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The nun and the burqa

the nun: charcoal drawing, Flickr image by freeparkingWhen Germaine Greer savaged Michelle Obama's dress in The Guardian I sighed. Again with the clothes! I got to thinking about feminism and fashion.

I live in France and one of the main cultural barriers is my Australian sense of dress — slobby and untamed. I often catch glimpses of sympathy from villagers as I lob up the street in 'male' clothes, i.e. Blundstones and jeans.

Admittedly, I find French fashion oppressive. The Sunday markets in the posh village near us are riddled with women in tight white pant suits, fake tan, gold bling and violently spiked heels. The uniform is completed by a ciggie hanging off one hand and a small dog tucked under the other. Plastic surgery is rife — faces like melted masks, with no laugh or grief lines and lips bursting out like helium balloons.

The predatory 'beauty' market is a challenge to feminism, and I resent the capitalist industry that drains money and energy from women by promising to transform them into mannequins.

In summer two extremes of fashion ideology — burqas and mannequins — line up at the market to buy bread. Many Saudi Arabian families come to this region for holidays. burqas, some diamond encrusted with Chanel markings, can be seen flying around as women pick out peaches from the stalls. The fabric drapes over the cobblestones as if claiming possession, and wings of fabric are nothing but graceful.

Burqas can be confronting as images of the Taliban come to mind, but I am distrustful of my own fear. These links, made in the subconscious and fed by the media, demand rigorous interrogation.

As my daggy clothes brush against burqas while we wander through the markets together, I'm well aware that my refusal to partake in French fashion doesn't affect me much. In the middle of 2008 France denied citizenship to a woman because her values were incompatible with laïcité, the principle of the secular State.

The Conseil d'Etat rejected Silmi Faiza's application because of her presumed subservience to her husband and her reclusive lifestyle. The evidence to illustrate her inability to assimilate French values, particularly equality of the sexes, was her refusal to give up wearing the burqa. As her husband and three children were already French, Faiza is the only member of her family denied citizenship. Equality of the sexes?

When the decision to reject Faiza's application for citizenship hit the media, strict Islamic dress codes were equated with radical Islamic values. One blogger claimed the burqa was a contemporary swastika. The case raised a plethora of issues: the compatibility of the secular state with religious practise, the use of the law to impose civic values and how equality of the sexes is defined.

If you took a substantive rather than formal view of equality of the sexes, it would be easy to equate plastic surgery consumers as proponents of commodifying capitalism. You could construct an argument that these 'mannequins' are incapable of assimilating in a state that upholds real equality of the sexes.

This argument would be howled down but is it all that far fetched? Faiza consented to the burqa, claiming no one forced it on her. Many consumers of plastic surgery decry the claim that they do it for the male gaze. 'It's for me,' is the common call.

Where plastic surgery consumers brandish their choice to be objectified, the burqa can be used to hide from it. Both are possible reactions to the male gaze, and they equally stir the disquiet of many feminists.

Whether or not the burqa is oppressive is contestable. But that aside, the State is opening a Pandora's Box if it presumes it can get under the fabric/skin of those it believes have consented to their own oppression.

Anyone who has worked with victims of domestic violence knows that it's problematic to question an adult's capacity to determine their own life. Free choice, a cornerstone of liberty, can be an insurmountable barrier when you're desperate to save a woman's life by convincing her to flee a lethal relationship, but she refuses to budge.

The State doesn't force women living with domestic violence to leave home, because its ingrained respect for individual consent is paramount in civil law and is embedded into Western cultural norms.

Issues of consensual oppression are difficult to adjudicate. Any democratic State that assumes a capacity to see though layers of culture, social conditioning and freedom of choice faces contradictions and accusations of totalitarian tendencies. Is a reclusive life inherently oppressive? How does one measure subservience? By your clothes?

Following the logic of the Conseil d'Etat inane analogies are all too easy. I wonder how a fully garbed nun, living a reclusive life of prayer and consenting to the authority of a male Pope/Bishop, would fare. I doubt the nun would be refused citizenship.

So I wonder if this decision epitomises French fear of Islamic religious practises, rather than an issue of equality of the sexes. As with the nun's garb, beneath the burqa, plastic surgery and my own 'men's clothes' are flesh and blood women who, regardless of their feminist position, religious practises and cultural choices, are entitled to equal access to the law and its resultant protection.

It's all too easy to create a victim and then pick on her clothes. And Germaine, leave Michelle alone.

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay lives with her family in rural France. She is enrolled in a Masters of English Literature at the University of Geneva and is working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a legal aid lawyer in Australia with post-graduate qualifications in political theory.

Topic tags: bronwyn lay, the nun and the burqa, plastic surgery, feminism, Silmi Faiza, Conseil d'Etat



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Existing comments

Hooray for some sense - what you think you see is not always so. And let's ditch the easy option of criticism of the superficial - there's too much of substance needing change in our fractured world. Has Germaine sold out to style over substance?

Hilary | 02 December 2008  

Wonderful article sister.
I woke up today to face another morning of disapproving stares and resentful glances. At the kinder, in the parking lot, while walking. Your words were like 'cold water splashed onto my heart' – an Arabic proverb meaning I loved your article.
Maybe I am just paranoid. Maybe I am being supersensitive. But it seems too coincidental that I happen to get silly remarks about my background, cold stares and disapproving head shakes on a regular basis. On my low days, when my confidence is taking a break, I feel sometimes a desire to place a great big burqa on everything around me so that I don't get to see their painful expressions. I can't help it if I am shy and introvert by nature, or that I was going through post natal depression and couldn’t get myself to make small talk at the mother’s group, or that I suck at parking and get myself stuck in strange car parking situations. It's not because I wear the hijab. It's just me. I just wish they quit judging me by the rag I wear or by my husband’s rough Middle Eastern look. He is really as gentle as a lamb. And for the record (I hope he doesn’t get to read this) you should feel sorry for him rather than me because I am the control freak in the family.

Melbournian | 02 December 2008  

Good points well made. I do so enjoy reading such prose. Thank you Bronwyn.

Ern Azzopardi | 02 December 2008  

Lovely to read.
And without any denial or rebuttal a word about nun's apparel:

The nun's habit allows a particular freedom of movement and gives an ability to work in intimate situations [counselling, nursing, community development] with a much lessened risk of sexual 'advances' or confusions. The habit can allow a nun to move in complex and dangerous situations [eg war]. And to work closely as organisers with men. It's rather practical and liberating.

I have been working in a particular cross cultural context as a counsellor with men who sometimes have strange attitudes to women. Sometimes I wish I had a 'habit'. Disembodiment can be helpful in these relationships.

I am hoping that the oppression from the secular west toward people with religious beliefs has peaked at this period in time.

margaret | 02 December 2008  

You raise some good points Bronwyn. In my spare time (two minutes a day) I am writing on the same issue. My thesis is called 'The Invisible Burqa'. I draw analogies between the burqa and other forms of 'invisible' oppression such as make up, fashion, the nuns veil, the marginal role for women in organised religion etc etc.

But I have to say that when I see a women walking down a Queensland street in 36 degrees of heat, covered from head to toe in black and following a male wearing more practical cloths, I cannot help but feel frustrated and sad. I can't help feeling that something is terribly wrong with this practice.

Our conservative political sphere readily produces knee-jerk reactions to the presentation of social problems, but what we need is measured, creative solutions, and a forward-thinking agenda for the future status of women.

Women learn at a very young age that society (the male gaze is not just the property of males and should not be confused with the male sex who benefts most from it)wants them to cover up their opinions, their appearance, their ambitions, their desires.

Don't just say no, do no.

david akenson | 02 December 2008  

An intelligent and beautifully written article. Thank you, Browyn, and good luck with the novel.

Trish Taylor | 02 December 2008  

Thank you for the insight and the simple beauty with which you express it, Bronwyn.

Anna McCormack | 02 December 2008  

Why do your readers need to know that Bronwyn is enrolled in a Masters of English Literature at the University of Geneva and is working on her first novel? That description could, in a less specific way, be ascribed to most young emerging litterateurs.
Couldn't Bronwyn be allowed to be herself dressed as an Aussie dag? Isn't it enough that the authentic French villagers give her the sympathy and approval that is in their gift to give? The French are kind, generous and tolerant. Bronwyn is a very charming and attractive young woman. She doesn't need to become the 'enfant terrible' of French-Australian letters to be published.

Claude Rigney | 03 December 2008  

Always amazed that people confuse the cultural for the religous. The burqua, the nun's habit et al are cultural forms of dress, not intrinsic to the religion.
A safe presumption is one of free will, that it is their choice of dress because of religous belief and cultural conditioning.
A great Australian value is the herd mentality: we frown at any expression of individuality that strays too far from the norm.

Jonah Bones | 03 December 2008  

Great commentary Bronwyn. When I read Greer's comment I did wonder if she had decided she had made enough of a contribution to feminist critique and was now vying for a fashion editors role in the weekly gossip mag to see out her retirement!

My next thought was - since when did Greer earn the right to comment on other women's clothes - she's not exactly a fashion plate herself...

Well anyway, Bronwyn I'm glad someone took the time to turn their outrage at Greer's vacuous commentary into a constructive and intelligent critique - excellent.

Susie | 04 December 2008  

Another excellent article, Bronwyn. Add me to your growing list of fans.

I'm actually opposed to women wearing burqas - meaning those full burqas that cut off all peripheral vision. This is the first 'pro burqa"'article I've read that made any sense at all.

And as for Germaine, she's been away from Australia too long, is the best interpretation I can put on many of her recent statements.

Kate Juliff | 05 December 2008  

Interesting, thank you.

The French defend the secular state vigorously it seems. I think this is a good thing.

It is not just fear of Islamic practices but fear of all religion. The Secular state must be defended from religion at all costs.

Trevor | 06 December 2008  

Excellent article Bronwyn. Sensible and informative and coming from the perspective of an Oz woman living in France extra insight. Do French people know what a 'dag' is?

wendy ratawa | 08 December 2008  

Very interesting analysis of rights and equality in regards feminist perspectives.As a male ( -partially reconstructed) I have had one needling inspiration in reponse to the whole burka 'issue' and debate - repaint Nolan's Ned kelly peering through a burka instead of the iconic mask slits ! Isn't it conventions only that we are really preparing to challenge in these debates? I like the point made that how a particular individuals equality and rights can be distorted - and do ultimately require that societies hold an obligation and onus to closely check and respect the same - particularly as individuals are vulnerable ultimately to both social status and power relationships ongoing.

Emil Vanderzee | 10 December 2008  

I thought Michelle Obama looked beautiful.

Marilyn | 11 December 2008  

Wonderful article. Though, when I see a burqa, I cannot help but remember mine and my family suffering during the Lebanese war. We were driven out of our homes and land for not being muslims. Long before I was born, my grandparents suffered of the same kind of persecution. At the present moment, the Iraqi and African Christians are enduring the same fate. When I see a burqa, I certainly gaze and think.

Sydneysider | 13 December 2008  


Christine Hall | 13 December 2008  

I agree that the apparent obsession of the French with such matters as head scarves [forget about burquas] is a poor reflection on their capacity to deal with really divisive matters in France. But this article is misleading in implying that the court refused citizenship to Silmi Faiza solely because of her dress. According to the Guardian [8/8], and detailed coverage in the French press, there were a range of reasons cited, including her apparent ignorance of the right to vote.

bernard slattery | 15 December 2008  

The personal is political.

we are all responsible for our choices in life, be it burqa, facelift, or blundstone boots. Patriarchy the male gaze or equality, Germain has made it a life time study, she is well versed, so listen up.

elizabeth kos | 17 December 2008  

It's almost a year since this article was published, but I can't help myself - I have to comment. When I heard about the grounds on which Silmi Faiza was refused French citizenship my comment was, "Well what do you expect? It's the country that had the French Revolution. How much sense did that make?"

Paul Smith | 12 November 2009  

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