I am writing this from Paris, where Nicholas Sarkozy's proposal to ban the burka in his country is still a hot topic.
Should he go ahead with the ban? My answer would be yes.
There is a huge difference between the headscarf that women wear to proclaim their religion and the burka. Unlike the headscarf, the burka completely obliterates a woman's individuality. It makes her a grey shapeless mass of fabric, among other such masses. A woman in a burka perceives the world around her, because a small slit is provided for her eyes, through which she can peer out. Tellingly, though, her mouth is completely covered. The symbolism is shriekingly obvious. In public, women must be silent. The public sphere belongs to men.
It is the same dictum that in the west kept women out of the ballot box, out of the university, out of the courts, and out of the legislature for centuries. When early suffragists chained themselves to public buildings, it was to protect their public powerlessness. Their opponents protested that women were already "queens of the home" and that going into the ballot box would sully their feminine purity. The burka, of course, is about purity--and about power.
One of the least true truisms is the one that goes "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." Nonsense. If that hand is kept from marking the ballot, and from rocking public policy as well as the cradle, its owner is without power in her own right. She can wheedle, but she cannot decide.
Some women--even feminists--decree that the burka should be a personal choice. Some women, in fact, claim that they are set free from the unwanted stares of men under the burka. That freedom, alas, comes at a price--assent to a system that subordinates women in the public sphere and relegates them to purely domestic power. Feeling comfortable on the streets in a burka is too high a fee to pay for one's own oppression, however unfair this seems. (Of course in countries where women are beaten if they appear in public without a burka, they have no choice but to wear it.) As for comfort on the streets, women can achieve the same effect by wearing a floppy hat, sunglasses and loose, cover-all clothes.
Can a woman be a feminist and wear a burka? Perhaps--but its rather like being a civil rights advocate wearing the robes of the KKK. The duds just don't compute.
The burka is a symbol of the power of the "Male Gaze." Imagine if all the males disappeared from the planet in an instant, would women keep wrapping themselves up in heavy clothing that covered everything but their eyes? Of course not. Women are neither naturally stupid nor masochistic. The burka is a symbol of the male power to compel women to behave in ways that speak of men's right to own female bodies and to restrict female action. It's in the long line of dreary cultural artifacts that include foot binding, chastity belts, female circumcision, honor killings, concubinage, and the sex trade.
To those who argue the burka is a religious requirement, I would point out that nowhere in the Koran does it say that women must wear garments that reveal only their eyes. The burka is a cultural custom that grew largely from Arab rural cultures, proliferating mainly in areas in which lack of education, poverty and fanaticism were rife. Many of the Taliban, for example, are uneducated peasant young men who have no idea of what Muslim scholars say. They blindly follow the preachments of local mullahs who order such barbaric acts as beating women whose burkas do not cover enough flesh, or restricting widows to their homes, making it impossible for them to work to feed their children. This brutality is anathema to most Muslims around the world.
Sometimes, cultural symbols that are about male power and female submission can be transformed so as to lose their patriarchal power. The wedding tradition of the father giving away the bride--who is cosseted in a white dress--symbolized one male passing the ownership of a woman to another male, and the white dress was the symbol of purity. Today, women wear white dresses to their second or third marriages, and the woman the father "gives away" may be earning twice as much as her husband and is far from subordinate to him.
But it's hard to see the burka losing its sting, because it is so physically confining, restricting, and simply damn clumsy. Can a woman try a case, run a company or even drive a car in a burka? Only with extreme difficulty.
Western democracies have the right to insist that immigrants shed cultural practices that violate human rights, even when those practices are thriving back home. We don't allow indentured servitude, the selling of children into sexual slavery, the right of a man to beat his wife, the right to keep girls uneducated, honor killings, bride burnings, assaults on homosexuals, or fatwas that instruct people to main or kill anyone who is seen to have insulted religion.
The burka, though not as severe as the above, restricts women's ability to function in a non-domestic role and symbolizes submission and inequality. It needs to be consigned to that trash heap of history, along with many of those other cultural traditions noted above that are mainly about female subjugation.
The sooner the better.
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women" (University Press of New England.)