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February 10, 2010

Burqa, niqab and legislating French fashion

Reuel S. Amdur

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Why are niqabs and burqas a major national issue in France?

There is serious concern about the fact that 0.1% of French Muslim women wear them.  That’s all of 0.003% of the French population. 

France had its security apparatus investigate the dangerous trend, in their spare time, no doubt.  Legislation is being prepared.  As one person noted, “Nowadays, women have the right to take their clothes off, but not to put them on.”

It certainly is puzzling that in the midst of a major economic crisis the whole French political establishment is tied up in knots over what 2,000 women are wearing. 

The xenophobic right is solid, and they are on side with the Communists and other leftists fighting the battle for secularism.  These same forces were successful in limiting the wearing of the hijab.

The battle against the hijab was waged in the name of secularism, and the principle was that there would be a restriction on the wearing of large religious symbols, so along with the hijab the yarmulke and the Sikh turban also felt the pinch. 

However, the egalitarian secularists missed one thing.  In limiting their strictures to large symbols, they were targeting only relatively vulnerable minorities.  They did not clamp down on all religious symbols.  Will they correct this omission and force Christian women to remove their little crosses?  You would not want to put too much money on that one.

Concern about the wearing apparel of an insignificant number of women is not unexpected. 

It was preceded by the earlier attack on the hijab worn by a larger minority of French Muslim women, and it takes place during President Nicolas Sarkozy’s provocative country-wide debate on “national identity,” giving a platform to all shades of prejudice. 

In this atmosphere, anti-Muslim vandalism is on the increase.

While Sarkozy is trying now to slow the anti-burqa anti-niqab excitement down, his actions have given it a head of steam on its own. 

He has responded to the proposal by calling for delay, but he has also said that “The full veil is not welcome in France because it runs contrary to our values and contrary to the idea we have of a woman’s dignity.”

Supporters of efforts to ban such dress charge that it is a prison for women, that it is imposed by men, and that the Muslim religion does not require such attire. 

The last argument fails to recognize that people interpret their religion in many different ways.  It is strange that what claims to be a liberal organization would seek to impose religious uniformity.  But let us address the other justifications for a ban.

The reasons that women wear a niqab or burqa vary. 

No doubt the critics are right that some have it imposed by husbands or other males in the family.  However, such is not the case universally. 

Where a woman grew up wearing a facial covering, especially where those around her also did, the covering may be part of her identity. 

In some cultures, women do not cover their breasts, but many Western women would have difficulty “going native” if they found themselves in such a place. 

Then, finally, there are women who wear a niqab or burqa because they see it as a religious statement that they want to make. 

For my own part, I do not like the burqa and the niqab, but I look even less favorably on people having limbs full of tattoos or faces full of pins and studs. 

So how would we go about changing the behavior? 

Easier for the wearing attire than for the tattoos and piercings.  Why not try tolerating it? 

If we do not force the issue, many people will tend in the long run to change their dress to the general mode.  I recently met a policeman wearing metal bracelets. He is a Sikh.  He wasn’t wearing a turban and he did not have a large ceremonial sword at his side. 

Forcing the issue on such a relatively insignificant matter can engender anger, resentment, and even radicalism, the radicalism that opponents of the burqa and niqab fear and wish to squelch. 

We should be very wary about forcing people to behave the way we want them to behave, even if we think that it is in their own best interests. 

Back in 2007, Asma Jahangir, a Muslim Pakistani lawyer and UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, spoke at the University of Ottawa. 

At the time, the issue in France was the hijab, but her remarks apply equally well to the current issue. 

In France, she said, “I asked, ‘Are the women with hijab bothering you?  Are they courting violence?’  One country forbids head covering and another says women must cover their heads.  Why can’t you just leave women alone?” 

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