In defense of niqabs and burqas

Since I’ve been asking progressives to walk and chew gum a lot lately, i.e. be able to hold support two values at once that might seem in conflict, I want to speak up against France’s veil ban that went into effect today. As a feminist who believes in women’s ability to function in society on equal footing with men, it’s hard to throw my support behind garments that only women are asked to wear and which hide their faces. It’s even harder for me to support burqas, which are heavy and cloak a woman’s entire form.

But women choose to wear these, and it’s not the state’s place to enforce laws saying what women can and can’t choose to wear. Some people may find stilettos unfair or even offensive (in fact Muslim cultures view much of Western women’s clothing as such), but I would never support the United States government banning their usage, even though they can cause long-term foot problems and only women are expected to wear them. The problem doesn’t lie with women who choose high heels; the problem lies with a culture that expects them to. The way to deal with inequalities around social expectations in clothing isn’t to outlaw certain garb. It’s to work on the the cultural expectations women face.

And by banning veils, the French government has made the women who wear them victims. This seems to be the opposite of what the outcome of the law should be. In a society literally based on the ideas of equality and liberty, fining a particular group of women for their religious or cultural choices is somewhat mind boggling.

So I’m following my own advice: I can both be against the idea that women should wear cumbersome clothing that hides their faces and/or bodies that men don’t have to wear, while at the same time supporting the right of the women who choose to do so. As I ask progressives to be able to both support the work of Wikileaks as well as a trial to uncover the truth about the rape charges against Julian Assange, I’ll join in with the ability to process complex ideas. I can walk and chew gum.

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  • Morgan
    • Bryce

      Great piece! Veiling has always felt like a tricky issue for me but I think it’s important to recognize (as you so nicely do) that this is about choice and agency. I also think it’s insane to criminalize the women who are supposedly “liberated” by this law. Thanks for pointing your piece out to me!

  • Dan L

    Great expression of what I think a lot of people are struggling to reconcile right now. I would add one thing to your final summary: “I can both be against the idea that women should wear cumbersome clothing that hides their faces and/or bodies that men don’t have to wear…” I don’t think the last clause is necessary, I wouldn’t think many people would support the government forcing anyone to wear cumbersome clothing that hides their faces and/or bodies. I understand if both men and women of certain societies were forced to wear this type of clothing it would at least be equal, but equally repressed is an awfully low bar to aim for.

    • Bryce

      Good point. For me, the biggest sticking point is the fact that women are asked to hide their bodies, because it’s about shaming and controlling us. But you’re right that the solution is clearly not to just have men and forced to wear these clothes.

  • Anastasia

    I like what you wrote, but I disagree. I think burqas are a lot more of a problem than stilettos, and have trouble believing that women “choose” to wear them.

    • Bryce

      Thanks for reading. I’d be curious to hear you explain the difference you see between burqas and stilettos. The issue of choice is definitely complex here. If the culture these women live in has such stringent expectations about what they wear, can we really say that they are freely choosing to comply? But I still think you can say the same thing about what a lot of Western women wear. I actually see a pretty good parallel between burqas and stilettos — clothing that only women are supposed to wear, and only for cultural expectations, that cause hindrance and even sometimes harm. But that’s why I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on that comparison.