Humanism and the Burqa Bugaboo

The recent burqa controversy, plaguing France has produced yet another headache for liberals, humanists, and lovers of democracy who feel themselves trapped between conflicting principles. While the term “burqa” (a head-to-toe covering) is commonly used in a debate that really focuses on the face-covering veil (a “niqab”), the fact remains that veiling of different kinds remains a widespread practice among Muslim communities in Western Europe. What’s more, it isn’t entirely clear to what extent this is the product of Muslim women’s free volition or, instead, of indirect coercion by male relatives and patriarchal bullies.

At any rate, in his address to Parliament on June 22 (the first presidential appearance before that body since Napoléon Bonaparte’s in the nineteenth century) French President Nikolas Sarkozy denounced the practice of Muslim women wearing veils with rhetoric that could have been heard in any number of feminist circles, and tended to stress universal, liberal, and anti-sexist values.

On the other hand, it is reasonably clear that the French anti-immigrant right, which is growing in strength and capable of wielding a dangerous amount of electoral clout, is using this and similar issues to victimize and ghettoize the immigrant Muslim populations. Such immigrants are already the victims of widespread institutional racism, not to mention overt police brutality and exclusion.

The practice of veiling is undoubtedly a deeply degrading and misogynistic one, but not so much for what it does as for what it represents. The veil causes no one direct harm (discomfort, in some cases), but it does stand for the repression of women’s individual agency and human dignity. This is not a Western prejudice but an inescapable fact. A veiled woman is a woman cut off from the outside world. The garment downplays the uniqueness of the individual and suggests that the woman inside is less equipped than the men around her to wield an impact on the outside world and to chart an independent destiny.

Hence the quandary for liberals, many of whom, sorry to say, have been so distraught over the racism and exclusivism of the French right that they have sided with the veil. Groups such as the feminist Ni Putes Ni Soumise (Neither Whores or Submissives) have employed a great deal of universalist language to plead their case. In so doing, however, they have often targeted immigrant groups for particularly virulent condemnation and have therefore put wind in the sails of the increasingly xenophobic French establishment, as well as far-right groups such as Le Pen’s Front National, a semi-fascist political party. All such organizations have used the veil controversy to further the fundamentally anti-universal, illiberal, and undemocratic practice of institutional racism. What’s more, it is perfectly clear that the veil is, in addition to being a symbol of female subjugation, also a symbol of Muslim identity, and to focus on it before so many of the other important issues facing Muslim women, including numerous cases of gang rape and other atrocities, is to transform the issue from a feminist one into an ethnic one.

Is the controversy, then, one between female empowerment and the empowerment of minorities? Either way, democracy and humanism are at stake. A true democracy is composed of autonomous, rights-bearing individuals: women and men who are all equally empowered to define themselves and their goals in life. Equality, the bond of community and fellowship, and the recognition of individual worth and dignity are all tied up in this. A true humanist society includes all of these things, while emphasizing that part of being an individual bearer of rights means refusing to have one’s independence inhibited by institutional religion. If women don’t feel free to take off the veil and move about in society as equal citizens, neither democracy nor humanism is achieved. If religious or ethnic minorities have their options in life repressed and limited by racism, discrimination, and poverty, again, neither goal has been achieved.

Liberals and democrats and humanists should therefore never be in a position of having to choose between one or the other. It isn’t a case of feminism vs. antiracism; the two struggles can’t be separated.

Unfortunately, many liberals have been led to take the opposite view, and have retreated into a communalistic anti-liberalism (bizarrely enough). They argue that practices such as veiling must be celebrated as expressions of cultural diversity and proud Muslim identity. Rather than attempt to achieve universal equality, we must sing the praises of difference and allow minority communities to remain separate, segregated, and culturally unique.

While the people who make this sort of claim are often well-intentioned and genuinely upset over anti-Muslim racism, they fail to realize that emphasizing the “uniqueness” of a community often entails denying the uniqueness of the individual. The impulse to lock people within a cultural identity and to view them as mere manifestations of a religious or ethnic heritage is an anti-universal, illiberal, and, ultimately, racist view.

The idea that ethnicity and racial difference have any real biological basis is hotly debated, and it is thought that the human race is far too young and our gene pools too thoroughly intermixed to have yielded precise biologically disparate groups. And if we don’t have “races”—we have a single race, the human race—most ethnic groups are therefore the offspring of various social conditions. For example, who today would view Irish Americans as a separate ethnic group? The fact that they have ceased to constitute one in our eyes has nothing to do with any dilution of the Irish gene pool, but by changing social circumstances.

Ethnic differentiation is the result of the dominant racist culture, and ethnic segregation is what allows for the economic exploitation and victimization of minorities and immigrants. Any celebration of ethnic difference, therefore, whatever its intentions, is a celebration of the dominant institutions of racism. The French right and Muslim culturalists in France today both play off of one another. The former seeks to exclude immigrant populations by suggesting that they are hopelessly anti-modern and misogynistic. The latter, comprised of the elite within the minority communities who benefit from the existing patriarchy, are more than happy to agree, as this legitimizes their authority.

The celebrators of diversity are therefore, in many cases, the enemies of individual diversity, because they limit the role of individual expression to within an ethnic community. By doing so they perpetuate the dominant racist ideology and allow for the further exploitation of oppressed groups. The only answer to racism has always been and will continue to be the dream of universal human fellowship and equality. Both racism and sexism are fundamentally incapable of answering the questions raised in all people’s minds by this dream, and by the promise of a world full of free, equal, and empowered human beings. To emphasize this dream, that of democracy and humanism, is the task of liberals and leftists in today’s world.

In other words, liberals should not abandon liberalism. More importantly, they shouldn’t feel the need to sacrifice female empowerment for the sake of minority rights, because the struggles of feminism and antiracism are inextricably linked. Therefore, the veil must eventually go if Muslim women are to achieve equality. Their gender equality, however, can’t come at the cost of their further victimization as ethnic minorities.

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