The Family and the State: Banning the Burqa

The French government has announced plans to make the wearing of burqas or other face-coverings in France; a good discussion (and factual overview of different forms of islamic modesty-clothing) is here with the Apostate. I think this issue shows up a lot of interesting issues about authority, control, and power. I think the ban itself should be opposed, but different measures in a similar spirit might well be useful.

To start with some background – the view of statehood taken by class-struggle anarchists is in a way a combination of the qualified pro-statism of liberals and the unqualified anti-statism of anarcho-capitalists. Like anarcho-capitalists, the state is seen as an immoral force of violence and control; like liberals (going back to Hobbes, who is philosophically a liberal even if his politics are very authoritarian), it is also seen as a necessity to re-integrate and stabilise a conflict-ridden society always at risk of disintegration.

That is – the state is necessary for a class society, because of the social war that such societies involve. But the stability it brings is not something opposed to that social war, but its own natural outgrowth – it is the self-stabilisation of war, not peace. It represses some forces, and empowers others, only as is necessary to preserve exploitation and oppression (i.e. war, even when one-sided).

Now I could make all manner of swipes here at anarcho-capitalism, but I won’t. Rather, I’ll suggest that it may be a mistake to see the state as the only institution of this kind. If we expand our meaning of ‘class war’ to include sex classes, then we see that alongside the state, there is another major force acting to enforce and stabilise class-based oppression: the family. Like the state, the family is (historically, setting aside whatever aberrations have been seen more recently) centred around definite power-relations, but presents itself as a harmonious whole.

So perhaps your parents decide that you will marry someone, but you don’t want to. That’s oppression, and a major conflict of interests – but the point of the family is to mask this. ‘The family’ is you, so rejecting it is rejecting yourself. And yet the will of ‘the family’ is your parents. So what’s actually someone else telling you to do something is shown as more like you yourself telling you to do it. And there’s little need for me to point out that the family, like the state, is a major major site of disciplinary violence, hence of enforcement and repression – or that states have historically drawn heavily on the symbolism of the family (bloodlines, royal familes, ‘sire’ and ‘monsieur’, ‘tribes’, etc).

So it’s in this context that we need to look at the burqa/niqab ban. It’s not simply state vs. individual, but also state vs. family. If we wanted to put the measure in the best possible light, we would say what the apostate does:

“women will have an easier time winning the battle of being allowed to wear the least restrictive version of the “hijab”…if the state assists them by banning the most restrictive expression of it. Because women will then have two authorities on their side: a gentler interpretation of Islamic rules of hijab (which is textually and traditionally doable) and the state’s insistence that they adopt this gentler interpretation. Their hands will be tied, you see. It’s not that THEY are abandoned hussies, it’s just that they can’t help it! But they still want to be good Muslims and cover up decently. That’s how their reasoning will proceed. Families will give in, because even extremist Muslims can’t prevent their female relatives from living lives that include sometimes being in the outside world.”

That is, the best we can say for this measure is the state’s intervention will strengthen the hand of one party in the conflicts operating in the family. One authoritarian institution limiting another.

What might we say in criticism of the ban, though? The reason why progressive goals can find some purchase on the state is that the state functions to some extent as a ‘forum’, in which different interests appear and reach compromise. So oppressed voices can seek expression there (e.g., Sarkozy may be aiming to get feminist votes) but so too do the oppressing voices, and usually more effectively (e.g., Sarkozy is probably also aiming to appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment). So any attempt to seek progress through the state is a risk, because whatever success you have will tend to be on the terms most advantageous to those who are, ultimately, your enemies.

Moreover, the means deployed by the state are not neutral – they are, paradigmatically, violent and repressive means (not to mention that the state isn’t just a neutral form for contests – it has its own interests and drives). And these two points interact in the major problem with the ban – enforcement. What happens if someone goes out wearing a face-veil? The police arrest them? Or the police force them to go home? Or the police forcibly strip them of it in the street? None of those seem acceptable, especially given that most of these women will be immigrants or the children thereof, and police forces don’t have a good record of racial sensitivity.

I’ve previously mocked anti-abortionists who want abortion to be illegal but don’t want people having abortions to be punished, as well as people who wants limits on immigration but don’t want immigrants seized and shipped around against their will. So it would be fairly silly to say that I support a legal ban on burqas but not taking any action against people wearing it.

At the same time, at least one goal of the ban is a legitimate one – to use the pressure that extra-familial forces can exert to adjust the balance of forces within the family in favour of helping women to wear less restrictive clothes.

A view of the state as the exclusive agent of stabilisation and repression in society obscures this and presents the matter as simply one of state control against individual choice.

Against this, we should understand the family as a parallel institution to the state. That’s not quite correct – the family itself is parallel to the nation; the head of the family (typically the patriarch, the husband/father) is parallel to the state, and in both cases the latter force legitimises itself by promoting the idea that the former is a harmonious whole which naturally incorporates the oppressed and the oppressing together.

Of course this account is ahistorical – recent years have seen a major change in the dynamics of the family, and in general a shift away from family-based control towards state-based. This is the context in which (speaking in gross generalisations) the stricter-than-average family control of Asian societies confronts the looser-than-average norms of European ones.

In conclusion, feminists and anarchists should swap notes on fighting authority, given the functional and symbolic connections between familial authority and state authority.

2 Responses to “The Family and the State: Banning the Burqa”

  1. ARPhilo Says:

    I am not religious. I am a feminist, though. And this is the least feminist thing next to making it mandatory to wear a burqa. Forcing a woman to cover her head is oppressive but forcing her not to is also oppressive. I am sure Sarkozy would not imagine making crosses or rosaries illegal… But I digress.

    I know you are not supporting the legislation with this (great!) entry. Just adding 2 cents.

  2. Lindsay Says:

    Nice post.

    In the ban’s favor, I totally agree with this:

    [A]t least one goal of the ban is a legitimate one – to use the pressure that extra-familial forces can exert to adjust the balance of forces within the family in favour of helping women to wear less restrictive clothes.

    … which I think was the Apostate’s point as well, with the possible substitution of “community” or “ethnic group” for “family.”

    This is a critique feminists often raise of the notion of a right to privacy — that, for women, that right often translates into the right of their husbands and fathers to abuse them with impunity.

    But, at the same time, this is not women asserting their individual rights against their familial and cultural oppressors — this is pitting one oppressive institution, the state, against the other, the family. Regardless of what her own wishes on the matter of veiling might be, a woman is told by her family not to leave the house without a veil, and then told by the state that she will not be allowed to wear certain versions of the veil in public.

    I can certainly appreciate the Apostate’s point that, even if women are made no freer politically, they will still have the everyday freedom of less-restrictive clothing and uncovered faces. Which, for those women whose families do not react to the measure by refusing to allow them outside at all, is nothing to sneeze at.

    Also, to make this even grayer, there’s significant history in some Middle East nations of hijab being worn as a symbol of nationalist fervor among revolutionary women. While I don’t know if this is true of niqab, and I seriously doubt it for burqa, this is another thing to bear in mind when considering restrictions on Muslim dress.


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