From Both Sides of the Burka

Enlightened leftists hesitate to embrace the law banning burkas because it places feminists beside radical rightists.

France's National Assembly last week passed the "burka law," which bans wearing the full-body veil in public. Although the law passed with an overwhelming majority, other Western countries are hesitant to join the campaign.

Their hesitation is understandable. The burka law touches a sensitive junction in the Western conscience, in which classic feminism meets radical postmodernism, also known as cultural relativism.

From a classic feminist perspective, this is welcome legislation that joins the ranks of other laws intended to overcome acts of violence committed against women throughout the world in the name of tradition. The burka is a long, body-covering garment that reveals only the wearer's eyes and hands. The classic feminist approach sees banning the burka as a continuation of the laws against female genital mutilation and child marriages, legislation that many Western countries support.

Muslim woman wearing a veil

But not all the traditions outlawed in the West hurt people as tangibly as the genital mutilation of girls. The early English settlers in North America were disgusted with the Indian tradition of dealing with grief and loss by ceremoniously distributing property and gifts and burning valuable objects. This custom, know as potlatch, was outlawed by the Protestant settlers because it severely infringed on the basic Western value of accumulating property.

The question is whether the burka law is more like banning female genital mutilation or more like banning potlatch. It could be argued that anyone supporting women's rights should support the burka law. There are sufficient accounts describing the burka-wearing tradition as misogynist and as intimately associated with oppressive measures against women in Islamic society, while having no authentic religious quality in the spiritual sense.

If so, why is it so difficult for enlightened leftists to embrace the burka law? One reason is that supporting the law places the feminists beside the radical rightists, who are in favor of the law because it could be seen as anti-Muslim.

This is not the first time feminists find themselves on the same side as the extreme right. The war against pornography is another case in point. But here too, the difference must be underscored. While the religious right objects to pornography because it sees female sexuality as an affront to the public, feminists fight pornography because they see it as an affront to women.

Similarly, feminists do not object to wearing the burka due to anti-Muslim sentiments, but out of concern for women who are deprived of civil rights in large parts of the world. In other words, the cultural relativism approach, which holds that every society is entitled to preserve its cultural values, is harmful in a world in which a fierce ideological war is raging - in other words, our world.

And how can we live with the unpleasant congruence between our feminist positions and those of the right wing? Perhaps it would be easier if we looked at the far-right worldview as though it were a broken clock, even it is correct twice a day.