Due to race and kinship studies, anthropology has been a leading science in showing how taken-for-granted concepts of daily life are socially constructed (Boellstorff, 2007, p. 26). Although the biological male and female categories have been accepted as a common ground in all known cultures (Barnard & Spencer, 2012, p. 350), women’s studies scholars have criticized as of late the existing scientific fields for underrepresenting women (McCall, 2005, p. 1775). For instance, in genetics science, women were understudied as opposed to studies on men (El-Haj, 2007, p. 292); this brought an awareness that women’s experiences should be included in leading research agendas (McCall, 2005, p. 1776). Consequently, women’s perspectives were gaining more attention both in natural and social sciences, but this led feminists of colour to critique the usage of the socially constructed nature of women offered by white feminists as a universal category, where the white privileged feminists were assuming the knowledge of all women (McCall, 2005, p. 1777; Crenshaw, 1989). In this commentary, I outline a case study about Muslim women in France, which shows that gender categories are both constructed and intersectional while arguing that public policies made by nation-states, particularly France with its assertive secularism, fail to take these particular experiences into account. I conclude that for better public policies, it is necessary to incorporate intersectional methodologies and multidimensional experiences.
Rubin (1975) poses the question of “What is a domesticated woman?”, and her answer is that she is “a female of the species” (p. 158). By replacing the word domesticated with Muslim, one can ask the question as “What is a Muslim woman?”, and the answer would be the same: she is also a female of the species. However, there is an important difference in the social relationships that construct these two identities. Despite what the French government declared about women who wear a burqa (Diallo, 2020), a Muslim woman is not domesticated, oppressed, or submissive because she chooses to wear a burqa. Even though there can be instances in which women are required to hold particular religious views or compelled to behave in certain ways by their family, partner, or society, many women with different religious affiliations can find themselves in a position where they cannot perform their effective freedom. This situation is not exclusive to Muslim women, and it should not be attributed to their characterisation. As an example of “sexualisation and culturalisation of citizenship” (Mepschen et al., 2010, p. 964), France, with its single and culturally dominant faith tradition, prohibited covering the face in public places in 2010, and although Muslim women believed that this public policy targeted their religious practices, the government suggested that face-covering violates liberty, gender equality, and laïcité (Soper et al., 2017, pp. 64-65; Kuru, 2009).
Yet, in 2020, the very same country decided to make face masks mandatory in certain public places (Diallo, 2020). With this decision, it is clear that covering of one’s face is not a problem of liberty, gender, equality, or laïcité. And even if that was the case, the state itself intervenes in the liberty of women by telling them to wear or not to wear the burqa or the face mask. This contradiction in decisions does not only show that gender is a political issue (Foucalt, 1980, p. 12) aiming to exclude Muslims from the French public life (Diallo, 2020), but also that gender is constructed by varying circumstances, power relations, and histories, and these categories are sustained through pre-scripted performances. As what it is expected of Muslim women is quite distinct from French women, it shows that the related genders and their prescribed role are socially constructed categories (Butler, 1998, p. 520). In this example, France tries to construct an essential category of woman because while one of these gender categories is sustained and supported by the state, the other one is condemned as something inherently wrong by secular public policies. While France and Islam assign both gender categories to women and require them to perform certain acts, if the reality of gender is a result of repetitive performances, it means that there is no essential gender that is true or false. We cannot ascertain that neither Western gender roles which France expects women to perform are appropriate, nor is the Islamic “script of gender” for women (Butler, 1998, pp. 526-528) wrong or requires banning.
Despite the universal appeal for feminist studies (Butler, 1998), this case study also highlights the intersectional nature of gender categories since there are multiple dimensions to complex social life (McCall, 2005, p. 1772). There are sub-categories to gender such as race, class, and ethnicity, and they all individually have an effect on the experiences of women. For example, a middle class, black, Muslim French women can face more discrimination than a wealthy, white, Muslim, French women, or the problems they come across can substantailly differ. Therefore, these sub-categories to identity can serve to introduce different ways of living and experiencing. Experiences of a Muslim and non-Muslim woman in France are quite distinct; while the French state encourages the French woman to act in accordance to the mainstream Western gender category of women, or with the acts that are seen appropriate by the state in general, a French Muslim woman is banned from performing her gender acts. In this context, the way that these women live their lives require intersectional methodological approaches to understand their problems. It is the role of states with a multicultural population to take an intersectional understanding to address these issues and make public policies that have an impact on citizens’ lives. Similarly, Abu-Lughod (2002) explains that American women, who think Afghan women should be liberated from Islam, experience gender differently. As American women tend to think that their gender acts and their role as a woman requires them to save the Afghan women from their supposedly oppressed ways of living, they tend to neglect the possibility that their comprehensive views and identity might be their own decision.
I argue that the ban of burqa in France is a case of hypocrisy in the public policies of the so-called value-free decisions of secular nation-states that aim to exclude comprehensive views. Even when these issues are not considered in public debates because of being deemed as irrational or inappropriate for public discussions, they are nevertheless a big part of everyday life in multicultural societies. As Mouffe (2000) claims, being neutral to different moral, philosophical, or religious views is not possible, especially since, with the purpose of neutrality, other comprehensive ways of living are deliberately excluded. The domain of politics is not ‘a neutral terrain’ and this is the reason why instead of hiding behind neutrality claims, states should acknowledge and accept the challenges of pluralism, and work towards establishing a mutual framework for all multicultural societies (Mouffe, 2000, p. 92).
To conclude, the example of Muslim women in France shows that the categories of gender are constructed. Assertive secularity aims to construct an essential category of woman, but these categories are intersectional and there is a universal need for developing a collective appreciation for not only different categories of gender (Abu-Lughod, 2002, p. 783) but also comprehensive views of life to tackle the challenges of pluralism and succeed in the making of better public policies.
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Melis Kirtilli, from Turkey, is a Master of Science in Political Theory Research student at the University of Oxford. She completed her undergraduate degree in Political Science: International Relations and Organisations with a pre-master in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. Melis has an interest in contemporary political theory, religion and politics, analytical political philosophy, anarchism, and history of political thought. Her current research focuses on political obligations, utopianism, and left-libertarianism.