Proposed ban on burqas reveals off-base assumptions

Monday, July 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:59 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 19, 2009

Well, I’ll be. Looks like people are calling the French arrogant. Perhaps we could riff wittily on the teeth of the British, compare Germans to clockwork and call it a day.

Or perhaps we could take a moment to examine the issue behind this round of stereotype affirmation. The match starting the fire was a comment made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy: Burqas, he said, are not welcome in France.

Sixty-five French ministers pushed for the government to consider a prohibition of such Muslim coverings, and Sarkozy’s non-grata comment came in a related speech. Although the president didn’t outright endorse a burqa ban, he did call them signs of subservience and degradation. There wasn’t, shall we say, much mincing of words.

The outfits in question are worn by observant Muslim women, and the racy versions enshroud them almost entirely, leaving a slit for the eyes. (Others provide only a fabric mesh to look through.)  The women who wear burqas look, to borrow a phrase, like extras in a low-budget ghost film. More important, however, is that donning these clothes is often a choice made for a woman rather than by her.

Depending on how you look at it, the proposed ban, which would make it illegal to wear burqas outside the home, can seem heroic or racist; it is a blow to religious freedom or a boon for secular liberation. Although this news broke a few weeks ago, the flood of response has yet to show signs of letting up.

The two main justifications for a ban are that women who wear burqas are having their own rights undermined and are meanwhile undermining the secular tradition of France. The latter is long-established and stronger than most countries’; secularism has even been called its “state religion.”

Recent evidence is a 2004 law that banned the wearing of conspicuous religious insignia in schools. Although this included large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, the move was considered mainly a blow to Islamic head scarves. The country survived the controversy, however, which likely made it easier to start this more direct campaign against Muslim apparel.  

More subjective is the claim that burqas are a blow to women’s rights. During the discussions of the French National Assembly, the burqa was called an “ambulatory prison,” and the West has used it as a symbol of (supposed) foreign barbarism since Europeans started wantonly colonizing other continents centuries ago.   

Some prominent French Muslim women, such as Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara, agreed. “The burqa is a prison, it's a straitjacket,” she said in relation to a burka-wearing Moroccan being denied French citizenship. “It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes … ”

Because women who wear the burqa often do so because of peer or family pressure, making it illegal would, as the logic goes, give the women a way to throw off their shrouds without being socially stigmatized.

The problem is that not all Muslim women wear burqas under duress, crazy though it may seem; the ban's supporters want to “liberate” some people against their will by depriving them of the ability to dress how they wish — a right bound up closely with one’s senses of comfort and identity.

An Indian friend once offered me the analogy of some foreign power sweeping into America and telling me to take off all my clothes because I was now free and could thank them any time. Just because Western standards for indecent exposure are different from those in other societies, that doesn’t make them uniquely right, and saying that people can only live in "The Land of Human Rights" if they follow a certain dress code seems awfully counterintuitive.

This is also where the arrogance comes in, with a Western government potentially forcing Muslims to be free whether they like it or not, with the proponents assuming women who want to wear the veil only do so because they don’t know any better, with ministers deciding that they’ll deprive citizens of choice for their own good.

On some level, there is xenophobia at work here, too. In her book “Dress Codes,” Ruth Rubinstein explains that “clothing signs endow strangers with known characteristics.” The signals clothing can send are so powerful, she adds, that it’s actually illegal to dress like a police officer or doctor in America.

The signals that burqas send make Westerners, scared as they are of Muslims because of some very isolated and horrid individuals, uncomfortable. Granted, it's also unsettling to not see facial expressions, the primary means of communication, but one has to wonder if Muslim women wore equally obscuring clothing that sent more soothing signals — like, say, full-body Santa Claus costumes — whether the National Assembly would even be having this discussion.

All that, however, doesn’t mean a ban would do more harm than good, but that the nonhegemonic side bears serious consideration during the debate. Lest the playful stereotype become an unfortunate truth. 

 Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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Iftikhar Ahmad July 14, 2009 | 5:43 a.m.

I have seen western educated Muslim women are in Burqa while their mothers never even covered their heads in Pakistan. I do not know whether it is due to western education or because they find themselves victim of racism. According to Lord Burtend Russell, western education makes a man stupid and selfish. The credit cruch in the world is due to the policies of blue eyed western educated elites. British schooling is also in a mess because of such western educated elites.

Burqa is not locking women, it is a buffer line between protecting chasity and exposing. Being naked and drunk is acceptabl but being covered and modest is inhuman.

French president wants Muslim women to be topless like his wife who posed topless in fashion shows. He has no right to ban the burqa because it is undemocratic and an unqualified attack on individual freedom. Burqa is not just a piece of cloth but a lot of ideological and cultural connotation to it. Women are just being exploited in the name of rights. Burqa protects women's rights and treat each women like a princess. No one has the right to ban the freedom of choice in a secular and democratic country. The right to choice is a basic fundamental right the person should have.

French president's interpretation of burqa as a symbol of subservience is false. It is a usual habit of western ideologists to twist history and distort the facts inorder to project their culture as superior one. The president should be criminally tried for spreading such falsehood. To veil or not to veil should be an individual choice. Dress codes are for children, not for adults. Government legislated dress codes for the Taliban religious policy not western democracies. Women should be free to wear burqas. If women can get away with wearing cropped shirts and pants that show their panties, they should be able to waer burqas too.

One Muslim woman, Caroline Chaiima, writing in, said she wore a veil: "Let those most closely concerned speak. I am a French woman born in France, with French parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and I am a Muslim. I wear the full veil and I feel like saying: So what? I am happy behind the veil, I protect myself from depraved stares. Neither my father, nor my brother, nor my husband forced the full veil upon me; it's a personal choice."
Iftikhar Ahmad
London School of Islamics Trust

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking July 14, 2009 | 8:08 a.m.

I tend to agree. Why does this have to be an issue at all in France, other than some are afraid of their increasingly Islamic population? Why not let people just wear what they want?

However, Dr. Ahmad, you might come across better if you were a little less judgemental of western "elites". The knowledge and technology of western nations has helped Islamic countries immeasurably.


(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro July 14, 2009 | 12:43 p.m.

In a religious, low-tech cultural environment where one's anonymity, demeanor and desert wind-blown sands may be a concern, in America it is also frowned upon to have your physical identity hidden/obscured when surrounded by public and private security cameras on the streets, at traffic lights, in the mall, in casinos, at banks, in hospitals, etc.
Ball caps, hoodies, masks and clown make-up would be frowned upon by bank tellers and red-light enforcement camera operators. The burqa should be a security/identifcation concern, not a "woman's rights" issue in America.

("This type of dress has its origins with desert times long before Islam arrived. It had two functions. Firstly as a sand mask in windy conditions. This would be worn by men and women and is still common today. For women only the masking of the face and body was used when one group was being raided by another. These raids often involved the taking of women of child bearing age. With all women hidden behind a veil, and the home team fighting back, the chances of being taken were substancially reduced as the women of child bearing age could not be quickly distinguished from the very young and the old.")
IMHO, you can't have a type of clothing which obscures a person's physical identity in a broader culture which spends money on security, law enforcement and revenue-generating devices. It discriminates against the masses, unless criminals, motorists and other "shy" people are allowed to wear burqas as well. And, that would include men and women just as in the desert times. After all, it's just clothing and no one really knows why it's being worn, except for the wearer.

(Report Comment)

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