Should the Burqa Be Banned? Many Women Think No, But Others Disagree

We must continue to target the pressure, coercion, and social compulsion that affects how women dress. But we must never attack women themselves.

How can so many American feminists have come out against a burqa ban in France (as they largely have this past month) when the burqa, along with other excessively modest religious garb, appears to be a classic tool of gender oppression?

The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation -- or even strident criticism -- is racist. Critique of women's clothing, from burqas to cleavage, is often leveraged for other purposes, whether they be religious, cultural or political, and should be called out when it's faux feminism, as Aziza Ahmed argued on RH Reality Check.

But it's also true that almost every cultural or religious group sets standards of appearance that oppress women. Most fashion, from the corset of yore to the bikini to the FLDS prairie dress to the Nike sneaker (made by women in sweatshops, marketed to Western women), tends to hew in some way to patriarchal norms. So the quandary we grapple with, as feminists, is how to acknowledge that fact without alienating, targeting or harassing groups of women for the way they dress.

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Remember the Manolo Blahnik pinkie toe-removal phenomenon, which hearkens back to Cinderella's stepsisters in terms of the lengths women go to mutilate themselves on the altar of fashion? Imagine if we outlawed those heels for fear that some women would shorten their pinkie toes.  In each instance of an oppressive custom of dress or beauty, it's right to support those feminists who debate it. It is also crucial to examine the implications for women and for gender roles of dressing one way or another -- it's a clear example of the personal being political. But we have to do that without punishing or shaming women for their choice of outfit, as the French would seek to do.

Rather than single out other people's problematic dress, we should all be engaged in a robust critique and examination of the way gender norms inform beauty standards everywhere. In France, a country that many of its citizen claim is paradoxically so sexually liberated the burqa isn't welcome, American-style short-shorts are still a novelty, for instance, likely to garner stares or catcalls. Women there tend to dress marginally more modestly than they do in America -- except on beaches, where topless bathing is accepted. Evidently, the pressure to cover up, or to uncover, in various contexts may be stronger than we think, even in "free" Western countries.

Here in secular/commercialized America, women try to live up to a prepubescent ideal, buying into a diet industry that's a racket and causes eating disorders, using chemical bleaches on our hair, and undergoing sometimes-painful waxing, peeling or plastic surgeries to look eternally young, slim and buxom. The beauty myth has always been part of our culture, but as feminist commentators like Naomi Wolf and Susan J. Douglas have noted, the craze for ever-smaller female bodies coincided with women taking up a more space in the workplace. Some women claim that restrictive fashion trends, obsessive calorie-counting and makeup make them feel great, but both women who love it and those who loathe it are spending money and energy on their looks in a way that most men simply don't have to. The Daily Show played with this idea last week:

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And yes, in conservative communities of all denominations (and non-religious ones as well) modest dressing restrictions treat all women like jezebels, so unendingly sexual and distracting that their figures must be kept out of sight. Such garb -- even if it has different meanings for different wearers -- reinforces a misogynist ideal that puts the burden on women to cover up rather than men to avert their gaze.

This isn't meant to equivocate between all patriarchal fashion or grooming trends -- (certainly, styles that are restrictive or unhealthy are worse than those that are just silly), but to point out that they exist on a spectrum. Feminists stand up for women at either end of the spectrum even when both ends do have pernicious aspects. Yes, we criticize "porn culture" at the same time as excoriating the "modesty movement." But then we should also support women kicked off airplanes for wearing outfits deemed too skimpy -- and rush to defend women denied jobs because they choose to wear the hijab.

Just because feminists acknowledge the problematic roots of a practice doesn't mean that we can, or want, to bully it away. The way humans dress is an extension of our self-expression, our identity and an indication of how we align ourselves in terms of community norms and expectations. Attacks on individual clothing or grooming choices often feel deeply personal and can put people on the defensive.

The truth is, rarely will clothing choices not be loaded, complex and full of contradictions -- here in the US we have cheerleaders and beauty queens in suggestive outfits who wear chastity rings, and religious women who accent their modest clothing with perfume and Botox while toting a copy of Gender Trouble. Oppressive mainstream beauty standards may make modest clothing appealing, while puritanical religious customs may spur women to express their sexuality by stripping down. It's not so easy to reject patriarchal standards in their entirety -- if we didn't shave, wax, or wear makeup (or at times, conceal the fact that we don't) in strategic ways, we may well have a much harder time taken seriously by the world (except if the world were a hippie commune).

Open, nonjudgmental discussion of these complexities may lead some women to turn towards comfort and away from custom -- ditch their high heels or experiment with less modest clothing. But at the end of the day, different women have different reactions to what they wear. The feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises and other Muslim women have taken a convincingly strong stance against the burqa while some burqa wearers say it's a choice they make freely. Many women get a rush of happiness from high heels while other women curse them and wish their workplace was more accepting of less chic footwear.

That doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and refuse to examine the meaning and history of clothing styles and fashion expectations -- we should. It's important to note which styles of dressing get women rewarded in patriarchal societies and why. But when we do delve, we should delve holistically, not focus mono-maniacally on habits -- literally -- of other women.

Reproductive rights advocates strive for a society where choice means getting rid of social and legal obstacles to reproductive health access instead of criticizing women's individual reproductive decisions.When feminists talk about clothing we try to focus on getting rid of the gender, race and class expectations that feed into the way we dress and how we judge women's appearance. We need to continue to target the pressure, coercion, and legal and social compulsion that affects women, not women themselves. And imposing laws that regulate clothing does not accomplish that goal, but curtails women's freedom even more seriously.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.