk of being turned down for other jobs, too."
The Utrecht City Council
has voted to reduce benefits by 10 percent for unemployed women if (1) they refuse to take off their burqas and (2) that prevents them from finding a job. The council reached this decision after two Muslim women receiving €550 a month in unemployment benefits told announced that they had stopped going to job interviews because their burqas meant they had no success. A spokesman for the Dutch city noted that the problem is more one of principle than economics: "People get benefits when they are out of work but there is also an obligation to do everything to get a job. These women were educated, spoke good Dutch and had opportunities in the labour market." The city also noted that the official Equality Commission backed employers refusing positions to burqa-clad women, as seeing a person's face is essential to many jobs.