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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Burqa Politics

Is a ban consistent with liberalism?

Politically speaking, July was a big month for the burqa, which has become a flash point of tension between the West and Islam.

A burqa is a cloak-like garment that envelops a woman’s entire body, leaving only her hands and feet uncovered. A face veil (niqab) with a panel of mesh or thin material reveals the woman’s eyes, but otherwise covers her features while allowing her to breathe. The purpose of a burqa is to hide Muslim women from the public view of men who are not family relations. Islamic law requires women to dress modestly but debate rages over whether the burqa is mandatory, as the more extreme interpretations, including that of the Taliban, claim. In July, for example, a female lecturer was barred from teaching at a Muslim university in India because she refused to wear a full veil.

Meanwhile, the influential Sheikh Ayedh al-Garni granted permission to Muslim women to obey laws in nations that ban the burqa.

No less controversy surrounds the burqa in the West. For example:

On July 13, in a self-declared effort to protect “French values,” the French Assembly approved the banning of burqas and niqabs in public by a vote of 335 to 1. The ban goes to the Senate in September, where it is expected to pass. The proposed penalties for wearing a burqa are a hefty fine or attendance at citizenship classes, or both.

On July 28, Bosnia’s national parliament delayed discussion of a proposed ban until its next session on September 1 because “they were threatened by the presence of the woman in the niqab” in the visitors’ section. Or, perhaps, the delay was due to objections by Muslim deputies who called a ban a violation of human rights and religious freedoms.

On July 20 Spain’s parliament rejected by a vote of 183 to 162 a proposal to ban niqabs in public places but a bill to ban burqas in government buildings is scheduled to be heard after parliament’s summer vacation break.

On July 19 British immigration minister Damian Green said Britain would not move to ban the niqab because forbidding women from wearing specific clothing would be “rather un-British” and runs contrary to a “tolerant and mutually respectful society.”

Meanwhile a survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that 62 percent of the British public favored banning the burqa. Another poll placed the figure at 72 percent.

The politics of the burqa are not going away soon. The same Pew poll found that “17 percent of French people were opposed to a ban on the burqa”; “majorities in Germany (71 percent) … and Spain (59 percent) … would support a burqa ban.” Meanwhile, “in the United States, the opposite was true, with two-thirds of Americans saying they were against a ban on full veils in public.” Public opinion in North America could change dramatically, however, and abruptly — for example, in the case of another terrorist attack on American soil. In Canada, more than half the people polled by QMI Agency already back a ban and the number is likely to rise. In August a  YouTube video was posted showing two niqab-wearing women boarding a flight at Montreal airport without any of the security checks that the average Canadian must endure. The response has been outrage.

Why Does the Western World Care?

The most commonsense reason advanced against the burqa is that it obscures facial recognition in situations where security or identification are important. For example, a defendant wearing a burqa in a courtroom might not be identifiable even by relatives who testify. Such situations are uncommon, however, and cannot justify banning the garb on public streets or in general.

Nor can the “prevalence of the problem” be used as justification. On April 19 Belgium’s lower house of parliament passed an burqa ban that was worded to include clothing that obscures the wearer’s identity in public places like streets. Yet the BBC estimated that “Only around 30 women wear this kind of veil in Belgium, out of a Muslim population of around half a million.”

Given the paucity of burqas, Belgium’s response seems hysterical.

Moreover, however many there may be, what is the problem with women wearing the clothes of their choice? Why are many lawmakers aggressively becoming fashion police?

In general, two answers come back to contradict each other. First, the ban is necessary to free Muslim women from male oppression for which the requirement of wearing a burqa has become the living symbol. In short, Muslim women need to be protected and liberated by Western law. Second, the ban is necessary to protect Western culture and safety from radical Islam for which women in burqas have become the living symbol. If Muslim women refuse to abandon objectionable clothing, then the force of Western law must make them comply.

The problem for both answers is the peaceful Muslim woman who wishes to dress according to her own tradition. How can depriving a harmless woman of both personal and religious expression be justified? In an article titled “Forced to Be Free,” the managing editor of Reason magazine, Jesse Walker, explained,

As European countries ponder bans on burqas and headscarves, legislators and pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have tried to justify such laws with the language of liberty. A Spanish politician, for example, denounced the veil as a “degrading prison.” He was not referring merely to families that force women to cover themselves. In that case, the legislation would target the compulsion, not the clothes. The garments supposedly serve as prisons whether or not the wearer wants to don them. Removing them by force, it’s implied, would be an act of liberation.

It isn’t the first time we’ve heard this notion that the exercise of liberty is really an impediment to freedom.

There can be no reasonable argument against removing Talibanesque requirements that women wear burqas. But Western lawmakers who compel women either to abandon the burqa or never appear legally in public are equally intolerant of women’s choices.

Recently, a heartening voice has appeared in the debate:  French businessman Rachid Nekkaz. Calling the proposed ban “a violation of constitutional principles,” Nekkaz and his wife have put up €200,000 as seed money for a project that encourages women to break the law, should France enact it The project would pay their fines and other related expenses. In other words, the Nekkazs want to finance the civil disobedience of an entire class of French society.

If successful, the project will add a new twist to the ongoing debate: women in burqas as social dissidents — as women’s rights activists.

(Steven Horwitz’s “The Calling” will resume next week.)

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.