The burqa is back in the news. This time, it is the fault of pop stars. Rihanna recently attracted controversy for doing a photo shoot in pseudo-Islamic dress outside of a Mosque (before being removed from the premises), and Lady Gaga has been parading around in her version of the burqa for a while, and has even written a song about it.
Already, this has attracted opprobrium, with many on the left railing against appropriation and sexualisation of a minority’s spiritual accessory. Apparently, it says something awful about our culture that people can only accept something when it is commodified and sexualised. I disagree. I think this is splendid.
The usual debate about the burqa concerns matters like choice, tolerance and multiculturalism. The standard questions are “is it oppressive?” or “should it be banned?” - all of which is underpinned by concerns about the balancing acts involved in liberalism and a multicultural society.
Without going into detail, the solution is simple. People should be able to wear whatever they want, for whatever reason. If the burqa is indeed oppressive, then education and persuasion are the answer. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and a coercive ban is never justified. With regard to culture, all practises and traditions should be tolerated unless they involve coercion.
The mainstream debate has, however, produced a bizarre mutant offspring. Some Muslims, and a few fringe feminists, have started arguing that there is actually a positive aspect to “modest” dress. Because beauty standards and “objectification” are somehow seen as oppressive, rejecting these and hiding one’s appearance becomes liberating.
The weaker form of this argument suggests that such values are validated by cultural relativism. To an extent, this is fair. If you’re inoculated in a particular culture, you’re bound to have a certain perspective, and this should be tolerated (though not necessarily respected).
The stronger form actually defends the belief. This is due, in part, to the feminist angle. It is also due to a (related) puritanical opposition to a free-flow of sexual material. This is the logic that lies behind attempted bans on porn, hysterical panics about the sexualisation of children and vicious witch-hunts against page 3 girls. Not to mention the illegality of the oldest profession on earth.
Such a perspective has always united the lowest and nastiest people on the right and the left. Peter Hitchens and Andrea Dworkin may seemingly represent different political traditions. However, in reality, their ideologies have the same spiteful puritan core. (I find that “if it does not like sex, it cannot be trusted” is a useful standard to hold).
Contrastingly, libertinism and hedonism are usually defended only as a matter of freedom of choice. At a political level, this is fair. As with every single other issue, each individual is the final arbiter of how modestly he or she dresses, how promiscuous they are and whether they watch pornography.
However, in my humble opinion, being sexually active, caring about (and enjoying) physical appearances, being promiscuous, watching pornography and refusing to keep sexuality ‘behind closed doors’ are all positive lifestyle choices.
“Base” pleasures are not the only things that make life worth living. But they certainly help to make it rich and enjoyable. Obviously there are limits. Drinking excessively, doing crack and having unprotected sex are stupid things to do. But, all things being equal, hedonistic and “shallow” pursuits are laudable.
Returning to the issue of the burqa, it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it is a shame for other people. If you’re potentially attractive and you hide yourself away, you are being very inconsiderate towards others. You have no obligation to make yourself look nice, but it would be better for everyone if you did.
Secondly, it is a limit on the women themselves. Obviously there are the facts that it is physically constricting, demeaning and a symbol of oppression. But, further, being unable to indulge in your appearance is bad in itself. ”Modesty” has one prime function – repression. Flaunting yourself physically is a good thing. In much the same way as intellectual flourishing is valuable, so too is realising your physical and aesthetic potential.
So, attempts to sex-up the burqa and any other form of religious dress should be welcomed. Whilst Rihanna can be seen as being guilty of appropriation, this is largely irrelevant seeing as the term is pretty much meaningless. Normalisation of other cultures is always a good thing, no matter what means are employed. A blurring of one culture’s practices (such as a manner of dress) with another culture’s attitudes (an emphasis on the sexual and the sensory) is actually the perfect realisation of multiculturalism.
Commodification and appropriation are neither here nor there in moral terms. What’s most important is the subversion of something sacred and injecting it with hedonism, style and individuality. Anything that chisels away at modesty and spirituality should be welcomed.
Having said all that, always and everywhere, people should have absolute freedom with regard to how they dress, what they watch and what they use their body for. This includes dressing modestly and abstaining from hedonistic practises. However, this does not mean refraining from criticism or telling people they are better off when they do away with superstition and repression.
“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Oscar Wilde