The row is back and passions are running high in Western societies in the wake of recent events in France, which have brought to the fore, once again, the burqa vs high heels debate.
The dilemma regarding which of the two options is preferable or more oppressive for women remains unsettled. Arguments keep revolving around the question of what is right or wrong for women, skirting another, just as fundamental question. Namely: what men could or should do, in order to play their part in the quest to find a sensible solution?
After all, the issue arises from how men see and look at women.
The old questions remain valid: can wearing a burqa ever be an act of free choice or is it just the imposition of a reactionary mind set? And should fixations like high heels, size zero and limbs fully exposed, like well advertised merchandize, always be upheld as symbols of a truly free society?
After years of controversy, there do not seem to be new points of view.
The more radical Muslims keep defending the burqa or the niqab allegedly as means to protect the dignity of women, because they hide their faces and bodies from the lewd ogling of males. According to this perspective, women are seen as obvious objects of attention while men are not granted much responsibility for their behaviour. Men’s desires, that is, are considered inevitable, even if impure, while the responsibility for not feeding those impulses lies squarely on women.
On the other hand, while despising Western customs, many burqa wearing women have no hesitation in stating that they do so by sheer, personal choice, because they want to adhere to the customs of their own world which they firmly subscribe to. And one can only take their word for that.
Freethinkers are divided on how to see the burqa. And their positions often come off just as radical.
The burqa, some say, is bad because it is demeaning for women–because, by forcing them to hide their person, it deprives them of their identity as much as of the status of free human beings. It is therefore to be proscribed in any civil society.
This is the rationale behind the law that France adopted, imposing a ban on wearing burqas in public. And this is the same law on the basis of which a court just outside Paris recently fined two women for walking in the streets with their faces covered.
The burqa, others retort, may be wrong, but each culture has its own customs and it is wrong to interfere, especially when religion-based behaviours are called into question.
This argument played into the hand of Kenza Drider, one of the two women fined by the court, who not only announced that she will bring her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but also made known her intention to run for next year’s presidential elections in France, challenging incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in his home constituency of Meaux.
Between the two extremes are those who say that the burqa certainly is a symbol of oppression, but that high heels are also a form of imposition, and that women should just be free to wear what they want.
Some make this point in a provocative fashion, like the two girls who last October strolled through downtown Paris, dramatically swaying their hips and wearing both stiletto heels and a mini burqa, which left their legs fully exposed.
Others point out that, indeed, the stereotypes of beauty in Western societies may be hard to escape, but that wearing high heels is still an option and that no woman will be excommunicated or stoned for preferring sneakers. No one will pray for her to roast in hell.
And yet, aside from the excruciating pain that high heel shoes may cause to some wearers, hell may be here on earth for women who do not comply to certain stereotypes.
According to Sarah Dunant, a British journalist and novelist , western societies may view themselves as freer than other societies. But in Western societies and, by now, also in a good part of Asia, “the pressure women have to bear in order to be accepted can be truly painful.” Dunant stresses that “what seem to be free choices are actually the result of a kind of brainwashing. The bombardment of images of stereotyped sexy women that every girl is subjected to since childhood is so heavy that it is very hard, if not impossible, not to be conditioned.”
“And”, she goes on, “in the end even women who are indeed aware of all this, may succumb to those stereotypes because in their every day experience there is no alternative. Men look at you and their eyes tell you that if you do not conform, you are simply not sexy. Thence not desirable. They don’t want you and they do reject you.” And rejection is always painful.
For Joan Smith, a British columnist known as Political Blonde, high heels are not just a male fetish. Many women like them too, while when it comes to the burqa “the most cogent objection is that it’s inhuman.” A few months ago, writing in The Independent, Smith declared that “in the historic struggle between burqas and high heels, I’m firmly on the side of shoes.”
Whatever position one subscribes to, unfortunately and inevitably, the burqa vs high heels diatribe “feeds right into the very notions of patriarchy we need to combat,” according to a comment posted on an Internet blog by Mihira Sood, an Indian lawyer. The trite and sad notions “that women can be either Madonnas or whores, either modest or highly sexualized objects of male fantasy, that the only liberation we can imagine from one is its extreme opposite, that women’s bodies and their sexuality are the vehicles through which battles are fought, and worldviews imposed.”
Which brings us back to the question of what men can or ought to do.
As we mentioned, at the root of the whole issue is the way men see or look at women. It is because of men’s attitudes and behaviours that in some societies women are forced to hide their faces and bodies, while in other societies they have to conform to stereotypes in order to be accepted.
Maybe we should consider having all men wear blinders?
If they wore blinders like the ones we usually put on horses, in the more radical Muslim societies males would be prevented from nurturing what are perceived as sinful but innate impulses, while women would not have to be covered from head to toe whenever they leave the house, even when temperatures rise above 30 degrees Celsius.
At the same time, in Western societies males would be forced to question their conviction that beauty can only conform to top model standards and that it is their right to constantly subject women to usually unrequested approval ratings based on such standards.
This way, the morons from both sides could be silenced: those who deem that women are inherently made for sexual appreciation, that they should not provoke men with their looks or they should conform to trivial fixations if they want to be desired.
Finally, also, the blame for harassments and violence against women would be once and for all squarely placed on men.
Laws in most countries may already state so, but common thinking does not yet reflect the letter of such laws. And many, both men and women, do believe that often the responsibility of unwanted attentions and even acts of violence are to be imputed at least partly on some teasing role played by the woman.
So let girls wear what they want. Even nothing at all if they so please. Just make sure that boys wear blinders. Of course this is not a serious proposal. It is a provocation.
It is a provocation in the first place because, fortunately, not all men are driven by helpless instincts and believe that high heels or burqas are indispensable.
But the provocation aims at making a totally serious point: the need to radically reverse what is commonplace reasoning, to suggest that beauty may run deeper than some fetishes, as mainstream advertising and pop culture imply, or that the very vision of a woman face or body amounts to some kind of sexual temptation.
It is a provocation meant to propose that the problem of unwanted attentions is not only a woman’s business. That here we are essentially talking about the relationship between women and men at large in a civilized society. That grievances of feminists will bloom into universal values only if mainstream, fundamentally male-centric perspectives change.
Just a provocation then. And yet the seed of a thought which may help to overcome a seemingly unsolvable dispute and to start a seminal, cultural revolution.