Politicising women's bodies

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Burqa, Flickr image by CharlesFredWomen's bodies have long been the site of robust political battles. Abortion, prostitution, contraception, virginity, modesty, childbirth: for millennia, policy-makers the world over have sought to influence these issues one way or another in the hope of shaping a society that most resembles their vision of perfection.

Simultaneously, women's bodies have long been used as canvasses on which cultural, religious and political expectations can find expression: bound feet for Chinese women, corsets for Victorians, unshaven armpits for feminists, shaitels for orthodox Jews, uninterrupted ovulation for Catholics, burqas for Muslims, suspenders for strippers, habits for nuns, breast implants for anyone who thinks they might enhance their feminine appeal.

Liberal democracies have tended to debate these and other manifestations of ideological influence with healthy vigour, tolerating practices they don't necessarily agree with (prostitution by drug-dependent women, arranged marriages) and disallowing those that are so harmful as to be indefensible (clitoridectomies, rape within marriage).

Until now, that is. With the call for the banning of the burqa in countries across Europe, common sense and the fundamentally democratic principles we associate with that continent have been shown the door. The nasty storm being whipped up against women who wear the burqa in public — and the men who apparently elicit this practice — is not just bigoted; it is an extraordinary display of hypocrisy, and an affront to women the world over.

In the latest lobby, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, German member of the European Parliament, has called for a Europe-wide ban on the wearing of the burqa, labelling it a 'massive attack on the rights of women'. The burqa, says Koch-Mehrin, 'is a mobile prison'.

But it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who threw the decisive, opening punch. His veiled prejudice notwithstanding, Sarkozy's condemnation of the 'anti-female' burqa would be so much easier to accept if only his own house were in order.

Burqas, he has said, 'do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threaten the dignity of women'. If this were really so — if female dignity was his reason for initiating the bill aimed at banning the wearing of the burqa in public in France — he would readily ensure that the dignity of all women was not threatened, undermined, manipulated or, at worst, thoroughly annihilated.

Of course, Sarkozy — president of a country in which women are sometimes objectified, trafficked, abused, degraded, forced into labour, sexually harassed, treated unequally and subtly humiliated — cannot deliver such an assurance. In France, as in Australia, the dignity of women is too often — and too deceptively — eroded: they are taught from an early age that their physical appearance is the pivot on which their success turns; many learn to accept infidelity as the norm, and others punish themselves with eating disorders, which are linked to self-esteem and, hence, dignity.

In her bestselling book French Women Don't Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano attributes this 'success' to 'the useful art of self-deception', which sees French women balancing the joy of eating with the social expectation that they will fit into the latest fashions and be attractive to their husbands. French men, Guiliano says, like their wives to be 'very elegant, very thin.'

So what is the difference, then, between wanting a thin wife, and wanting an invisible wife? Which is more democratic: the common western tendency to idealise the porn-star aesthetic, or the old-fashioned imperative for modesty and virtue? When the chips are down, is raunch culture really more dignifying than discretion? And do women who bare their slimline bodies actually feel more valued — more equal to men — than those who shield themselves from public view? Is the psychological aftermath any different for one group than the other?

While French women have every right to please their husbands by denying themselves food, Muslim women have the equivalent right to please their husbands by concealing their visages from a world that is — in their eyes — too voyeuristic for its own good. The objective observer needn't agree with either of these outwardly harmless philosophies, but in a self-proclaimed democratic society, he or she certainly needs to respect them.

And herein lies the rub: it is too late for France to position itself as a 'devoutly secular' country, impervious to religious enactments, in the way that Saudi Arabia is a self-professed Islamic country; and it is too ludicrous for France to claim the moral high ground when discussing the pressure and expectations that are applied to women. The mantra, Vive la difference, cannot suddenly be reversed under the thinly-veiled guise of 'female dignity', a concept which, in truth, is seldom fully upheld in any society, despite decades of lip service.

The call for the ban on the burqa is not a rallying cry against misogyny; it is, instead, a predictable knee-jerk reaction by those who fear Islamic fundamentalism. If only they were honest enough to say so.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist working for Jesuit Communications. 

Topic tags: Abortion, prostitution, contraception, virginity, modesty, childbirth, burqa, sarkozy, Silvana Koch-Mehrin

 

 

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Excellent points, but in the end Marshall's piece slides right away from the very issue I would guess most French people, and most citizens in the countries where this is a heated matter, really care about: where is the line between religious practice and secular citizenship? Is any religious practice necessarily to be respected by all citizens? If I invent a religion in which all children must for the greater glory of God lose one finger, is that legal? acceptable? I think maybe what bothers the citizenry is less fear of Islamic fundamentalism than rising annoyance that religious practice, however 'respectable' and 'traditional' inside the faith or silly and degrading outside it (women must be covered because they may cause temptation to men? does that make any serious sense?) seems to be more and more insistently injected into the public sphere. I write from the most hypocritical of countries in this matter, one which insists on the separation of church and state and happily has GOD written on its money (now there's an essay), but I think Marshall, in a deft piece of work, missed the elephant in the room.
Brian Doyle | 06 May 2010


instead of legislating for other people to dress against their beliefs, a quiet appeal to the islamic principle "there is no compulsion in religion" (La ikraha fiddin.) would have more chance of liberating muslim women, but it might not win a confrontationist politician any of the votes he seeks.
geoff fox | 06 May 2010


Whilst on the topic of the politicisation of women's bodies, the church is surely in the forefront with a denial of democratic access to the priesthood within its own organisation. The issue is a continuum of discrimination that has its origins in male dominated religions.
anne eagar | 06 May 2010


Do we have (m)any documented cases of westernised men beating or even killing their wives, sisters and daughters for being insufficiently thin?
Rod Blaine | 06 May 2010


Thank you for this well presented and thoughtful comment on this latest exercise in discrimination. I can recall a childhood experience when the Brown Joseph nuns were abused in the street for their habits --the lines are thin.
mary sheehan | 06 May 2010


You should be a journalist and you should have a bigger audience instead of preaching to the already converted; but the bigger newspapers are hypocrites with their own agenda which has nothing to do with reporting the truth. Their agenda is "sex sells" to the ignorant masses so lets keep the masses ignorant and afraid.
Greig Williams | 06 May 2010


Bravo! ...keenly perceptive.
Bob GROVES | 06 May 2010


"the call for the ban on the burqa" is .....

complete the above phrase with whatever prejudice you may have.

I happen to agree with Catherine that fear of Islamic fundamentalism plays a part in the ban the burqa campaign - but only a part.

Unfortunately that fear has been exploited by politicians, security analysts, religious bigots, and the like who wittingly or unwittingly use our (or their own) inherent uneasiness when confronted by "the different" to push their cause. And what difference is most fundamental to human nature? The difference between man and woman.
So while I agree with Catherine's last paragraph it is by no means the whole story, which has its mythical origin in the third chapter of Genesis.
Uncle Pat | 06 May 2010


Firstly, the fight against abortion is not a battle over women's bodies. It is a battle for the tiny human body growing inside the woman's body.

Secondly, Ms Marshall's argument contains a major flaw regarding democracy and Islam. She states that a person's right to be thin or cover up should be respected in a "self proclaimed democratic society". I agree with her here. However, Islam does not.

In Islam the ultimate authority it the Koran. No pious Muslim will accept the rules of a democracy, a human construct after all, over the revelations of Allah himself.

Therefore when the Koran states, Surah 4 - Women (Al Nisa) verse 34: "Men have authority over women because God has made /the/ one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them (hymen). As for those from whom you fear disobediance, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you take no further action against them. God is high, supreme." (Koran translation by N.J. Dawood, Penguin Classics)

In pure Islam, women don't have the right not to wear the burqa. They wear what their husbands tell them to.
Patrick James | 06 May 2010


I trust it's self-evident that Patrick James' habit of quoting passages from the Koran out of any kind of scriptural or historical or cultural context does not constitute an educated and sustained argument against Islam. It's easy to quote the Bible in support of anti-Christian prejudices too.
Charles Boy | 06 May 2010


> "It's easy to quote the Bible in support of anti-Christian prejudices too."

This can, unfortunately, turn into something of a pea-and-thimble game. Eg:

"In many Islamic cultures, young women get their clitorises amputated at puberty."

"Oh, but that's not in the Quran. That's just cultural. Muslims happen to do it, but that's not part of Islam."

"Very well. Here's an example of a passage from the Koran..."

"Oh, but that may not be what Muslims actually do. Jews and Christians have some pretty bloodcurdling scriptures too.."

So the pea is never under the thimble you pick. No matter what the Quran says, and no matter what Muslims actually do, there is never a "problem with Islam."
Rod Blaine | 06 May 2010


Charles Boy, I have heard the "out of context" defence many times. In this instance it just does not apply.

Enter "Wife beating Islam" into a youtube search. Watch any of the first six clips. You will find Islamic clerics, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, all quoting the very verse that I have quoted.

The only "context" any of them enter into is how to administer the beating. They should be "light". You are not permitted to break bones, cause bruising or bleeding. You are not to touch the face. (That should be a real comfort to the sisterhood!)

You would also further notice how many of the clerics say that men have authority over their wives. The wives are meant to obey.

You cannot excuse your laziness in answering my post by saying that my arguments' flaws are "self-evident". Try offering something of substance to counter what I wrote.

Finally, I will be glad to stop quoting from the Koran when Muslim fanatics stop quoting from it to justify their bigotry, hatred and supremacist agenda.

Please note I use "fanatics" advisedly. I know several Muslims myself, and know of more, who are decent, ordinary people, just living their lives.
Patrick James | 06 May 2010


I'm glad to hear you draw the distinction between fanaticism and moderate Islam, Patrick James. There are of course also plenty of Christian fanatics/fundamentalists who are prone to the odd diatribe, and quite a few who promote violence either physical or otherwise against those who don't fit their moral cookie cutter. We don't assume that they are representative of all Christians though. Just be aware that if you swipe too broadly and too wildly, you risk tarring your Muslim friends with the same brush that you use against the fanatics.
Charles Boy | 06 May 2010


I think Catherine Marshall's article offers insightful perspectives, especially for men to think about. And she is entitled to characterise the battles over all the issues she mentioned any way she likes. That's the point we have to appreciate if we wish to have any chance of seeing anything from another's point of view.

No matter what one's view of abortion is, the woman, in and with and through her body are affected in ways no man can ever be and no developing embryo can properly be said to be aware. Perhaps Catherine's perspective will only be appreciated in a world where women are constantly on the sexual make for men, where men are discouraged from venturing beyond certain narrow occupations, are constantly judged in advertising on their looks, pestered to wear either uncomfortably modest or embarassingly immodest attire and have compulsory womb implants to which all conceptions from any engagement in intercourse are transferred for incubation. I think we have to start thinking about how others see things, on all subjects.
Stephen Kellett | 06 May 2010


Brilliant!
spiritedcrone | 06 May 2010


Charles Boy, I found your exchange with Patrick James most interesting. In all that you have said in reply to his posts, you did not challenge his original point. That is that the Koran sanctions the beating of wives who disobey their husbands.

As the argument stands thus far, Patrick James's contention that it does, has not been disproven.

Would you please point out some of these Christian fundamentalists who preach violence and use Christianity's sacred texts to justify their actions?

I would suspect it is easy to prove that their views are a perversion of what Christ reportedly said and did. To prove that violence done in the name of Islam is a perversion of Mohammed's message and example is somewheat more problematic.
Timothy Scully | 06 May 2010


Paris, France has a law stating that women cannot wear pants in public.

http://thegloss.com/fashion/women-of-paris-will-soon-be-able-to-legally-wear-pants/
kh | 06 May 2010


Thank you Patrick James, for standing up in the defense of the tiny human body growing inside the woman's body. Having read your article, I know that you have a very good knowledge of the Koran. Sadly, not many Christians are aware what the Koran teaches, in regards to women and the infidels. Too many Christians have been brainwashed to believe that the religion of Islam is just as good as Christianity, they forget, Our Lord's command "My commandment is this: Love one another, just as I love you" (John 15-12). Please, Patrick keep up the good work, Catholics should know what the Koran teaches.
Ron Cini | 06 May 2010


Timothy, I found your response to Charles Boy unduly dismissive. Charles can make his own response but one reason that I can think of for not challenging Patrick's assertion that the Koran sanctioned violence is that in the context of Catherine's article - which is focusing on the woman's perspective - it doesn't take us anywhere. So the Islamic sacred text says things which we today may not countenance. So? Don't all sacred texts? Words have to be interpreted, and there will undoubtedly be as many literalist interpreters in Islam as there are amongst Christians, and non-literalists as well. Patrick says he knows some decent Muslims, so what does that tell you? Or were you really wanting just to say that Islam is bad? With all due respect, Timothy, if someone wants to know how Islam is to be understood and experienced, they're better off asking a Muslim.
Stephen Kellett | 06 May 2010


The political headline for proposed legislation is sometimes formed by desire for simplicity & ease of passage. I suspect promoting the ban on Burqas as solely a defense of women's rights maybe driven by such a Machiavellian principle. I don't believe however that it is to disguise a fear of Islam.

I suspect that many people see the Burqa as a potent symbol of a violent, intolerant & fascist culture. The Burqa is not widespread in the Islamic world, but the regions where it is dominant or obligatory are violent, intolerant and exemplars of fascist theocracies. There is nothing wrong with a society forming a view that something is offensive and should be removed. Whether you agree it is offensive or not is another issue. Whether there are a diversity of views as to why it is offensive is also another issue. But any government has the right to make a judgment that for most of their citizens the Burqa is an unnecessary affront.

I don’t believe our societies or the individuals who constitute them are sufficiently simple that good policy decisions can be based on a single principal such as the right to freedom of cultural expression. I have no idea what a society that was optimized by such an approach would look like and nobody does.

Thinness is not a comparably potent symbol, and those offended by the Burqa are not necessarily hypocrites who are afraid of Islam. Ms Marshall’s argument seems to circle rather than address the complexities of this issue.
Gary Flynn | 06 May 2010


Stephen, you imagine that Islam applies Western standards of literary criticism and interpretation. It does not. It is standard Islamic teaching that the Koran is valid for all times and all places. It can not be interpreted as it is Allah's very own words. Therefore the Koran does countenance wife-beating.

Your direct question about whether I want to say simply that Islam is bad was perceptive. It gets to the nub of the issue. To answer it, let me cite a fatwa from Al Azhar University, regarded by many as the premier institute for Islamic scholarship. The fatwa was issued in 1978. (Here is the link http://www.faithfreedom.org/content/al-azhar-issues-death-fatwa-apostates) The fatwa in part reads.

"A man whose religion was Islam and his nationality is Egyptian married a German Christian and the couple agreed that the husband would join the Christian faith and doctrine.
1) What is the Islamic ruling in relation to this man? What are the punishments prescribed for this act?

...This man has committed apostasy; he must be given a chance to repent and if he does not then he must be killed according to Shariah."

Is Islam bad, Stephen? Draw your own conclusions.
Timothy Scully | 07 May 2010


Stephen, you imagine that Islam applies Western standards of literary criticism and interpretation. It does not. It is standard Islamic teaching that the Koran is valid for all times and all places. It can not be interpreted as it is Allah's very own words. Therefore the Koran does countenance wife-beating.

Your direct question about whether I want to say simply that Islam is bad was perceptive. It gets to the nub of the issue. To answer it, let me cite a fatwa from Al Azhar University, regarded by many as the premier institute for Islamic scholarship. The fatwa was issued in 1978. (Here is the link http://www.faithfreedom.org/content/al-azhar-issues-death-fatwa-apostates) The fatwa in part reads.

"A man whose religion was Islam and his nationality is Egyptian married a German Christian and the couple agreed that the husband would join the Christian faith and doctrine.
1) What is the Islamic ruling in relation to this man? What are the punishments prescribed for this act?

...This man has committed apostasy; he must be given a chance to repent and if he does not then he must be killed according to Shariah."

Is Islam bad, Stephen? Draw your own conclusions.
Timothy Scully | 07 May 2010


Timothy, I certainly draw the conclusion that you think Islam is bad. From your example of a university fatwah I also infer that you think that all Muslims are in as much thrall to such literalists and Shariists, as those Catholics are who love to cite chapter and verse of every Papal pronouncement. I certainly cannot agree with your implication that Muslims cannot interpret the Koran or that they are all literalists.

You only have to read books written by Muslims to see that they engage in gloss and interpretation, even if you do not recognise common modern literary critical methods being employed. Mehmet Olzap, "101 Questions You Asked About Islam", Brandl & Schlesinger 2004 is one such accessible reference an invincibly convinced Christian might find corrective or enlightening or both.
Stephen Kellett | 07 May 2010


Stephen, thanks for your replies. I will make this my last word on the issue as I don't see either of us changing our views.

Yes, I think that Islam is bad. No, I don't mean to imply that all Muslims are in thrall to a literal reading of the Koran. Thankfully they are not. However, there is a sufficiently large number of Muslims in the world who do follow a literal reading of the Koran.

Amongst their number were the ones who flew planes into skyscrapers in New York a few years back. They also shot up Mumbai last year. One murdered Theo Van Gough in Holland. In Western countries many ex-Muslims live in fear or in hiding because Muslims of a literal bent agree with the fatwa I cited.

They all refer to the Koran to justify what they do. Whether their literal reading of the Koran is correct (as I think it to be) or not is irrelevant. As they do read it literally, they pose a grave danger to our security and Western society itself.

And finally, have you seen any papal fanatics blowing themselves and innocent bystanders up lately? Let me know if you do, and I'll rush back for another look at those Papal pronouncements.
Timothy Scully | 07 May 2010


Timothy, I thank you for your replies too.
Stephen Kellett | 07 May 2010


"While French women have every right to please their husbands by denying themselves food, Muslim women have the equivalent right to please their husbands by concealing their visages . . ."

Not so. While (non-Muslim) French women do indeed have the right to deny themselves food, in many Islamic communities Muslim women have no such equivalent right.

They're taught to be subservient to men and they conceal their visages because their husbands oblige them to.





Gordon rowland | 07 May 2010


A conspiracy of commercial agendas is teaching young women magazine readers that a) your flawless face is achievable but only with my expensive cosmetics b) that personal success is achieved not through intellectual rigour or commitment to the common good, but with a skinny shape achieved by hard gym work and diet and c) that cosmetic surgery is not painful and dangerous but a legitimate perfecting indulgence for your middle years.

Marshall may wish to follow up this sinister anti feminist stance that denigrates a woman's dignity, whether covertly in propaganda for all consuming fashion or overtly as in 'banning' the dress choice of devout Muslim women. Thank you for opening the exchange!
Molly | 07 May 2010


What can you expect from someone who works for Jesuit Communications? Surely not liberation of women, equality to men. Have you ever noticed that 90% of muslim men in Western countries do NOT wear traditional clothes???
Has it escaped you that "modern" Muslims are taken aback by these "habits" too? That they do not understand that Western Countries resp. their cowardly politicians do support the burqa prison??
The burqa, the hidjab and all of these black, women neutralizing layers cloths is a prison, indeed. It makes women non-existant, degrades them to unpersonal dark bundles.
And, you speak of "giving pleasure" to their husbands!
Is it also pleasure to hide because your younger brother, son, brother-in-law or father-in law forces you to wear that crap??
Yuk....
NO woman with all her senses in Europe will ever refuse to eat enough because of her husband! Look around: 50% of the Western population is FAT, the percentage of model type women is neglectable.
So far for joice and joy of pleasing men - Christian or Muslim ones.

My advice for any protectors of the burqa "habit", in which country ever: Try to live your daily life for one week wearing a burqa, especially in summer, in a cafe,in a restaurant, on an escalator, carrying a baby.
And: NEVER get sun on your body and skin - these women suffer physically from lack of light on their bodies!
Allex Wilma | 08 May 2010


Stephen in one of your posts you wrote. "And she (Catherine Marshall) is entitled to characterise the battles over all the issues she mentioned any way she likes."

I agree with this. However, as a writer employed by the Jesuits, an order of the Catholic Church, I would have hoped that her views on abortion were in line with the Church's teachings. If they are not, then I would question the wisdom of her writing for a supposedly Catholic online journal.
John Ryan | 08 May 2010


i have no trouble with Islamic women wearing the burqa; we are all individuals and they should be left alone about it.
they're not hurting anyone by wearing it

rhonda danylenko | 08 May 2010


John, I hope you didn't infer from anything I said what Catherine Marshall's views on abortion or any of the other subjects she listed in her second sentence were. I certainly didn't represent or intend to imply any view. She didn't say anything about this: her article only concerned the French anti-burqa policy and the contradiction or hypocrisy she sees in the policy when set against a litany of controversies waged on the battleground of women's bodies.

It was an earlier poster Patrick who objected to Catherine including abortion in that list of issues and it was I who defended such characterisation in reply in the interests of urging men to seriously consider as far as they ever can how such issues may be viewed and experienced by women. No-one ought to presume on anyone's view unless he or she expresses it.

All that aside, I would find it disturbing and futile respectively if the only articles and the only responses one could ever read in a Catholic journal were those which did not challenge us to think outside our squares.
Stephen Kellett | 08 May 2010


Marshall's article is motivated more by dislike of Coalition politicians like Cory Bernardi than concern for women. Women in burqas are impeded in running, cycling, swimming. Having lived in Muslim-majority provinces in India I know the cruelty involved in being imprisoned in burqs - we would not allow animals to be caged like this. Women in burqas are estranged from the world, we cannot see their smiles, they cannot feel the sun on their limbs or the breeze on their faces and hair. They suffer Vitamin D deficiency and the associated bone ill-health.

Prisoners behind bars are from free than women in burqas - at least they can exercise without being caged in voluminous tents, they can talk to men such as their lawyers, doctors, guards. The clerics at Al Azhar university in Egypt, the second oldest university in Egypt with a history as a Madrassa that goes back to 970 have called for a ban on the burqa on campus, and the president of the Muslim Women's National Network of Australia, Aziza Abdel-Halim, endorsed the call for the burqa to be banned in public.

Eureka Street wants women imprisoned in burqas - although I bet you buy cage-free eggs!


Babette Francis | 12 May 2010


There are many good and interesting points above. But just on the issue of law and saftey. I am of the undstanding it is against the law to where my motor bike helmet in a petrol station. By the same measure you could prohibit the use of these garments in areas where they are prone to misuse.
All women are good at adapting and I am sure Islamic women would work out away around it. It may also mean certain services may have to adapt to look after there customers.

I think it is important that civilians are protected and criminals are brought to justice.

And yes, law on how LITTLE you can wear may need a look at too!

cara Harris | 13 May 2010


Very good points, I disagree with the comparison of thin women and burqa, it is more degrading to a woman if their face is covered. Also even though we live in a western country, there are still muslim extremists that live here and think of themselves as superior to their wives, and so these women are forced to wear the burqa.
woman with a opinion | 25 May 2010


This is man made stuff. not God 'stuff" are they going to ban Nuns wearing their traditional habits. at least those who still wear them. I think most men would prefer their women folk to dress modestly ok old fashioned but true. women who bare everything have low self esteem or are very young and foolish and then there is the mutton dressed as lamb in the end it is what is in our hearts that matters.
irena | 17 February 2011


One of your emails mentions the Koran telling women must obey their husbands etc. My father a very strict Catholic 93 years old tells me and my mother that respectable women defer to their husband and head of the house my mother and I look at each other and smile.i am 63 mum is 88 years young. I am a carer for them despite being a widow and having children of my own and grandchildren I still have to obey with great reluctance mind you.so its not just muslim women who have to to the line. may be its only old Polish men I don't know about Australian so callled devout catholics I think the hard liners would like this to be still the norm.
irena | 17 February 2011


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