15 Jan 2010

The Burka in the EFL Classroom

So Nicolas Sarkozy says Islamic veils are not welcome in France.  His attempt to put in place a law making it illegal to wear the full veil in public has triggered a national debate in France.  While the a debate on whether the right to sexual equality outweighs the right to wear a religious symbol is a valid one, it all too easily becomes an exercise in otherization and counter-claims of Islamophobia. 

Learn more about the different types of veil here

Sarkozy says: "The full veil is not welcome in France because it runs contrary to our values and contrary to the idea we have of a woman's dignity. [...] Let us undertake not to give opponents of democracy, dignity and sexual equality the chance for a victory which would put our society in a very difficult situation." (source The Guardian)

Sarkozy sees the burka ban as a step against extremism - as if taking action against the burka will somehow stop the radicalisation of young disgruntled French Muslims.  Of course it is a hell of a lot easier to ban the burka that tackling urban poverty, unemploment, discrimination or US/UK foreign policy.  Also if 'dignity' is the reason behind Sarkozy's intended ban, what about the human trafficking that sees women pushed into drug abuse and prostitution in the street corners of Paris (or London)?  Surely that is a much more serious crime against the 'dignity' of women.

No one could argue the Middle East is anything but sexually unequal (women can't drive in Saudi Arabia, access to education and public roles is limited, etc) but I when I was in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the UAE, I was not bombarded with TV images of women as objects of sexual fantasy or billboard posters glorifying size 0 models.  So the "dignity" of women can surely be argued from both sides of the burka debate.  I have spoken to a few women who wear burkas and they told me they enjoy not being judged by their looks and that it protects them from the male gaze.  (And, yes, I understand the feminist argument that it is the men who should be stopped from looking rather than the women that are hidden from view.)

So what of sexual equality?  The glass ceiling is still firmly in place but there has been a sea change in the awareness of sexism and sexual discrimination and a steady trend towards equality in the workplace, at home, and in the law.  This effort has to be commended, respected, and maintained.  But is that progress universal to all women irrespective of their religion or culture?  And is that progress threatened if Muslim women wear the burka in France or the UK? 

This reminded of a couple of things that happened at work last year.  One can wait for an future post.  The other was some rather surprising comments on wearing of the burka in the EFL classroom that I read which went something like this:
School Principal #1: A muslim student wants to wear a burka in class if there is a male teacher or if there are male students with her.  She speaks very quietly so the teachers think it will be a problem because they can't see her mouth move when she's talking.  
School Principal #2: Wearing a veil causes a number of problems...  It impedes language learning and cultural integration.  
School Principals #3, 4, 5 & 6: We think there is no way you could stop a student wearing a veil in class and see little need to. We think the veil is so thin is hardly causes any problems at all.  You need to deal with the student in the same way you would deal with a student who mumbles or a man with an unruly beard.  
Me: (going totally over the top) I think you should stop seeing it as a problem and let her wear the burka.  It is no different to a student wearing a balaclava or a helmet.  Deal with the pronunciation the same way you would with a student who mumbles.

You can talk to your teachers or students about multiculturalism and tolerance if they have a problem.  The EFL school only has a responsibility to teach students English.  Leave the decision to 'integrate' with other students or mainstream UK culture up to the student.
Okay, so it is very different from a student wearing a balaclava or a helmet.  Helmets and balaclavas are already identified as a security risk in banks and shops and they are not worn for religious reasons (at least not by any religions I know).  You can ask a student to remove a helmet, and I imagine 99 times out of 100, the student will acquiesce and the 1 in a 100 who will not is a certified weirdo.  You'll get a very different reaction if you ask someone to remove a burka in order to join the EFL class because it is worn for very different reasons.

But what about the face mask that East Asian wear when they have colds?  You cannot see their mouths move when they talk and it can muffle quiet voices - not exactly an uncommon feature of female students from Japan, for example.  Is it problematic to their integration that they prefer not to spead flu germs everywhere they go unlike us Brits who, even in a flu epidemic, feel a bit weird wearing face masks?  I think not.  But, of course, masks are only worn for short periods. 

So is there any valid argument against wearing a burka in an EFL school?  I know schools and shops and service providers everywhere have dress codes for their employees, but unless a customer is dressed in a way that causes a security risk, a health and safety issue, or is not dressed at all, then there is no way to insist that your clients dress a certain way.  (An second thought, pubs and nightclubs can set dress codes for the customers, so maybe it is not as clear cut as I at first assumed...)

I think the argument that a burka impedes language learning does not stand up.  The veil is pretty thin and students can be clearly heard if they speak at a normal volume (mumbling is a bigger problem).  I know that being able to see someone speaking aids comprehension but if the student is willing to forfeit the benefits of paralinguistic communication then so be it.  You might ask student who mumbles to speak up, or a student who puts their hand over their mouth when they talk to stop, but if they don't, you can hardly ban them from class. 

Does it impede the student's integration?  Is this the responsibility of the EFL school anyway?  Sure we will offer whatever help they need to learn the language.  We will help them learn about British culture and customs.  We might suggest they join a sports club or do volunteer work or go on school trips to increase their opportunities to practice their English but if they decide not to do so, it ends there.  If they want to take up crochet, lawn bowls or binge drinking, that is up to them. 

I know there is a lot of debate about the veil in both Islamic and non-Islamic societies.  Some Islamic scholars point out there are no verses in the Qur'an that require women to cover their heads.  Many Islamic moderates see it as an obstacle to modernization.  In Turkey, for example, it is perceived as worth banning in public life in order to symbolically (and viscerally) reinforce the secularity of its polity.  Many feel it is act of oppression, but many also feel it is an act of devotion, a symbol of womanhood, and a great protector.  It can be seen simultaneously as a prison or a liberation.

Interestingly an earlier Guardian article suggests that Sarkozy can't tell his abstract and concrete freedoms apart and should real more Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right'.  He is not the only one.  We could learn a lot by examining the reasoning behind the arguments for and against the veil.  Is the right to religious expression incompatible with the right to sexual equality?  Can a truly multicultural society adhere to any universal truths, rights or freedoms?  

Do you see the burka as a problem in your school or classroom?  I certainly don't.  But I am neither female nor Muslim, so maybe my views are superfluous.

1 comment:

Edouard said...

Very interesting post... It is indeed a very big debate in France at the minute.
I am against the Burka ban, for two major reasons : Ok I understand the good side of protecting the ones that are forced to wear it, but what about the ones that want to wear it? It's impossible to make this law applicable if we take it case by case...

And : What is a policeman going to tell a rich Saudi Princess shopping in the Champs Elizées?