Type
Essay
Category
Politics

Beauty without borders

A couple of months ago I went on a date with a man from France. As we were talking, I thought to myself, ‘Avoid the burqa conversation, Michelle, avoid the burqa conversation.’ I must have jinxed myself because then, all of a sudden, we were having it: the burqa conversation.

His argument went something like this. The French – lovers of liberty and enlightened crusaders of secularism – think it better to have fifty people prevented from practising their religion than one woman oppressed by the burqa that said religion forces her to wear.

This, more or less, is the reasoning invoked time and time again to legitimate not just the banning of the veil but other interventions into the mysterious space of the Other. Francis Fukuyama spoke too soon when he declared that the global triumph of liberal market-based democracy signalled the ‘end of history’. Spaces of savagery remain on the periphery of the market economy and history continues to tell the tale of attempted conversions of their inhabitants into good liberal subjects.

In this process, contemporary forms of liberalism engage in a kind of humanitarian colonialism whereby the imposition of a new social or cultural structure is legitimised though a discourse of freedom – one of the ‘highest aspiration[s] of the common people’, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The practice is evident in phenomena as diverse as the continued military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the banning of the burqa in France and elsewhere, and the intervention in the Northern Territory here in Australia. In all of these cases, freedom from the oppression of culture and tradition gone wild is given as the raison d’être of the action. The civilising mission, mark II.

Freedom, as we understand it today, originated with liberalism in the eighteenth century. Freedom was – and is – a key element of liberal technologies of government: it emerged as a response to the police state and hyper-surveillance of the ancien régime. Liberal thinkers saw excessive interference in the personal lives of the individual on the part of the state as harmful and counter to the development and expansion of the capitalist economy. Instead, they proposed the concept of ‘freedom’ as the necessary precondition for individuals’ unfettered participation in the market. Freedom was seen to promote growth, since the free individual would engage more proactively in economic life. Of course, this free individual was free only in certain ways: essentially, free to interact with the market, in any way that they liked.

More recently, freedom has played a particular role in the legitimisation and consolidation of what is often referred to as the ‘post-WWII order’. In a now famous speech delivered as the US stepped up its involvement in the Second World War, President Roosevelt declared that ‘in the future days … we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms … freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere’. Future days indeed brought the creation of the UN, mediator of the project of global liberal governance. Human rights became the organising principle of this project, the checklist against which levels of freedom were to be measured.

Later, Roosevelt marked out the battlelines of the postwar order, arguing that ‘the belief in the four freedoms of common humanity – the belief in man, created free, in the image of God – is the crucial difference between ourselves and the enemies we face today.’1

In the past, the enemy was defined as communism. With the collapse of the socialist project – Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ – the enemy did not cease to exist. Rather, it changed form. With that, the way of overcoming it also changed. The enemy was no longer identified with a grand ideological narrative so much as with dangerous cultural, social and political practices that simmered away below the surface of the nation. In order to defeat these new enemies, it was not enough to merely administer them; rather, their identities had to be remade so that they could break free of what restricted them.

The aim of the humanitarian intervention is not to merely impose allied regimes, as was the fashion during the Cold War, particularly in Latin America. Authoritarian regimes proved quite good at transforming the economy according to free market values, but weren’t so good on human rights, an integral part of the liberal imaginary. These days, the enemy of freedom doesn’t always operate at the level of the state: it’s the bastions of illiberal practice within the nation that represent the real danger. The drive to create good liberal subjects doesn’t end with the assumption of a liberal democratic regime. Freedom needs to be extended into people’s daily lives so that they can participate fully in the market, for the exercise of liberal political identity is intimately related to the ability to interact freely with the marketplace.

The most common argument in favour of preventing Muslim women wearing the veil – famously undertaken in Belgium and France and now discussed here in Australia – is that the practice is oppressive to women, with the Sarkozy government calling it ‘a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil’.2 Of course, the argument about saving women from oppression has already been widely critiqued elsewhere: it seems everyone with access to a computer and a copy of Said’s Orientalism has rightly derided it as being ‘about our own fears, not their oppression’. Yet what is less discussed is the reason why these fears are so routinely acted upon, the reason why the civilising mission is carried out in the first place. We know what the values of the republic are. But what do these values mean in today’s historical and political context? More specifically, what ways are deemed suitable to practice one’s liberty, equality and fraternity? The answer is, becoming a modern individual who engages with the capitalist political economy free from the constraints of culture or religion.

If women are freed from the ‘oppression’ of the burqa, they become a new market, ready and liberated to engage in the trade of femininity. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a series of ‘missions’ carried out in post-Taliban Afghanistan. ‘Beauty Without Borders’ may seem like a joke idea thought up on an academic girls’ night out but I kid you not, it exists. Sponsored by Vogue magazine and various cosmetic companies, the project ostensibly seeks to empower women by teaching them much needed skills and providing them with a rare source of independent income. Says the project’s founder:

When I first came to Kabul, I was shocked at what these women did to their hair and faces … They would use henna, which is horrible for your hair. The scissors looked like hedge trimmers. They used buckets from nearby wells outside to rinse hair. I asked one of the girls to do my make-up once and I looked like a drag queen.3

Beauty Without Borders seeks to address these important issues, with the none-too-incidental sideline of promoting a culture of consumption. According to the New York Times, one cosmetics executive suggested that the project could not be judged a success if it did not create a demand for American cosmetics before too long.4

This kind of transformation of the way in which the savages practise their identity is the real goal behind the humanitarian interventions of recent years. As US academic Wendy Brown has argued, ‘neo-liberal rationality, while foregrounding the market, is not only or even primarily focused on the economy; rather it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action.’5 The opening up of new markets, then, is not so much about increasing the actual ability to engage in various forms of commerce, but to incorporate previously excluded populations into the ideology of the market. The creator of the Beauty Without Borders program has defended it from charges of surreptitiously promoting US goods by pointing to the unaffordability of the products used for the average Afghan woman. But in light of Brown’s critique, we can understand how the project operates on a deeper level: it is about creating new subjectivities in which individuals understand themselves and their relationship with others in terms of how they interact with the market.

Popular culture reinforces the idea. Consider the women who, in Sex and the City 2, save Carrie and the girls from a mob of angry Arabs in an Abu Dhabi souk and then, caught up in the excitement, remove their burqas to reveal their own designer clothing. Underneath, the savages yearn to be free from tradition and culture, but they just can’t do it on their own.

This is why the humanitarian intervention is, apparently, so badly needed: why, some of these savages don’t even realise they’re not free. A member of the French parliament, proposing a ‘citizenship school’ for obstinate burqa-wearers, explained, ‘the small minority of women who wear the full veil … don’t always know that the principle of equality between men and women is fundamental in France. We need to tell them that if their husbands or fathers force them to do or wear anything they don’t want to, the law is on their side.’6 The great liberal-democratic institution of the law is posited as the most appropriate place to mediate identity, the same law that both enforces and reflects the hegemony of market ideology.

Closer to home, an important aspect of the ongoing NT intervention is the correction of the consumption habits of Indigenous communities. Alcohol and pornography were deemed inappropriate, their purchase restricted. These measures were legitimated through the mobilisation of a moral panic over the behaviour of the savage, who continues to act in ways outside the liberal paradigm of morality, law and ethics. As Marcia Langton has pointed out:

The crisis in Aboriginal society is a public spectacle, played out in a vast reality show through the media, parliaments, civil service and Aboriginal world. This obscene and pornographic spectacle deploys a special mode of dehumanising abuse and parody, and ultimately shifts our attention away from the everyday crises that Aboriginal people endure, or don’t endure, dying as they do at excessive rates.7

The construction of these savage spaces as threatening and debased not only legitimates their intervention, it necessitates it. A sense of urgency is created, a state of emergency, wherein the rules governing ‘normal’ society are cast aside in favour of the greater good of the civilising mission. As Langton argues, this homogenises the population to be intervened upon and sets the discursive limits of debate. That the intervention into Indigenous communities has been tied to child abuse is a clear example. It is difficult to mount a critique of the government’s policy because it has managed to articulate the elements of the very real crisis in such a way that it seems like the only logical response.

Similarly, the oppression of women is held up as a crisis in liberal societies that must be addressed through the banning of the burqa. This is why my date could unblinkingly defend the repression of fifty people’s religious practice as worth less than the freedom of one woman. Liberals often admit that the argument presented in these terms seems extreme, but they then also wring their hands and say, ‘There is no other option’.

It is customary in articles like this to call for a rethinking of the progressive project, reminding the reader of the exhaustion of socialism – or at least traditional models for its achievement – as a credible political alternative in the face of the acceleration of the liberal project. I certainly believe that rethinking is necessary to go beyond the impasse that seems to have been reached where certain analyses are automatically excluded. The campaign for gay marriage springs to mind here, a campaign in which any critique of the institution of marriage and its role in a capitalist society is vociferously shouted down as jeopardising the chances of grabbing at whatever scraps of liberal citizenship are on offer.

We need to go beyond thinking that the struggle for liberation follows a linear path starting at oppression and moving forward, with freedom and other liberal concepts marking our arrival at the ‘better’ end of the spectrum. Obviously, this is not to say that we should campaign against freedom – nor gay marriage rights (nor human rights more generally).

Nonetheless, the relationship of these concepts to liberation and to progressive politics needs to be (re)assessed. Liberalism, like all other big-picture political discourses, creates a certain kind of subject, one that is free to participate fully in the capitalist system. As liberal democracy spreads across the globe, bringing about that famous ‘end of history’, it extends ‘freedom’ to previously ‘unfree’ populations, as a way of remaking those populations, of incorporating them into living and breathing liberal ideology. In other words, it becomes hegemonic. This liberal hegemony needs to be recognised for what it is – a system of power and government, not a stepping stone on the way to a rights-based utopia – and we must mount a sustained critique of it.

  1. State of the Union address, 1941 and Flag Day address, 1942.
  2. ‘France moves one step closer to burqa ban’, 19 May 2010, www.cnn.com, viewed 2 June 2010.
  3. Hamida Ghafour, ‘Afghans flocking to Beauticians Without Borders’, Telegraph, 21 February 2004, www.telegraph.co.uk, viewed 3 June 2010.
  4. David Halbfinger, ‘After the veil, a makeover rush’, New York Times, 1 September 2002, www.nytimes.com, viewed 3 June 2010.
  5. Wendy Brown, ‘Neo-liberalism and the end of liberal democracy’, Theory and Event, vol. 7, no. 1, 2003.
  6. ‘Sarkozy calls burqa ban bill a “moral” choice’, France 24, 19 May 2010, www.france24.com, viewed 5 June 2010.
  7. Marcia Langton, ‘It’s time to stop playing politics with vulnerable lives’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 2007.

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