A Question of Habit
This month the so called “burqa ban” went into effect in France, the first European country to enact such a restriction. Women wearing burqas (or any other garment that veils their faces) are now subject to hefty fines of around US $200; men charged with forcing a woman to wear burquas may face a fine of US $43,000. Yes, forty-three thousand dollars!
Some critics of this law suggest that it has racist underpinnings and little to do with the security concerns or women’s rights offered up by its proponents. While racist or anti-Muslim sentiments may have a role in the ban’s enactment, I have to admit to feeling less unhinged about this trespass on a woman’s right to choose how she dresses than I might under other circumstances. Quite simply, it’s difficult to see the burqa as anything but yet another instance of women being given the age-old responsibility as their brothers’ keepers—keepers that is of men’s sexual choices.
French President, Nicholas Sarkozy described the burqa as “a sign of enslavement.” Extreme? Perhaps, but when I think about driving, going out to eat, or trying to exercise under all those folds of cloth, the term doesn’t strike me as all that inappropriate. How odd it is that the modesty for which the Koran advocates could have ended up being interpreted as a burqa. And for a moment I wondered what it might be about Islam that would manifest in such restrictive, if not bizarre to the Western eye, dress codes. Then I got to thinking about this and the demands made on women by a variety of religious and social dress conventions:
Nun’s habits are among the numerous socio/cultural demonstrations of how religious dictum is used to prescribe “appropriate” female dress. And yes, the above represents dress requirements for only a specific group of Christian women, but these requirements exist nevertheless.
These fashion imperatives that insist women smother certain body parts, and in the case of the burqa every body part, are propelled by unsavory notions about the corruptive quality of women’s sexuality, and if the sole result were interesting habits and veils for me to blog about, then this would be okay. But the inference, embodied by the insistence that women dress “modestly” leads to far more serious consequences, and one is that women do in fact feel responsible for men’s lascivious acts, even when they are acts of assault and violence against those same women. Evidence of this misguided sense of responsibility is reflected by women’s shame about reporting sexual violations.
According to a 2002 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, only “36% of rapes, 34% of attempted rapes, and 26% of sexual assaults [in the U.S.] were reported to police” between 1992 and 2000. This is a cruel, and undue burden placed at the feet of women— accountability for men’s sexual behavior—and perhaps this is the “enslavement” most concerning about burqas and other prescribed forms of dress that ask women to bear responsibility for men’s response to them.