Hiding Behind the Burka

August 15, 2010 at 6:56 pm Leave a comment

Roughly one month ago France passed into law a ban on the burka. The burka is a light, loose garment worn over a woman’s clothing that also covers her head, hair and face. A Muslim woman wears this in public when she will be seen by any man who is not her spouse or close blood relative. Only her eyes and her hands can be seen. This, some Muslims feel, maintains their requirement of hijab, a quality of personal modesty that is an imperative of all Muslims, both male and female.

Although all Muslims are required to observe hijab, not all Muslims feel that a burka is needed. The burka tends to be worn mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in rural areas of Muslim countries that are controlled by rigidly fundamentalist offshoots of Islam, such as, oh, The Taliban, for instance. Not all Muslims observe the custom of the burka any more than all Christians are Amish or all Jews Hasidic. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, then you can see several examples of the burka in HBO’s horrid Sex and the City movie sequel.

The ban of the burka in France is the culmination of a complex issue stemming from a history of colonialism, racism, and the exploitation of cheap labor. We as Americans tend to think of the French as being a very progressive society with regards to race relations. Indeed, many American black artists were very successful in France, where they were treated as equals by the French in a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws were still being enforced here. Both Josephine Baker and Quincy Jones spent considerable time in France.

France, like any other European nation of any power and political might, had occupied territories throughout the globe, from the 1600s through the middle of the last century. For example, the French colonized parts of Canada and America. And as a general rule, they were much more egalitarian in their relations with the Native Americans than their British counterparts, and later the white Americans.

Beginning in 1830 the French colonized parts of North Africa, including Algiers. Algiers is a predominantly Muslim nation. The country is racially Arabic. The French used Algiers as any nation who colonizes another will do. They exploited its natural resources, including its people for cheap labor. America has done the same. Think Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Panama.

With the advent of the first World War in 1914, French men were needed to fight but men were still needed to work in what was then a largely industrial economy. France imported Algerian laborers. The Algerian men found the working conditions and the living arrangements to be much more pleasant than in their native country, and a wave of immigration began. Large numbers of Algerians settled into French cities in pockets, like Little Italy or Chinatown. The French were happy to have the Algerians work for little money doing the sorts of difficult and menial jobs that they needed done but didn’t want to do, in much the same way as many Mexicans work in America now.

Prior to the French Revolution in 1789 the French economy was controlled by the nobility in a feudal system. Money was made primarily from agricultural concerns. After the revolution, France was an agrarian society and then, from the mid 1800s to the beginning of the last century, France was an industrialized nation. Now industrialized nations are shifting to service economies. Manufacturing jobs that created and sustained a prosperous middle class in America and many western European nations are being parceled away to developing states in Asia and Africa.

Given that it has now been almost a full century since the first wave of immigration began, many former Algerians have become naturalized French citizens. And three or four generations of Arabic men and women are native French people with just as much claim to be French as anyone of Gallic ancestry. The problem is that the Algerian-French are the minority in France. They are easily recognized as being physically different from their white countrymen. Prejudice abounds.

The biggest consequence of this bigotry is the preferential treatment given to “racially pure” French people when it comes to employment. The unemployment rate in France is currently 10%. This means that a lot of Algerian-French are currently unemployed. France is a socialized country, and they subsidize the unemployed like we give money to “welfare mothers” here in America, in order to sustain people who are unable to secure work and to ensure that they are still able to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

The French resent that the Algerian immigrants and the Algerian-French are a drain on their system. This attitude further debilitates the efforts of the Arabic to find employment, as most of the hiring for jobs is controlled by Gallic people.

This means that a lot of Algerian-French are restless and angry young men and women with a lot of time on their hands. What will happen when a people are collectively repressed? What happens when people feel like refugees in their own homeland? What happens to a people when they are denied equal opportunity, when they are denied a decent wage and an occupation that allows them to contribute to their society?  Well, if they’re anything like the French peasants in 1789, then they rebel.

The difference between the French peasants and the Algerian-French in this scenario is that the peasants outnumbered the nobility. They were able to secure a victory by the sheer force of their numbers. But when your oppressor is in the majority, you go all jihad on his ass. I’m not sanctioning terrorism. I’m just explaining the mindset behind this, the rationale.

The terrorists in France feel as if they have no power to affect change beyond tactics of fear. The problem is that they are just exacerbating the situation. And now large numbers of Algerian-French who would never think to attack a subway train with a suicide bomb or approve of such tactics are being tainted with the stain of the minority of those who are.

And this brings us full circle back to the ban on the burka. There are two reasons that are being cited for why the burka is being banned. Ostensibly, the French claim that the burka allows for a terrorist to conceal a bomb or other weapon more easily. The second reason why the French want to ban the burka has to do with women’s rights since they see the burka as an obvious attempt to subjugate Muslim women.

Well, if the French are banning the burka to prevent terrorism, they might as well ban trench coats and parade costumes while they’re at it. Why not pass a new law that all women have to walk around in lingerie and high heels whenever they’re in public? It would be pretty hard to conceal a weapon that way. And it would be difficult to run worth a damn in those heels.

As for the second reason why the burka is being banned in public: women’s rights. It’s easy for those of us in Western nations to look at the conditions of women in the majority of the world and reach a faulty conclusion that Islam is associated with all manner of evil towards women. The truth is that much of what we see in terms of the abuse and repression of women comes from the culture of that country and not from Islam itself. Islam in its inception was actually very progressive in its attitudes towards women, allowing them to keep their own property in a marriage, to own property, to inherit from their parents or spouses, to divorce their spouses, and even under certain conditions meant to ensure their safety, to work.

The burka could just as easily be seen as a sign of freedom as it is a sign of bondage. Women who wear it as a choice say that they are free to come and go as they wish without being stared at by men or being treated as a sexual object. I have to admit that there is something a little appealing in that, not enough to make me wear one, but I get it.

For those women who maybe don’t want to wear one but are made to wear them by their husbands or families, the burka can also be seen as a freedom. What is happening to all those women in France who either feel that the Q’uran commands them to wear a burka or are subject to the influence of men who feel that way? Do you think the husbands and fathers of these women suddenly changed their minds based on the ruling of a French parliament made up of secular humanists and Roman Catholics? Yeah, I don’t, either. I think those women are now literally trapped in their homes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The French have much more complex problems than that of a woman’s garment. To legislate what a woman can wear in public as if it’s any business of the government what a woman wears as long as her private parts aren’t exposed, seems obscene. Hell, in Austin, I can legally walk around topless if I want. I think France is a better country than this.

After all, they were smart enough to see through the second Iraq War before the majority of Americans caught on to the deception of our own President and his war profiteering buddies. They gave us the Statue of Liberty, and we wouldn’t have New Orleans if it weren’t for the French. They recognized the brilliance of Jackie Kennedy. They are the culinary measuring stick against which the cuisine of the rest of the world is held. And their President is married to a supermodel. C’mon, guys. You can do better than this.

If you want to just wet your feet a little as to the history of relations between the French and their Algerian immigrants, instead of doing the copious amounts of reading on the internet that I had to do in order to write this blog post for you, I recommend adding a French film called Cache, starring Juiette Binoche, to your Netflicks queue.


Entry filed under: Faith, Human Rights, Politics, Spirituality, Women's Rights. Tags: , , .

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