Okay, so right now, the French legislature is discussing a law that would ban burqas outright in France. Their opinion is that the burqa is degrading and a "prison" for women. And since the burqa is, within Islamic cultures, a way for men to oppress the women under their authority, they're right. Right? As a feminist, I completely support the law, right?
Not so much, in fact.
A comment on costuming and choice: I have several times remarked on the traditional intra-feminism debate about makeup, high heels, and other "costumes of the patriarchy." My feeling is that if I allow someone else to influence my choices, I’m doin it rong. If I wear makeup purely because patriarchal beauty standards demand it, I’m giving up my choice. If I go without makeup purely as a middle finger to the patriarchy and their oppressive beauty standards, I’m still letting them dictate the way I dress. The only way to really embrace choice is to just wear what makes me comfortable.
Now, burqas are obviously oppressive as hell. They're based in several fairly reprehensible concepts, one being that a woman's body is inherently sexualized and tempting and thus must be covered head to toe in yards and yards of fabric (the legislature refers to the burqa, but comments from French president Nicholas Sarkozy indicate that he has in mind the chadri, which has netting over the eyes) to spare men from the temptation of looking at them. The oppression is both societal and physical, because damn, that's a lot of fabric.
But strange as it sounds, none of that means that wearing the burqa can't be a choice. There are women - and I don't know the percentage relative to the entire burqa-wearing population - who wear it voluntarily. Some wear it as a way to avoid the male gaze; some of them wear it as a voluntary expression of or devotion to their faith. My feeling is that a faith that requires a woman to completely hide her entire body is oppressive in and of itself, at least in that respect, but the problem there is with the religion and not with the women who choose to follow it.
The reasoning - the purported reasoning - behind the ban is that if women aren't allowed to go outside in the burqa, they'll just go outside without the burqa instead. But I'm trying to figure out how many times that will happen. If the U.S. were to ban shirts on women, would the streets immediately be filled with newly liberated tatas? Sure, some. I myself might be tempted to go out once or twice just for the novelty factor. But I know a lot of people of varying levels of religious or cultural modesty or just poor body image who would rather stay home than expose their bodies publicly. Now imagine that my husband or father wouldn't allow me to leave the house without a shirt, law or no law. That would leave me trapped in the house, unable to leave without choosing between an oppressive culture and an oppressive law - a law that would take away my freedom and my choice.
There seems to be this assumption that a husband is going to read about the new law in the paper and say, “Huh. Burqas are out. Hey, honey! Go put on your PJs; we’re going to the mall and getting you a minidress.” Or, for that matter, that a woman is going to read the paper and say, “Hey! Burqas are out! I suddenly feel empowered to go buy hotpants. There certainly won’t be any consequences to that from my father.”
The burqa isn't the problem - the burqa is a symptom of the problem, which is a culture in which a woman's body is considered shameful and a man has the power to dictate what she wears and does. The burqa actually enables her to make the choice between staying behind doors or obeying her husband/brother/father and going out with a burqa on. It's a choice between two really crappy options, but it's a choice.
The way to address the problem of oppressive religions and cultures isn’t to ban the things that can, in some cases, give some women some semblance of freedom. It’s to influence the culture itself - educate the oppressors and offer support and help to the oppressed. Punishing the oppressed by replacing their oppressors’ demands with our own isn’t going to make anything better. This law imposes a penalty on a woman for wearing a burqa; it doesn’t relieve the penalty she may suffer within her household for not wearing one. Don’t pretend to solve the problem by keeping women from wearing burqas if they want to. Solve the problem by protecting women from a culture that makes them wear burqas when they don’t want to.
And if, as some insist, no woman would ever voluntarily wear a burqa, then there won’t be women in burqas anymore.