Monday, July 6, 2009

Irfan Yusuf, Nicolas Sarkozy, burqas and Muslims who agree the burqa is offensive and degrading to women

Like any apologist, Irfan Yusuf has to throw around a bit of flim flam as he tries to tackle French president Nicolas Sarkozy over the question of the burqa in The fuss over the burqa is out of kilter.

First there's the liberal credentials:

No women in my family cover their hair.

Then there's the smokes and mirror distraction:

However, my maternal grandfather, who lectured at the relatively liberal Aligarh Muslim University in India, insisted the women of his household practise a form of traditional aristocratic seclusion known as purdah. Though associated with Indian Islamic culture, purdah was also practised in many upper-class north Indian Hindu and Sikh households.

It was common in those days for wealthy women to go out shopping while seated in a special palanquin (called a dholi). This was basically a large, comfortable, box-like structure with plenty of cushions for aristocratic women to laze on while their male servants (or even male relatives) would carry them. The curtains around the box had a screen through which the women could peek and decide which shop they would visit.

Women's quarters in 1950s Aligarh homes were places where women enjoyed themselves, freed of any domestic duties, their husbands or fathers employing servants to perform all cooking and other chores. Men were expected to lavish gifts on their female relatives (and in-laws) using the household income, which women were usually responsible for managing (I'm sure to their own advantage). Men were also expected to do all the shopping for food and other household needs. Women only shopped to buy clothes, jewellery and other luxury items for themselves.

By golly, life for Islamic women is sweet hey?Luxury and bliss. So somehow the purdah excuses, forgives, condones or allows the burqa as another harmless cultural eccentricity in which men may indulge their women?

Sorry you also have to read the disclaimer that follows:

Of course, the situation for the aristocratic Indian woman in purdah was a far cry from impoverished women living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Purdah did not stop my mother from completing high school and a bachelor's degree. The idea of banning women from education or work would be anathema to most Muslims, including the one in four of South Asian heritage.

But surely that's precisely what the burqa represents? Shove women inside a tent, keep them in the home, and keep them away from education, while reciting in rote fashion the kind of religious mumbo jumbo that Islam represents.   

Why is it that moderate 'liberal' Muslims always support the rights of extremists to be extreme?

Sarkozy, as Irfan Yusuf notes, described the burqa as "a problem of liberty and women's dignity" and "not welcome in France".

Sarkozy further claimed that the burqa was not a religious symbol at all, but rather "a sign of subservience and debasement", which created "women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity".

Of course, even if Sarkozy regarded the burqa as a religious symbol, he might still ban it. In the past, he hasn't been averse to banning the open display of religious symbols in French state schools.

Yes indeedy and good on the French for banning the wearing of religious symbols in state schools, but here's where you need the particular skills of an apologist to weave your way through this nest of extremist worms:

Many French, and indeed many Australians, find the various shades of religious head covering adopted by Muslim women somewhat troublesome. Women draped in black represent one of the most potent stereotypes of Islam in the West, one reinforced by media images. When one Sydney Muslim man called for polygamy to be legalised, the Herald Sun website carried a photo of two burqa-clad women crossing the street. The website of its Sydney equivalent regularly carries photos of burqa-clad women in any story even mildly related to Muslims. On August 8, 2007, in a story on an investigation into a refugee housing project run by a main Muslim body, The Daily Telegraph showed the image of the top half of a fully veiled woman's face.

Err, actually I don't have to go to my newspaper for troublesome, worrisome images that disturb me, and thank the lord I'm not talking about nuns in their penguin suits, long banished to the colonial worlds of Africa and South America. You don't see nuns flaunting their brides of christ gear in Australian streets any more, but go to the supermarket where I shop and you'll see plenty of burqas.

So how to deal with this issue? Well why not reduce it to a question of a minority of a minority?

It's unclear exactly what proportion of Muslim women wear any sort of head covering when in public, though anecdotal evidence suggests only a minority do. Among those who cover, the vast majority seem to follow the religious consensus and restrict themselves to merely covering all or part of their hair. This can take the form of a more fixed hijab (as commonly worn in the Arab world and South-East Asia) or a loose shawl draped over the head (common in Iran and South Asia).

Oh that's okay, so there's only a minority of a minority being locked up in a tent, kept in the home except when let out on field trips, and presumably denied an education since education hardly suits the needs of women only allowed in public under cover of an all embracing tent.
I guess if it's a minority of a minority issue, we can just sweep it under the carpet:

The vast majority of Muslims in France are from North Africa where the face veil is rarely worn. This naturally raises the question: with such a tiny minority wearing such a veil, why is Sarkozy using his precious time talking about this issue?

Sarkozy's remarks are reminiscent of former prime minister John Howard's frequent references to alleged non-integration of Muslim Australians. Yet in one radio interview Howard declared 99.9 per cent of Muslims were perfectly integrated. I wondered at the time whether his repeated emphasis on the 0.01 per cent non-integrated was little more than an attempt to create an environment where the 99.9 per cent were made to feel uncomfortable.

Or perhaps to focus on the 0.01 per cent who persist in a custom which seems designed to make secular Australians feel uncomfortable and Islamic moderates apologists for Islamic fundamentalists?

France has the largest Muslim population of any country in Western Europe.

By focusing on a tiny minority of Muslim women, Sarkozy risks alienating the majority of French Muslims, including those who agree with his basic proposition that the burqa is offensive and degrading to women.

Yep, there you have it. There are Muslims - is Irfan Yusuf hinting that he's one? - who agree with the basic proposition that the burqa is offensive and degrading to women. 

But if you do think that the burqa is offensive and degrading to women, Irfan Yusuf, why not come out and say it yourself? Acknowledge that you agree with Sarkozy's basic proposition.

And then explain why the majority of French Muslims, or Australian Muslims, should chose to defend the rights of a small minority of Muslims who maintain a practice that moderate Muslims agree is offensive and degrading to women.

Verbal slipperiness don't cut it. Not when it comes to the rights of women ... and not when it comes to writers who purport to a liberal and tolerant posture, then slide around to the back door, and allow a minority of extremists to cavort and play in the usual way, so that liberals secular pieties are suddenly taken to be offensive and alienating to moderate Muslims ...

Symbols are symbolic for a reason. Symbols mean things. Symbols if they truly are extreme, offensive and degrading can't then suddenly turn into reasons for being offended and alienated.

Thank the lord secular Australia made redundant the notion of penguin nuns in Catholic schools and society at large ... next step the burqa ...


Irf said...

Dorothy, isn't it obvious I regard the burqa as offensive? But does that mean we have to ban it?

I find x-rated videos offensive. Do you? Why don't you say so, then? Or are you just an apologist for pornography??

dorothy parker said...

Actually I don't find x-rated videos offensive. Come to think of it, I don't find most xxx rated videos offensive, or even Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, or if I do, I let others have their fun and walk on by. If you're liberal, you should be liberal.

That's why I don't say so. Guess I'm just an apologist for pornography.

I'm certainly not an apologist for Stephen Conroy's attempts to censor the internet. But since you find pornography offensive I dare say you can join in his campaign to censor the internet and ban pornography. Pardon me if I don't join the campaign (which is not to say that I'm an apologist for Australian men who think a glassing is a kind of foreplay).

But then I've never had problems with sex or virtual sex. Sadly, my problem has always been the problem religion has with sex.

And why not then, since you find the burqa offensive, spend your time explaining and arguing how it should by peaceful means cease to be imposed on women by men, and over time removed from the community? Instead of taking the easy way out by flapping your hands and saying do we have to ban it?

Speak out agaInst it loud and clear, and campaign for its eradication. I'd have been more impressed by a column explaining how by persuasion and education the burqa could be seen as the culturally conditioned repression of women, without religious justification.

And then how it might be removed by education and cultural awareness by active campaigning by moderate Muslims, thus making the talk of banning it irrelevant. China shouldn't have needed the Communist party to stop foot binding; moderate Islamics should not need a Sarkozy to adapt to a world where women are equal to men.

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires

Concerned Reader said...

The problem I have with people who claim that things like forcing the wearing of the Burqa are the fault of minority extremists is that it's a bit like claiming the atrocities of the Klu Klux Klan are only the fault of minority extremists. It's true, but it doesn't make lynching okay.

Groups that demand the wearing of the Burqa by women are promoting a culture in which women need to fear male desire. God knows many of us have to - but it doesn't mean the practice should be institutionalised.

Irf said...

Where is the religious justification in the column? Can you show it to me? I was simply giving one cultural context where the burqa was worn in northern India by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

And please stop patronising with this "moderate Muslims" and "moderate Islamics" (pfft) bullshit. Do you demand "moderate Catholics" speak out more about kiddy-fiddling priests? Or that "moderate Lefties" speak out against the excesses of the FARC militia? Or that "moderate Tamils" condemn suicide terrorist bombings?

Maybe you should get off your high horse and go and meet some women who tick the Muslim box on their census forms. That's if you can tell them from the rest of the crowd, given that most don't even wear hijab let alone a burqa. If you come away from that meeting still thinking they aren't "moderate" enough to your liking, it's likely the problem is with you and not them.

dorothy parker said...

Actually as I recollect it was you that wrote the column, speaking out boldly about the way Sarkozy would alienate the majority of French Muslims, while neglecting to explain why moderates should be outraged by the banning of extremism and fundamentalism (try belonging to the Darwin police force and wear a sheet and perform a necking ceremony and see how far you progress your career).

And it was you that mentioned how somehow moderate Muslims might become entangled in becoming apologists for fundamentalists as if fundamentalism was a right that deserved protection.

And actually I do expect Catholics to speak out against kiddy fiddling priests, and I do expect lefties to speak out against Stalinist ratbags (let alone FARC) and I do expect sensible people of any persuasion to resent the delusion that suicide bombing is a meaningful tactic, as opposed to a nihilistic gesture of absolute darkness and despair, based on the absurd notion that you might end up in heaven as opposed to a hole in the ground along with your innocent victims.

Why do you use straw dogs as a form of argument? It's slippery slithery thinking. You had a chance in your column to make a useful contribution, but you slithered away and you still keep slithering. If you think the burqa oppresses women, don't dance around the point with semantics, or hide behind the skirts of the abundance of moderate Islamic women.

It's surely the business of moderates to speak out against fundamentalism wherever they find it, especially if they happen to be writing a newspaper column about moderates and fundamentalists - and in that column ostensibly claiming to be a moderate, while somehow hinting that a minority of fundamentalists can oppress women because ... well because they can ... even if the writer's a free thinker who doesn't believe in the oppression of women.

In short between Sarkozy taking a stand against oppression - even if it involves oppression of the rights of fundamentalists - and your ambivalent stand - which suggests that freedom should include the freedom for fundamentalists to oppress - give me Sarkozy any day.