The “burqa” (or Taliban, or Mawzlum) derail

Here they go again. Well, the spiritual abuse recovery movement sure is… white.

But it’s not just the thoughtless stereotyping and xenophobia that gets me in this article, “Burqas anyone” (complete with this cartoon). It’s the dangerous ineffectiveness of the argument.

American women today are under threat primarily from conservatives who want to take away women’s ability to make choices about their sexual and reproductive lives. Patriarchal meddling in adult women’s lives is bad—no matter what religious or racial group is doing it, and regardless of what god or “values” they invoke in order to justify it.and it should be possible for American women to make that argument without dragging in burqas. If that can’t be done convincingly, then we are up the creek without a paddle… (and no Planned Parenthood, either).

Over at nolongerquivering, a site chiefly aimed at women recovering from the Quiverful/Christian Patriarchy movements, Calulu (whose writing I usually enjoy reading) posted about a recent trip she and her daughter Laura made to a fast-food restaurant. The restaurant happened to be full of a group of conservative Christians who were evidently on their way to a conference. The conservatively attired women were wearing long skirts, loose, high-necked tops, and barely any make-up. She writes:

“Spared a glance at the eating crowd and moved on to the counter to order for everyone. While we stood there and awaited our pile of processed chicken and franken-fries I started to get the itchy feeling that someone was watching me. It’s a sudden creepy-crawly feeling when you know you’ve managed to catch the eye of someone and they are busily boring holes into your back. I turned to see who was looking and it was more than one. We were getting those frowny stares from a number of people in the crowd. Laura and I just looked at each other, shrugged, got our stuff and left, not getting why we’re been glared at en masse by the conference goers.

It wasn’t until later the next day that it dawned on me what those hostile glares were all about. Vyckie Garrison posted a link on Facebook that apparently one of the big ideas that day at a Washington DC area faith and politics conference had been that women in general were immodest and should put some more clothes on. I’m thinking the group I encountered had just come from that very conference that day. So the glares were about immodesty?

One of the quotes from the literature was: From the “True Woman Manifesto”: “All women, whether married of single, are to model femininity in their various relationships, by exhibiting a distinctive modesty, responsiveness, and gentleness of spirit.”

You know it’s not like Laura and I were rushing around wearing nothing but a whole lotta string and three postage stamps, we were dressed normally for early fall in the Virginia Piedmont. I guess my knee length bermuda shorts and Laura’s teal mohawk didn’t exhibit the right kind of femininity in their minds. Too bad, I think Laura is adorable in her mohawk. It was her choice.

So now it looks like Fundamentalist Patriarchal Quiverfull crowd has decided to try and add modesty for all women to their political platforms, try to force everyone to dress to their standards. Modesty rears its ugly head again.”

Calulu goes on to make several good points about why policing what women wear is dehumanizing: it objectifies women (by making what women look like all that matters about them), it tries to shape women’s lives so that they must revolve around men’s sex drives (making women always vigilant about how they appear to men, while men are relieved of most responsibility for their actions), and it is a way of controlling women. So far so good.

But then she concludes:

“You know who has state control over women’s daily attire to make sure all women are very modestly attired to keep the men from sinning via lust? Those places where every woman is forced to wear a burqa. Beginning to think that the QF Fundamentalist crowd isn’t going to be happy unless every female six and up are wearing their version of the burqa.”

But what on earth did burqas have to do with the incident that the article was about—conservative Christians acting in a judgmental way in Virginia, U.S.A., and apparently wanting to impose their vision of “modesty” on American women in general? In the name of… their interpretation of Christianity? Which has nothing whatsoever to do with burqas (or with Muslims, Afghanistan, the Taliban or any other “exotic” bogeymen)—conservative American Christian churches have a long history of trying to control how women dress and behave. So why bring in burqas?

This sort of argument is beyond annoying. Not just because it reinforces tired stereotypes about Muslim women, and plays the xenophobic projection game, where all that is bad doesn’t belong to American culture, but is somehow due to (or at least, associated with) foreign “contamination.”  But because it isn’t effective. It’s built on a fallacy.

If interfering with an adult woman’s right to make choices about her body and her sexuality is wrong, then it’s wrong, period. It’s wrong regardless of what religious or racial or cultural group is doing it. It’s wrong regardless of what scripture, or religious teaching, or hallowed “tradition” they invoke. It’s just as wrong if conservative American Protestant, white Christians do it, as it would be if brown, bearded Muslims somewhere-on-the-other-side-of-the-world do it.

So, it should be possible to make a logical, convincing argument pitched to average, conservative North Americans about why it is wrong without getting sidetracked by burqas and all that they somehow imply—the horrors of Taliban rule, stereotypes about “Izlaam”, etc.

And if it isn’t possible?

Then presumably, the winners of the “war on women” presently going on in North America will be those good ol’ boys who can wrap themselves in the flag and convince enough people that controlling women’s lives (though they’re usually smart enough not to call it that…) is as American as apple pie.

Because two can play at that game, of course. Advocates of women’s rights can attempt to smear the conservative right-wing by implying that their ideas about women and sexuality are right on the slippery slope to burqas and purdah. But North American right-wingers have been busy for years now claiming that feminism is irrelevant because feminists are supposedly all busy complaining about oppression that is all in their imaginations, while they are blind to the “real” oppression that Muslim women face.

Right-wingers have lots of reasons why in their minds, North American women across the board (including those leaving or attempting to leave conservative, controlling Christian groups) have absolutely nothing to complain about, because hey! things could be a lot worse. I mean, how dare a woman make an issue of a little thing like, say, effectively losing the right to have an abortion in many regions of the US when being forced to go through with a pregnancy that she does not want and cannot afford? Or how dare conservative Christian women object to their church’s teachings about the proper length of their hemlines, or limiting ordination to men, or wifely obedience? Or why would women make a fuss about defunding Planned Parenthood? Because none of this could possibly be anything like as bad as being forced to wear a burqa whenever you go out. Or being punished for teaching girls how to read. Or being stoned to death for adultery.

It’s the Oppression Olympics. And in that game, American women will always lose. Because no oppression American women face will ever seem quite as horrifying to an American audience as the oppressions faced by Exotic Brown Veiled Women Elsewhere.

But it’s not a game. It’s not a contest to see “who has it worse.” It’s not about who can produce the worst disaster p*rn with women’s lives.

Nor is a cultural relativism game. It’s not about whose arguments for controlling women are more superficially “American” or in accordance with “Christian values”. It’s about human rights.

This is all the more depressing given that the folks blogging at Nolongerquivering know better than most exactly why it is that patriarchal control of women’s uteruses and lives is harmful. Because they, like me, have lived it. They know quite well what it’s like to live a life in which you have no real control over your vagina, uterus, time, energy, health, self-expression… and to be surrounded by people telling you that any lingering desire you may have to exercise such control is selfish resistance to God’s commands, or satanic whisperings that you need to ignore. They know how damaging it is to your health, sanity, children, family relationships, financial viability…. and they should be able to convey this convincingly and without resorting to logical fallacies or xenophobic rhetoric.

Conservative Muslim communities I was involved in in North America had their own spin on this sort of rhetoric, of course. But in reverse. Anything labeled “western” was bad. So, a woman wanting to control her own body and her own life could be and often was accused of being influenced by feminism, which as a “western” way of looking at the world was without question seen as bad and “unIslamic.” It’s a way of controlling people by appealing to their desire to fit into the group, as well as their wish to see themselves and their actions in a positive light. It’s emotional manipulation.

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  1. #1 by The White Pumpkin on September 20, 2012 - 12:28 am

    this is just a sad sad thing all around for a variety of reasons. I do not agree with every word stated, nor do I need to. I do get where you are coming from though. Having been on a few sides of this multi headed debate I can see a variety of reasons why this is just a form of propaganda in essence.

  2. #2 by krwordgazer on September 20, 2012 - 5:59 am

    I’m afraid I don’t see how mentioning that forcing women to wear burqas is bad and that some countries wrongly force women to wear them, is inherently anti-Muslim. I think most women at NLQ know that not all Muslim countries force the burqua on women, and that many Muslims disagree with women being forced to wear them (please note that the issue of women choosing to wear the burqa is not even in view in the NLQ article. “Force” is the operative word).

    • #3 by xcwn on September 20, 2012 - 12:07 pm

      krwordgazer—Um, are we even talking about the same post? Where did I use any expression like “inherently anti-Muslim” in the post? Where did I even imply that mentioning that forcing women to wear burqas is bad??

      I have a feeling that you are responding not to my post, but to the way that these discussions often go down online. But I’m not interested in reproducing the usual Muslim apologetic discourse on the burqa. As should be quite evident.

      OF COURSE forcing women to dress in certain ways is bad (whether it’s burqas that are being imposed, or anything else). But what do burqas have to do with the way a group of conservative Christians behaved in a Chick-Fil-A in Virginia, or conservative Christian literature telling American women that they should dress more “modestly” and act in a more “feminine” way? Nothing. Christians who think and act like that are quoting the Bible and making reference to what they believe are Christian values.

      But here’s the thing: forcing women to adhere to some religion’s standards of “modesty” or sexual “morality” is wrong, period. It’s just as wrong if white men (and women) do it in the name of Jesus and good old-fashioned (white) American values, as it is if brown men (and women) do it in (say, Afghanistan) the name of Islam and/or protecting traditional Afghan values. Bringing the burqa into a discussion of white American Christian conservative attitudes is just… lazy, at best. And quite ineffective as a logical argument explaining why forcing “modesty” on women is wrong.

  3. #4 by Anonymous// on September 20, 2012 - 6:10 am

    How do you make criticisms of the way brown women are treated by brown men while avoiding orientalism?

  4. #5 by Christine on September 21, 2012 - 3:10 pm

    “But here’s the thing: forcing women to adhere to some religion’s standards of “modesty” or sexual “morality” is wrong, period. It’s just as wrong if white men (and women) do it in the name of Jesus and good old-fashioned (white) American values, as it is if brown men (and women) do it in (say, Afghanistan) the name of Islam and/or protecting traditional Afghan values.”

    I have to apologise, but I don’t follow the argument. Forcing “modesty” on women is wrong no matter how it’s done, I agree. But I don’t follow how we go from there to saying that bringing the burqa into the discussion is lazy and ineffective. What they have to do with the conservative Christians in Virginia is that they are both examples of people trying to control women’s bodies.

    I understand that this is an issue of privilege – I’m a white woman, I’ve never been expected to wear a headcovering of any kind (this is connected to having never visited a mosque too), and I’ve never even had a friend who wears a niqab. But even though I know I have the blind spot, I can’t see through it to understand what you’re saying. What I can get out of your argument is that “they’re both wrong, so don’t compare them”, and I get lost. Is it possible to further break it down for those of us who are socially insulated from the problem?

  5. #6 by krwordgazer on September 22, 2012 - 7:26 pm

    Xcwn, I think that clarifies for me a little better where you’re coming from. If I didn’t seem to you to be reading the same post, it’s because I really, honestly didn’t understand the point you were trying to make. If I now understand you correctly, you’re saying that mentioning burqas in that post was “lazy” because the wearing of burqas in Islamic countries has nothing to do with modesty requirements in fundamentalist Christianity.

    I’m afraid I still disagree. The idea of a garment that covers a woman from head to toe is a natural consequence of fundamentalist ideas of female modesty. This applies to any religious tradition. I think possibly the reason Christian fundamentalists have never proposed burqa-type coverings for women is simply because Muslim fundamentalists are already doing it, and they don’t want to be like the Muslims. But the fundamentalisms of different religions are actually remarkably similar, despite the differences in the religions themselves.

    Since the idea of a head-to-toe garment is a natural extension of modesty teachings, and since an actual head-to-toe garment for women does exist in our world, and is called a burqa, it is not unreasonable for this garment to be mentioned in discussions of Christian fundamentalist modesty teachings. The blog poster could have written, “What’s next? A head-to-toe garment covering women completely?” But why do that when the name “burqua” is already right there?

    That said, if you have some other reason why Christians protesting fundamentalism shouldn’t talk about burqas, I’d be interested to hear it. The reason you’re giving isn’t resonating with me.

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