French Fashion Sense: Sarkozy vs. Niqab

June 24, 2009


If you haven’t been reading about France this week, you’re probably not alone.  Given the political uproar in Iran, and the pending strike by employees of the LCBO (that, for our non-Ontarian readers, is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario – who are the sole legal purveyors of hard alcohols in Ontario), it would be pretty easy to miss the news pieces on French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s exciting foray into feminism this week.

At a state dinner on Monday, President Sarkozy – whose feminist credentials up to this point are pretty much limited to having sex with wife Carla Bruni – declared that the fully body coverings favoured by some conservative branches of Islam (the niqab and burka) had no place in french society, or France.  Specifically Sarkozy said:

“The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement — I want to say it solemnly… …It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.” (source)

The statement by President Sarkozy comes along with the commitment to have the French government consider legislation that would outlaw, ban, or otherwise render illegal the wearing of niqab or burkas.

Leaving aside the basic civil liberties argument that no government should be able to mandate something as simultaneously mundane and personal as one’s clothing, and the clearly prejudiced orientation of a decree that takes aim at Islamic attire over other potentially problematic practices, there is something even more unsettling about the French President’s comments.

Now I will be the first to admit, there is also a dangerously seductive quality to President Sarkozy’s statements.   From my own personal perspective, I am uncomfortable with the branches of Islam which necessitate the wearing of niqab or burkas.  That said, I am also uncomfortable with the branches of Judaism which condemn the touching of women (even one’s wife) during their menstrual cycle, and the branches of Christianity wherein ultra conservative nuns are forbidden to be alone with men – including their own fathers and brothers.  In short I am uncomfortable with a great deal of religious practice, and I find myself always wondering if those who grow up under such regimes really have a choice in accepting them or not – can someone brought up in such an environment choose not to believe what their entire community has taught them to believe?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

However, and this is very important, as arrogant as I am, I am not willing to suggest that I am certain that anyone who believes differently than I believe (with regards to religion or more broadly) somehow is lying to themselves, or has been brainwashed, or has internalized regimes of domination, or what have you.  This is one of the most dangerous slopes in modern thinking: an argument that comes down to the notion of false consciousness.

The argument, at least in its contemporary form, comes from Karl Marx, who (while probably one of the most interesting and factually accurate critics of modern capitalism ever) might well have invented the most terrifying idea in the modern world when he came up with the concept of false consciousness.  The argument is simple.  Some people, by virtue of their position in a group or in society at large, are unable to grasp their ‘true’ interests.  Conditioned by a ruling ideology (series of ideas presented by a dominant group meant to reinforce an existing order) the group is unable to see what is ‘really’ happening around them – and therefore may not  appear to want what is ‘actually’ in their best interest.   For Marx, this was a simple way of explaining why some of the proletariat (Marx’s name for the working class) might not grasp their situation as exploited workers they way he foretold they would.

Again part of the idea makes sense – groups can be lied to systemically and therefore not understand what is really going on.  However it is also a very dangerous idea, because it means anytime you disagree with someone, you can simply claim not that they are wrong, but their own ideas of what they like, need, or want are simply the product of a false consciousness.  They can not be trusted to know what they want or need.

Famous political theorist Isaiah Berlin also touched on this concept in some of his early writings.   He noted that some understandings of freedom and liberty were not oriented not towards conditions enabling opportunity, but instead towards more abstracted notions of ‘fulfilling potential’ or reaching ‘true’ personhood.   Those visions of freedom he warned were potentially dangerous, as they offer an opportunity to make choices for others for ‘their own good.’  As Berlin famously says:

“Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, to oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf of their ‘real’ selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, performance of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with this freedom – the free choice of his ‘true,’ albeit often submerged and inarticulate, self. ” (Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Freedom)

The point here is not whether one likes the practice of wearing niqab or burkas.  The point is not even whether one thinks that such practices are denigrating to women. The real issue here is whether one is willing to argue that women who choose to wear niqab and burkas are all suffering from some kind of delusional self-identity, that they are unable to understand what’s ‘best’ for them, and therefore one should disregard their ability to consent – effectively removing their voice from any debate or discussion.

As I said, I am a strong opinion person who is confident to the point of arrogance, but to be perfectly frank, I find the articulation of a ‘false consciousness’ argument to be nothing shy of fucking terrifying.

Because, and this is the really scary part, the only one who can ever really know if one is suffering under false consciousness or not, is the very ‘enlightened’ or otherwise ‘self-aware’ person acting to take away one’s right to make choices by virtue of that very claim.


4 Responses to “French Fashion Sense: Sarkozy vs. Niqab”

  1. Magnus Holm Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. While it is clearly morally wrong to pressure or force another human being to wear a niqab, burka or hijab – or a kippa or turban for that matter – it is just as wrong to pressure or force someone to NOT wear the same items of clothing.

  2. How dare you try and play my deep prejudice towards the French against my deep prejudice of Islam! I won’t stand for it, sir…even your trickster words can’t force me to chose which deformed step child I love less.

    Excellent piece. I’ll allow my better nature to respond at length once I’ve had my morning coffee.

  3. A more considered response:

    Well I’ll be dammed, we finally agree on a social matter.

    Using ones superior moral awareness to overrule another adult’s personal choice is always a suspect course of action. Unless there is concrete harm being done (physical abuse, extreme mental abuse, tremendous deprivation) or a child is involved, a citizen should be allowed to make unpalatable choices. Once you begin legislating a cultural standard you are enforcing narrow ethos over real social good.

    Obviously the government extends it powers into personal lives already: drug laws, mandatory school ages, hate laws…but this so clearly fail the intentional stink test. If you are going to try and undermine someone’s culture at least be upfront about it: no one likes a passive aggressive xenophobe.

    If they really care so deeply for those made vulnerable by misogynistic Islamic culture use the money they would waste enacting and enforcing this law and put it into scholarships for young girls, shelters and literacy initiatives for abused wives, and police and social workers to detect and shield them from the real harm that occurs in those communities…not fashion police.

    At this point the French are setting themselves up as the moral peers of the Iranian religious police that beat and maim women for not wearing the garb.

  4. LaBee Says:

    Hurrah! I have been raging at Monsieur Sarkozy since last week. I have sometimes heard other feminists use the “false consciousness” concept to describe women who say they are empowered while doing non-empowering things and it has always made be nervous. Your discussing of the concept is right on target.
    Now, being a practical-minded gal, there a few other issues that come to my mind-
    1) Sarko says that the burka is a prison. Did he stop and think that banning the burka will mean that women who wear it will be condemned to the prison of the home? At least the burka is a prison that can be worn in public.
    2) Don’t push the shiny red button! As if telling people they can’t do something won’t make them want it more. Outlawing this garment would contribute to the isolation, and the likely increased marginalisation, of fundamentalist Muslims. Is that what France wants?
    3) I too am dubious about Sarko’s sudden feminism; the arrogance is palpable. Are there not Muslim women in France working to create education programs and the like… groups that are respectful of religious practices and that have a profound understanding of how to reach out to women in abusive situations? Perhaps these groups could be consulted and funded by the French government.
    4) While I understand how shocking it is to see a woman covered in head-to-toe black, I find it equally shocking that Western women pay surgeons to cut up their bodies causing horrifying bruises, and sometimes death, in order to conform to beauty ideals. Having married one such beauty ideal (twice), I hardly think Sarko will make a speech about the necessity of freeing white French women from the pressure to look sexy all the time. I’m not willing to get into a “your oppression is worse than my oppression” argument; these are both serious issues and 2 sides of the same coin, in my opinion.

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