For the past few weeks, I have been preoccupied with the debate around the French ban on the burqa, opposing it quite vehemently and vocally. The ban on veils in Belgium last year sparked my interest in the debate. On April 11, in protest of the French ban, I changed my profile picture on Facebook (as you do these days to register your protest) to Mona Lisa in a niqab, making her mysterious smile ever more mysterious. What was most revealing, and in a way shocking, was the reactions from many of my Muslim friends on my stance and the articles I posted.
I must start by stating that I’m not pro-burqa, but my argument is simple: No one has the right to tell a person how to dress — neither their family nor the state. I oppose the law banning the burqa for the same reasons I would oppose being told to wearing one.
By making a state law against something, you impose just one interpretation and deny freedom to all others. In France, it started with the 2004 law banning all religious apparel in schools but which mainly targeted the hijab that Muslim girls wear. And last year, the parliament voted on banning burqa-style Islamic veils. The French have been disingenuous about what their intent is and have banned what they call “covering of the face”. The women who defy the ban will be charged a €150 fine. It’s safe to say that the French have taken their hypocrisy and concept of ‘laïcité’ a bit too far.
I fail to see why a law needs to be passed in a country of many millions, which will apply to only about 2,000 people in France and in Belgium’s case a total of 30. How does a few women wearing burqas hurt anyone or impinge on anyone’s culture? The ban on the burqa has, in fact, exposed France’s growing intolerance towards Islam and is not rooted in French concerns over protection of its culture or oppression of women (we know how the French treat minorities). Sadly, it is deeply rooted in politics and Nicholas Sarkozy’s desire to appease the right.
Given Europe’s horrific past of oppressing religious and ethnic minority, the current political trends give Muslims and other minorities a cause to worry. It makes you wonder whether the burqa is the first in line for other similar laws in the future. If a society truly values diversity and freedom, then one must accept that there will be people who are different and may wish to express this through clothing. A society that tries to prevent such differentiation is essentially intolerant and conformist.
Many of my friends argued that it was ridiculous of me to support the ban since the burqa has become a symbol of oppression in Muslim society and has no place in the 21st century. To them, I would say that first, I try and keep my personal feelings and prejudices out of the matter and second, that the issue is not about what a burqa represents, but rather about what you are saying to a minority in your country about their freedom of expression.
That said, there is some validity to the argument that the burqa does reduce women to be seen as ‘things’ to be owned and kept hidden away. Wearing it restricts not only movement, but interaction, and this is used throughout the Muslim world to subjugate and repress women. But again, the point is that we tend to often view things from a personal lens and forget that it may not mean or represent the same to those who choose to wear such attire.
One friend argued: “Western countries have countless laws which impose such similar restrictions, but are conveniently forgotten. I can’t understand what the big fuss is about when most people agree that burqa is not a part of Islam but a cultural tradition. Would the same people who oppose this ban on burqa, oppose the ban on nudity and obscenity?”
Again, to counter that, one I would say that any ban or enforcement on clothing items (or lack thereof) from a state, is oppressive, even if the idea behind that is to rid society of oppressive elements within it. Such bans are counter-intuitive and counterproductive and will end up further alienating those who are already on the margins.
Then there is the argument that wearing a burqa is a security risk because it could be used by criminals as a cover to commit crimes, or that the identities of those who wear them are not known. And again, there is a rational response to that: That even if a few people misuse it, that doesn’t give the state carte blanche to criminalise it. Also, perhaps one should give all the instances where it has been misused in Europe in the past several years.
The case of Turkey is cited, since it also implemented a similar prohibition in 1997 — though 11 years later it was amended to make it more flexible. However, in Turkey’s case, the implications are different — it is a Muslim-majority country and, while a ban cannot be supported in any case, at least having such a prohibition in Turkey doesn’t impinge on a minority community’s freedom. There are more effective ways of dealing with such issues rather than bans, one example would be an intelligent, targeted public awareness campaign.
As Muslims, we get too caught up with emotions and what we associate the burqa with. The result is that we tend to not look at things objectively. Yes, the growing rate of burqas and niqabs in Muslim countries is a cause for alarm, but we are fighting the battle on the wrong continent and are doing a disservice to the Muslim minorities residing in Europe. Let’s get rid of the burqa where it poses problems — where it’s used as a tool to oppress women. Let’s take the battle to where it ought to be fought: South Asia and the Middle East — not by passing laws, but by creating a space for public discourse.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2011.
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