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.