Sarkozy and a sign of debasement

French president Nicolas Sarkozy made headlines this week by announcing that burkas, the full-body gowns worn by many conservative Muslim women, are a symbol of female subjugation and are not welcome in France.

Sarkozy called the burka “a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement,” and argued that France “cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” Government spokesman Luc Chatel later claimed that if the burka was ruled by a parliamentary commission to be degrading to women, then legislation to ban it in public might be introduced.

Here’s the thing. If you tell a woman that she’s got to wear a burka when she goes out in public, then you deny her the right to make her own choices. But when you tell a woman that she’s not allowed to wear a burka in public, you deny her the exact same right. You would think that if Sarkozy was so worried about subjugation, he would endorse a woman’s right to wear what she wants – and the fact that he hasn’t suggests that this has a lot more to do with France’s long-standing policy of ethnic assimilation.

In a way, it reminds me of a conversation that my friend Chelsea had to suffer through a couple of years ago. When Chel got married, she took her husband’s name. A few months later, at another wedding, she and her husband were seated next to a perfect stranger who loudly accused her of giving up her identity, bowing to the patriarchy, and basically letting down feminists everywhere.

“I may have my history wrong,” Chelsea said at the time, “but I’m pretty sure that those who were advocates for equality for women, were working for a world where women were free to choose to do what they wanted, free to do what was best for them as individuals and to not be forced into a mold set out by a patriarchal society. Isn’t forcing women into the same kind of mold (albeit a different shape) just as bad? It is to me.”

Indeed, an anonymous commenter took the point one step further by asking why “choosing one’s husband’s name is less patriarchal than being saddled with one’s father’s.”

The moral of both stories is the same. If you’re going to argue in favour of a person’s right to make their own choices – and you should – then you can’t presume to make those choices on that person’s behalf, even if you think you know which choice is the more progressive or moral. Oh, and don’t try to ban the other choice, because it’ll really do a number on your whole “subjugation is bad” argument.

By the way, in case you’re curious, my fiancée recently decided that she’s going to take my name. She’s not going to wear a garter, hold a bridal shower, or follow any tradition that stems from the notion of a dowry, and she’s certainly not going to promise to obey me. But taking my name is something she does want to do, and she made the decision on her own terms. Although in her case, as in Chelsea’s, I think she might have been partially motivated by the fact that her maiden name is hilarious.

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5 Responses to “Sarkozy and a sign of debasement”

  1. jason says:

    You know, they are kinda amusing (mine’s a little funny, too). However, I’ve taught several kids over the years whose last name is Butt, and I think that takes the cake (even though they’re of Middle Eastern background, so they get a partial pass, but still, Butt is funny no matter what way you slice it).

    I’m with you on the choice thing. I’d never pressure my future wife, whoever she may turn out to be, to change her name — but if she wanted to, I’d be fine with that. The only question would be the kids… hyphenated names are just awkward all over, and what would happen if two people with hyphenated names got together and had a kid? Do you string ‘em all together? And hey, whose name goes before the hyphen and whose goes after? Because if the dad’s goes first, isn’t that paternalistic too?

    Maybe we should just be all Cher-like and go by a single name. Ethiopians and Indonesians and Icelanders do this; we can too.

  2. Kate says:

    Nope! Icelandic names take the father’s first name!

  3. Matt says:

    Wait, so Björk’s father’s name was also Björk?

    Or was it something like Guðmund, as in Björk Guðmundsdóttir?

  4. Kate says:

    Exactly – your children would be Junior Matthewsson or Junior Matthewsdottir. I believe one of the Indonesian forms of name (of which they have several) is very similar to this too.

  5. Matt says:

    Just wanted to comment over a year and a half later to say that “Junior Matthewsson” would be a terrific name for a European DJ/producer.