Tuesday, April 12

Banning the veil shows contempt for women

Real feminism respects women's autonomy. It does not force them to reveal their face.

When it comes to feminism, Muslim women and prostitutes have a lot in common. They stand on either extreme of the feminine ideal and are subsequently punished for it by a society which thinks it knows what's best for them.

It first struck me when Harriet Harman, then the equalities minister, brought forward proposals on sex workers. As I customarily do when this issue comes up, I phoned my contact at the International Union of Sex Workers. The union is run by sex workers and it's a good port of call if you want to find out what the impact of a policy will be on the actual women on the street.

It's more than Harman did. The union was not invited to consultation on the proposals. Neither was any other sex worker or their representatives. Harman, a professed feminist, evidently did not consider them worthy of conversation. It's unthinkable for any other segment of society for a law to be passed without some consultation with the people involved. In the end, Harman's proposals, which further criminalised the profession, forced prostitutes into ever more dangerous situations to ply their trade.

Today, France banned the wearing of the veil in public, with fines and compulsory citizenship courses for those Muslim women who rebel. The move has caused very little controversy in France, where president Nicolas Sarkozy is rowing frantically rightwards as opinion polls show the fascist National Front in the lead in the upcoming elections. France is generally much more comfortable with government interference than Britain or the US. For a country so close, its political culture is radically different. Just last year there was a mass deportation of gypsies.

Most Brits are entirely uninterested in French politics, but this move merits comment, because it is the first time a European country has done it. The wave of Islamophobia sweeping Europe, from Switzerland to Holland, pays careful attention to what is going on around it. As one of the most influential countries in Europe, the French policy will likely trigger calls for a similar move elsewhere, not least in the UK, where parties like Ukip jump on news stories like this to push the political discourse in a more authoritarian direction.

In both cases, women are being told what's good for them, usually by other women - be it Harman in Britain or Muslim feminist Sihem Habshi in France, who has worked closely with Sarkozy to ban the veil. Typically, they justify themselves by saying that they are trying to protect women from being forced into wearing the veil or becoming a prostitute by others. These moves are necessary to protect women, they tell us.

This is not a difficult argument to disprove and I will do it thus: we already have laws against that. In the case of France, it was passed together with the ban, making the argument refutable on an instant basis - a rather enjoyable luxury. As of today, it is a criminal offence to force women to cover their face in France, punishable by up to two years in jail. In the case of prostitution, there are plenty of laws against forcing a woman into sex work. Pimping itself, which falls short of coercion, is illegal in the UK. It's even illegal for a man to sleep with a 'forced' prostitute, regardless of whether he knows that she is being controlled or not.

It is right to stop women being forced to wear the veil or to become a prostitute. It is a moral and logical position to adopt. No-one is free to take away someone else's freedom. But the very existence of these laws proves that the approach to prostitution and the veil is not to protect women from others, but to protect them from themselves. Otherwise, they would be superfluous.

In both cases these women are contradicting the ideals of feminism. They are either denying their individuality and sexuality or they are making material gain from it. The response of many feminists, and the state, has been to categorise them as second-class citizens. They have been denied their autonomy. Their decision has been branded invalid because it does not fit the discourse.

There can be no respect for women where we don't respect their autonomy. I don't approve of the veil and I have plenty of hate mail from Muslims after my previous piece on the subject to prove it. Neither do I particularly approve of prostitution. But I do respect women's right to have control over their body and their dress.

The attack on prostitution and the ban on the veil both originate from the same place: a feminist ideal which attempts to superimpose an idealised and political femininity on all women. You can just imagine how some of them feel. The men in their family force them to wear the veil. Sarkozy forces them not to. Somewhere underneath all that politics their voice is completely lost. It has become irrelevant. What could be more disrespectful to women than that?Link


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