Burqa or bikini, don’t tramp on bedrock freedoms
A French parliamentary report on January 26 called for a ban on the burqa, the full Islamic veil. “The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable,” the report said, adding: “We must condemn this excess.” Click here for full French text.
If anything, it is the French proposal that is excessive and extreme. It infringes on some bedrock freedoms. In that sense, it’s so anti-French. It stigmatises both Islam and Muslim women. The proposed ban is also self-defeating. While it equates the veil with women’s subjugation, it will end up discriminating against those who voluntarily wear it.
According to the French police department, about 1,900 women, mostly living in Paris and below 40, wear the full veil. That’s just .038 of France’s 5 million estimated Muslims.
Unlike many African and Asian Muslim women, who drag on social parameters and are not expected to take informed decisions, these are French Muslim women, brought up in their Western milieu, wearing the burqa by choice. They may no longer have the freedom to do so.
The proposal is preceded by Switzerland’s vote to ban minarets. Together, the two moves represent Europe’s irrational fear of religious symbols. It seems to stem from Europe’s well-known fears of some political symbols.
The burqa is not the same as the Third Reich uniform; neither is the minaret — with its crescent with a star at the centre — the same as the swastika or a hammer and sickle.
Religions have symbols: Judaism has the Star of David, Hinduism has the ‘Aum’ and Chistianity, the Cross. They have often manifested themselves as political symbols; the two uses sometimes not being mutually exclusive.
However, such symbols need to be seen in context. A minaret in a mosque in present-day Europe is an utterly religious symbol, not political.
With an understanding of Islam limited to its political fringe, not the spiritual core, Europeans see in the minaret a symbol of Islamist supremacy. To a student of architecture, it can still be awe-inspiring for its beauty.
The French proposal has its roots in laïcité, which in France began as a complete separation of the Church and State. Now, it has evolved to another extreme and is being taken to ludicrous levels. In 2004, France banned all religious symbols in public schools. In reality, it ended up affecting only Muslim girls’ right to education.
Laïcité has now become, in my opinion, an anti-assimilation force. Those who complain of French dereliction of immigrant Muslims should know how France accommodated Jews in the first place. The French National Assembly in 1791 had declared during a vote to grant full citizenship to French Jews: “They must be granted everything as individuals and nothing as a nation (as a community).”
The proposal to ban the burqa follows President Nicholas Sarkozy’s target of the veil last July, when he called it an “affront to human and civil rights in a modern secular society”.
President Sarkozy’s relationship with Islam itself has been confounding. In January 2008, he went to Saudi Arabia and hailed Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has ever known”. He said: “Fourteen centuries ago, from this place, went forth the great élan of piety, fervor, and faith that would carry off everything it met, that would convert so many peoples and bring about the birth of one of the greatest, most beautiful civilizations that the world has ever known. Here in Saudi Arabia are the holiest sites of Islam, towards which every Muslim in the world turns to pray. […] The West received the Greek heritage thanks to the Muslim civilization. […] No doubt, Muslims, Jews and Christians do not believe in God in the same manner. No doubt, they do no have the same way of venerating God, of praying, of serving him; but, at bottom, who could deny that it is the same God to whom they address their prayers?” For French text, click here.
The veil is frowned upon because western society is open: it likes to see faces and more. The burqa also wrongly conjures up the images of a radical Islam. But attitudes should not be allowed to clash with core freedoms, including the right to wear an attire of one’s choice and practise one’s faith.
There is a flip side to a potential burqa ban. For many women, the burqa means the freedom to move about in public spaces. It allows many Muslim women to go to school and offices, thus empowering them. What happens to women who find themselves extremely uncomfortable without the veil? What options do they have? Remain confined?
The French National Assembly resolution would pave the way for a legislation making it illegal for anyone to appear with covered face. Those turning up at the public offices or any government building wearing the full veil would be denied services. How will France give space to turban-wearing Sikhs or yarmuke-wearing Jews?
As President Obama said in his Cairo speech: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.”
Burqa as tool of domination is a Western interpretation of women’s oppression when seen from the perspective of women who choose it even when they are free to shun it, like French women for example.
The French parliamentary report also recommends measures aimed at Muslim welfare, including the creation of a “national school of Islamic studies”, debates on the nature of Islamophobia and direct aid for the building of mosques and Islamic cultural centres as well as marking of two new national holidays, Islam’s Eid and Judaism’s Yom Kippur.
These proposals were not approved by the commission, and are included in the report simply as “individual suggestions”. Even so, how can France at once think of banning the veil and yet fund mosques?
The Muslim will not be prevented by his religion from being a good French citizen, if only the government will give him his rights. Stepping back from the burqa proposal would be a sagacious first step.