Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Burqa is double-sexist

Yes, let's kick off with something nice and controversial, shall we?

Now, before those of you who like forming opinions about things before you read them leap to conclusions, I'd like you to know that I researched this article. In fact I typed "Burqa" into Wikipedia to check whether or not it was the right word. As it turned out, it was. I used superior software and generated this diagram to show my results:

The remainder of this blog entry is nothing but my personal and unsolicited opinions on things that I know just enough about to think I know everything.


In the media, we see a lot of things that are -- let's not mince words -- anti-burqa. Burqas have been universally labelled as the sign of extremist Islam's chauvanist attitude towards women. Now, I could be postmodern and say how I've noticed that those Americans who say these things are usually just as religious and extremist as the Taliban, and point out that the reason these women wear the burqa is because their cultural standards are different than ours.

But you know what? Fuck postmodernism. For what I desperately hope is the only time in my life, I agree with the American Taliban; burqas are sexist. In fact, if you're one of those strange people who doesn't know how to read the title of a blog post, I believe that burqas are double-sexist. What does that mean? It's actually quite simple. Let me accentuate the thesis of my article;

The Burqa is one of the few cultural artifacts that is discriminatory towards both genders at once.

Okay, now this is a fairly bold proposition, so I can understand that you might need to read it again. So let's slow down and go back into nice, safe territory; why burqas are sexist towards women.

This one isn't justified very often; most of the political leaders that argue it at least sympathise with the American Taliban, to whom the very word "Islam" is enough to send them into peals of righteous Christian rage. However, as an atheist, I am not bound to such promises; it is my duty to find reasonable arguments. Here's a nice, clean and simple one; the burqa promotes and accentuates male-female inequality, which is contrary to the moral zeitgeist of today.

The Burqa is reflective of the Proverbs 31 view of women, or presumably the Koran's equivalent to Proverbs 31. It promotes the ideal that a woman's purpose is to be a submissive housewife. It represses female sexuality, marking it as somehow inferior and servile to that of men. It pushes the ideal of virginity until marriage -- a laughably outdated ideal to the extent that one could call it quaint. Oddly enough, the American Taliban who argue against the burqa (presumably on the grounds that it's a foreign word) promote the exact same view of women as the sheiks who argue for it do.

So, that's the view of women that a burqa promotes. But is this ideal "worse" than the typical, more feminist outlook of most Western nations, or is it simply "different?" To explain this, I invoke the power of the Moral Zeitgeist. The moral zeitgeist (German; "spirit of the times") represents the collective ideals that society holds as a whole. It is the kind of things that "everybody" thinks about morality. The really, really important thing about the moral zeitgeist is that, unlike a dogmatic morality system (such of those of religious fanatics), it can actually change with the times. Thomas Henry Huxley, good mate of Charles Darwin and generally forward-thinking progressive of the late Victorian era, actually proposed in his 1871 Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, that racial eugenics would be necessary for the survival of the human species. Darwin's Bulldog said that we would effectively need to kill, or at least ostracise, everyone who wasn't white. This was 60 years before a certain Adolf Hitler proposed the same argument -- well within a human lifetime -- and in 1871, it was considered a left-wing proposition! It required significant action on both the political and scientific fronts before it became well-known that people who are different colours are pretty much the same -- that skin is, in fact, skin deep.

Thomas Huxley was the Richard Dawkins of his time, and yet he promoted eugenics as a logical strategy.

Now, the moral zeitgeist of the modern western world with respect to women has changed in a quite similar manner and timescale to the zeitgeist of race. I am of the hopeful opinion that most westerners would consider women to be essentially equal to men in terms of possible status and intellectual potential. It's not difficult to see how the burqa goes against this zeitgeist, promoting as it does the oppression of women into their historical roles as placid and insufferably bored housewives. However, can we actually claim that the burqa is automatically abhorrent because it is against our Western zeitgeist, or could Muslim fundamentalists claim that their zeitgeist is different to, but just as valid as, ours?

Here we once more run headfirst into postmodernism; the belief that anything can be justified by calling it "cultural". To that, I say "Balderdash!", primarily because it is fun to say. Yes, other cultures are different to ours. No, that does not make them somehow protected. The Aztecs and associated Central American civilisations murdered thousands in their quest to pacify their various solar gods. Was this justifiable? Some postmodernist historians say yes, it was, because it was cultural. And I concede that it was acceptable in the zeitgeist of their time. But would any cultural grouping who practiced such sacrifice today be allowed to continue? Absolutely not. Why? Because we would judge it in terms of our own moral zeitgeist. Murdering children to appease the sun is alright when you think the sun is a deity and there's no real evidence to the contrary. But the scientific evidence is in; the Sun is a gigantic ball of hot flaming gas, and it quite frankly doesn't give a shit whether you murder any kids for it or not.

This might be a nice picture, but it is not an accurate representation of the internal workings of the sun.

I must hasten to clarify that I am not comparing the wearing of burqas to child sacrifice. What I am saying, however, is that science allows us to judge a moral zeitgeist based on its connection to reality. Don't give me that bullshit about "science is subjective, too", either. Science can be subjective, but it is a quest for objectivity, and it is possible for the rigour of the scientific method to produce things which can be safely called Fact. The sun is not a deity; it is a ball of fire millions of kilometres away. That is a fact; we have more than enough evidence to confirm it. Similarly, men are socially identical to women. Give or take a few possible minor differences in specific acuities, this can also safely be called a fact. These facts are not and never will be 100% true. They could still be proved wrong, but to do so would require a weight of evidence with probability so remote we can safely call it zero. In science, nothing is a fact forever -- that's how it can stay objective.

So, let's look at the burqa through these lenses. The burqa made sense when your culture told you that women were inferior creatures whose god-given duty was to stay home, cook, clean, and have babies. How this fiction came into human society globally is an entirely different question, but we can accept that it existed as a former zeitgeist, and that the burqa is a symbol of it. However, science now says men and women are equal; science has confirmed feminism. As such, the former zeitgeist towards women has now been branded "oppression." Burqas are sexist towards women because they represent a worldview which has been thoroughly disproved by science. Before the Christians out there get too smug, the same applies to the Proverbs 31 attitude that some Christian fundamentalists hold towards women as well. The whole point of dogmatic morality is that it doesn't change with the times. Any religious type who claims that they believe in "the whole truth" of their holy book is deluding themselves. If we believed in the literal truth of the Christian bible, you could be executed or excommunicated for wearing poly-cotton clothes, eating oysters, or picking up sticks on a Sunday (or possibly a Saturday -- seems they can't even agree on that).

To be fair to good old Leviticus, a provision against eating oysters does make sense when you live in the desert.

However, I'm skirting around the really interesting bit here; the way that burqas are sexist towards men as well. I'm going to post a quote from infamous former Australian Grand Mufti, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly;

"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."

This sermon was preached in 2006 in response to a trial where two Muslim teenagers attempted to lay blame for their rape on the victim. Ignoring the poor maintenance of the synedoche, wherein Hilaly snaps back into his conclusion without recourse to his analogy, this is a truly shocking viewpoint. Rape is a crime; crimes are caused by the perpetrator; therefore, rape is the rapist's fault. This is the basis of the legal system of every country in the world. Only in a truly oppressive religious community could this point of view ever come to fruition. Thankfully, the moral zeitgeist has long thrown this disgusting perversion of the law aside in all but the most fanatically religious communities.

However, I think that there was one important thing that the media missed about Hilaly's sermon. Let's contract his analogy a little;

"If you throw uncovered meat to cats, the cats will always eat it."

Now, let's replace the words in this analogy with the words that Hilaly means.

- Replace "uncovered" with "non-burqa'd"
- Replace "meat" with "women"
- Replace "cats" with "men"
- Replace "eat" with...

Did anyone else see this, or am I the first to notice? This is a horrible sentiment. As a man, I take great offence at this. In fact, I believe that I have the right to be just as offended as any woman who hears it. Not only is Hilaly suggesting that women must repress their sexuality, they also have to control the ravening libidos of men! Men are not cats. We are not driven by instinct alone. Yes, we have libidos, and yes, they're bastards, but we have the capacity to control them ourselves! Men do not feel the irresistible urge to rape a woman every time we see her ankle!

This is not a valid analogy for human relationships.

Finally, I feel that I should express my opinions on l'affaire du voile; the controversy on France having "banned the burqa." I have, in fact, been blaming the American Taliban for the burqa controversy partially because more people to avoid mentioning this slightly more complicated issue. Strictly speaking, there's two things wrong with this simplistic mindset. First of all, if you consult my highly scientific diagram above, you'll notice that the hijab is the part that's actually banned, not the burqa; it's just that all journalists are sexually aroused by alliteration. Secondly, it's not just the hijab that's banned; any type of headgear that covers your face is forbidden (for example, balaclavas). This is actually a fairly sensible piece of legislation. Wearing a full-face balaclava nowadays is, thanks to millions of movies and TV shows on the subject, considered to be a big sign that says "I AM A BANK ROBBER, PLEASE ARREST ME." That said, this doesn't save it; one could easily argue that the French government broadened their legislation slightly to cover the fact that they were banning hijabs, and I would have no recourse to argue against this. So let's assume that France, or any other country, has banned hijabs for the sole reason that they're symbols of bloody-minded pre-Common Era dogmatic sexism. Is this a good idea?

As you may have guessed, I don't like burqas much, not so much for their oppressive nature as for the sheer bloody-minded dogmatic stupidity of the people that promote them. However, I'm not in favour of banning them. Don't get me wrong. I wish that nobody ever wore a burqa, if only because it would be a good step on the road to ditching religion from the human mindset forever. But I believe that banning it would be extremely counterproductive in any nation.

First of all, I'd like to destroy what little credibility I have left by quoting the people who raised me and taught me everything I know about the world. I'm talking, of course, about The Simpsons. The pre-shark-jumping/fridge-nuking episodes of this show have taught me that there are two possible outcomes when you outright "ban" an action;

1. Ban something that everybody does anyway (a la Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment)

Outcome; everybody ignores the ban. Law enforcement might attempt to enforce the ban. but attempt is most likely to ultimately fail. as everybody finds ways around it, including the police.

Real-world equivalents; Most traffic laws; internet piracy.

I doubt that the French police force has any detectives who wear film noir attire, speak in incomprehensible 1920's slang and spend their lives hunting down burqa barons. It would make a sweet reality show though.

2. Ban something that everybody hates for selfish reasons (a la Much Apu About Nothing)

Outcome; Vigilante justice. People use the selfish law as an opportunity to take revenge upon the people against whom the law is discriminating. Possible violent backlash from the oppressed group.

Real-world equivalent; Australian refugee policy (which, incidentally, bears a disturbing resemblance to Proposition 24).

(A third possibility, that of banning something that people hate for genuinely moral reasons, was brought before the first Australian Constitutional Convention in 1891. The delegates subsequently laughed themselves to death, setting the progress of Australian federation back somewhat.)

So, I see very little hope for this proposition. Either the Muslim women who want to go covered are going to ignore the law and wear their hijabs anyway -- and given the levels of indoctrination anyone would be wrung through before wanting to suppress their identity that far, they will defend their horribly sexist garment to the death -- or anyone caught in a hijab is going to be beaten up and vilified, leading to an interesting reversal of Al-Hilaly's "uncovered meat" justification. It's certainly possible that the mere act of banning something can make people at least think about not doing it -- most people follow most of the law most of the time regardless of whether or not they're religious, thanks to our good friend Mr. Zeitgeist -- but doing something so flagrant as banning a religious symbol that people feel really strongly about is knife-edge legislation.

So what's my opinion, then? Well, I think that the only way to get rid of the burqa is dump the whole morass of stupidity that people glorify by calling it "religion." My fondest wish is that nobody ever went to church, prayed, or did anything else stupid in the pursuit of looking for an afterlife that isn't there. And while I'm dreaming, I'd like a night with Summer Glau, her imaginary twin sister, and enough alcohol to flatten a concrete elephant.


  1. "However, science now says men and women are equal; science has confirmed feminism." Please explain?

  2. I'm talking about feminism at its most basic level; viz, "men and women are equal", as opposed to "men > women".

  3. Does the current zeitgeist require everyone to mention the zeitgeist? I think you may have over-stressed it's influence (or under-stressed the influence of other morality drivers) but I largely agree with you.

    I especially agree on the points about the balderdash Aztecs, desert defrosted oysters and the Simpson surrogacy.

  4. Nah, I was asking exactly how had science confirmed it?

  5. @cpbm: I was personally under the impression that the zeitgeist is not a morality driver, but a morality meter; the sum total of the general moral beliefs of the time.

    @azarov: I suppose it's more accurate to say that science has "failed to deny" feminism. Quite frankly, the anti-feminist agenda (i.e. men > women) has no evidence to support it, and most evidence supports the feminist postion by elimination instead. A lot of this is sociological rather than psychological; for example, giving women the vote did not lead to the collapse of society. Psychological tests generally reveal that men and women are very nearly equal in all areas. Sometimes you'll get a result which says things like "Men do slightly better at spatial reasoning but women do slightly better at imagination," but I believe that this is a nurtured rather than natural division (we give boys lego and girls dolls).