Veiled Threat

The many problems with France’s proposed burqa ban.

View a  Magnum photo gallery of women wearing veils and protesting France’s restrictions on Muslim headscarves.

A woman wearing a burqa

As a practicing Muslim, even I admit to being somewhat startled by the appearance of the black burqa that entirely veils a woman’s face and body, revealing only a narrow opening for her eyes. Even though the women who wear burqas sometimes remind me of comic book ninjas, I nonetheless understand and respect their choice of dress and freedom of religious expression.

Unfortunately, France’s proposed ban on the burqa is a hypocritical and self-serving justification that betrays its triptych motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Politicians may claim that the ban would protect women’s dignity, national safety, and fundamental French values, but in reality, this overreaching legislation serves only to embolden reactionary Muslim fundamentalists’ shouts that the “West” is at war with “Islam.” Enacting this odious legislation would deprive French female citizens of those very freedoms Europe loudly trumpets as superior examples of its Western enlightenment: gender equality and tolerance. In fact, France is increasingly beginning to resemble its alleged cultural nemesis: those misogynist, archaic “fundamentalists” who allegedly liberate women by forcing them to hide their faces.

France, like many European countries, is reacting to the transformation of its national identity to one that is increasingly brown-hued and adorned with Arabic multisyllabic last names. But lashing out against native-born Muslim citizens and immigrants from North Africa is no way to protect and define its language and “culture”—which is under no tangible threat. Like the Taliban and the Saudi government, France is selfishly using women as silent chess pawns in the greater game of cultural domination and control, and using the canard of protecting women’s rights and national security as a means of rationalizing its bigotry.

Nearly 60 percent of French citizens favor the ban on the burqa that was first recommended last year by a panel of French lawmakers. Recently, the French Council of Ministers approved the bill, which will be voted on in the National Assembly in July before moving to the Senate in the fall. Unfortunately, the government is not required to follow the recommendations of the French Council of State, which advises on laws and has warned the ban is incompatible with France’s Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

No conclusive study has demonstrated that the mere 1,400 to 2,000 women in France who wear burqa face significant safety dangers. Burqa-clad women were not responsible for the 7/7 subway bombing in London or the Madrid train bombings. And last I checked, there is no international league of assassins and criminals known as the “Burqa Bandits” robbing the Louvre. However, I wholeheartedly agree society demands certain safety provisions that require women to occasionally uncover themselves for reasonable identification measures, such as passport photos, driver’s licenses, and airport security. Furthermore, I welcome the provisions in the bill to fine and imprison men who force their wives and daughters to wear the burqa. But those protective measures should not come at the expense of punishing those women who freely choose to wear the garment.

The majority of Muslim scholars believe that women are not required by the Quran to don the burqa. And many Muslim women, even those who wear the traditional head covering of hijab, find its existence anomalous to Islam. Nonetheless, they respect the choice of women who choose to wear it as an expression of their faith. Sadly, sweeping legislative measures like the “burqa ban” humiliate and alienate the moderate Muslim majority and furthermore obfuscate the diversity of opinion that exists within Muslim communities.

Not all Muslim women object to the French ban. Sofia Mazgarova, a Russian-American Muslim who holds a master’s in Islamic studies, told me, “I feel like the French have every right to ban burqa. … If one consciously made a choice to be part of any society, including French, then one has to know and respect that society’s law and culture.” But Susan Carland, an Australian Muslim convert and lecturer of gender studies at Monash University, says: “I’ve found often that even those [Muslim women] who in private criticize the face covering, in public would criticize the ban, as they see it as just another part of the Western war against Islam. They might not like the face covering themselves, but they like even less any Western society telling them how their religion should manifest itself.”

Already, the proposed ban has caused difficult and discriminatory consequences for Muslim women. Recently, a 26-year-old French woman wearing a burqa in France was verbally accosted, likened to the demon Belphegor, told to “clear off to [her] own country,” and finally had her burqa ripped off by a 60-year-old female lawyer and her daughter. The lawyer’s conduct found support from an allegedly liberal attorney in the United States, who admitted, “I was not deeply troubled [by the act.]”

This behavior is neither fraternal nor egalitarian, n’est-ce pas? One wonders whether people would react similarly if the government or individual citizens forcibly stopped gays from holding hands in public or engaged in vigilante-clothing justice by covering excessive cleavage or naked shoulders.

Europe’s paranoid fear of succumbing to Islamization and transforming overnight into “Eurabia” finds its improbable justification in “Muslim” symbols such as the burqa and mosque minarets on its soil. This includes the whopping four minarets in all of Switzerland that drove the country hysterical, and forced it to amend its constitution banning further construction of those oh-so-threatening tall spires. Recently, bills have been introduced in Italy to block the construction of new mosques around the country, similar to a ban already enacted in Milan.

In March, a study by the French American Foundation and the Paris Institute of Political Science revealed “evidence of discrimination [in France] due purely to religion, not national origin.” A 2006 report from the EU Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia found that Muslims “face discrimination in all aspects of life, from housing to employment opportunities to education to cultural practices.”

Instead of cowardly hiding behind vague notions of European culture and society to legislate discrimination against Muslim women, France should embrace its own constitution and ethos of equality by accepting its burqa-clad women as fraternal citizens who’ve earned the right to make their own choices. Any legitimate concerns that Europe has with the burqa and its Muslim citizenry require diplomacy and subtlety. But France is behaving like the Saudi Arabia of the EU by forcibly removing Muslim women’s rights with a legislative guillotine.

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