Banning the Burqa
There has long been criticism over the way that the religion of Islam treats women. People have argued that the system severely oppresses and isolates them. The burqa plays a major role in the claim because it forces women to cover their faces, therefore masking their personal identities. European countries that have been passing legislature to ban the burqa cite this as one of their main grievances. They claim that it is impossible to be a part of a democratic society, which relies so heavily on face-to-face communication and discourse, if one is not recognizable. However, if Muslim women see the burqa and their religion as part of their personal identity, the new laws will be just as oppressive as the religious ones they are trying to put an end to. These new restrictions could be just as devastating and repressive to women who, according to European countries trying to ban the burqa, are already suffering under patriarchal laws disguised as religious practices.
European countries are facing a dilemma. They have consistently been known for their open mindedness towards religious and cultural rights and freedom of expression. However, Europe is full of modern countries. According to one source, European countries are having difficulty trying to “reconcile the values of modern Europe with more assertive expressions of Islamic faith” (Gauthier-Villars, 1). Being a republic, France values communication between its citizens. When members of the population are wearing face-obscuring scarves, this task becomes much more challenging. Justice Minister Alliot-Marie states that “Showing one’s face is a question of dignity and equality in our republic,” if one is not able to do that, they do not seem fully active in the political sphere (Gauthier-Villars, 3). Along with the problem of democratic ideals are the negative values that seem to run alongside the burqa itself. Many maintain the belief that “the Muslim headdresses worn by woman are symbols of misogyny and totalitarian patriarchy” (Sheen, 1). Some, like Nicholas Sarkozy, have even gone as far as to say that the burqa is “a sign of enslavement and debasement” (Gauthier-Villars, 1). The possibility of outlawing the burqa on the grounds of republic ideals would essentially kill two birds with one stone. Not only would it negate the issue of communication, but would also allow women freedom from oppressive religious restrictions. One activist for banning the burqa, Solodkin, stated that “part of democratization is to say no to tradition” (Sheen, 1). Democracy is a form of government that believes in forward momentum. Ideals or traditions that are repressive and restrictive should not be kept simply because of their historical importance. France, in keeping with this statement, previously banned “headscarves, yarmulkes and other visible religious symbols from being worn in public schools, in the name of separation of state and religion” (Gauthier-Villars, 3). This direct example shows how modern European countries are making changes as a means to benefit all.
However, there are some standout representatives of countries that have banned the burqa who feel that it may be an attack on Islam and its women rather than a means of protecting democratic values. Thomas Hammarberg, a commissioner for human rights on the Council of Europe stated that none of the countries that banned the burqa “have…managed to show that these garments in any way undermine democracy, public safety, order or morals” (Schultz, 3). This realization that no definite conclusions were reached encourages the possibility that banning the burqa was a result of “Islamophobia” rather than a democratic or women’s issue. In fact, many women claim that wearing the burqa is a personal and even empowering decision that they made for themselves rather than one forced on them by a patriarchal society.
First, the burqa has taken on many connotations that it may not have been meant to carry. Most people automatically associate the burqa with the religion of Islam; however, this is a serious misunderstanding that is deeply engrained in many Western cultures. The burqa doesn’t come from religion at all; its roots are actually wound in the pre-Islamic cultures of Persia and India. It was created as a “protective response to the slave trade that existed before Islam, rather than a patriarchal one” (Carpenter, 4). Islam itself, in its purest form, is “the most progressive of all religions when it comes to women’s rights” (Carpenter, 4). It allows and expects women to own their own businesses, inherit wealth, choose marriage partners and even divorce them. The negative associations we make with Islam and the oppression of women come from the radical forms of the religion, not the actual teachings.
The majority of Muslim women have chosen to wear the burqa of their own free will. In an article about Muslim women’s opinions of the burqa, the author, Carpenter, stated that “nearly all of those interviewed stressed that wearing the veil was a personal decision, a far cry from the coercion experienced in Afghanistan” (2). She went on to say that “even in countries where the hijab is not required, today more younger women are covering their heads” (3). Obviously the hijab, which only covers the hair, isn’t quite as impeding as the burqa, yet it conveys a strong message. Women are choosing this symbol as a means of representing their faith and they do not see it as a hindrance to their communication with others or as any type of inconvenience. Michelmore, an associate professor of history at Chatham College added to the argument by asserting that she thought “that for many young women, it’s a symbol that they are attached to their culture, they’re proud of their religion, and they see it as part of their identity as separate from the globalized McDonald’s world” (Carpenter, 3). This argument makes it seem like a stretch to say that women who wear the burqa are forced to do so by the patriarchal society that is embedded in the religion of Islam.
According to Carpenter, many Muslim women even see the scarves or veils as forms of feminist expression. This is based on the idea that “it forces people to judge [women] by their character rather than their looks” (Carpenter, 3). In this way, they are empowered by being able to protect their physical appearance. One Muslim woman says that she feels it is liberating because “it protects [her] dignity. [She doesn’t] have to worry about looking good and doing [her] hair all up just to impress others” (Carpenter, 3). Other reasons for wearing the burqa have to do with the sense of belonging it instills in Muslim women. It allows them to be connected to something that it very important to their way of life and is a “visible manifestation of [their] faith” (Carpenter, 1). Michelmore continues to add that for many Westerners, “cultural restraints on individual behavior automatically look like oppression…[however] for lots of cultures, communal standards aren’t seen as inhibiting individual freedoms. They’re seen as part of belonging to a group whose cultures and values are important to those individuals” (Carpenter, 4). It’s important to step out of the Western frame of mind when examining different cultural traditions, like the burqa, because often they are not restrictive in their relative situation. The burqa for Muslim women seems to be a positive choice that they make of their own accord.
While the burqa seems to be an individual choice that Muslim women enter into willingly, there is still the question of how they come to the decision. They say they are not personally oppressed or forced into wearing the burqa, and that is truly believable. However, the question still remains of how a system that expects women but not men to cover themselves came into being. Especially a system that makes women feel like it is fair and okay and makes them do so willingly without protest. Although they do not consider it a form of patriarchy, the fact that the inequality exists makes it seem as such. One source described this phenomenon as a patriarchal hegemony. The burqa is a symbol of patriarchy that is justified under the name of religion and therefore makes women willing to accept it. Women eventually adopt the burqa as a part of their identity, making patriarchy a part of their new identity. Women are consenting to being a player of the subordinate group by participating in the practice of the religion that encourages them into a lower category (Dhanan, 3). This means that, although Muslim women say they are not oppressed and choose the burqa themselves, there is still the possibility that the cultural norms of patriarchal hegemony run deeper than we realize.
Although it is a possibility that European countries are correct in stating that the burqa is a form of patriarchy that oppresses Muslim women, the fact still remains that it is unwise to “fight an oppression with another oppression” (Schultz, 3). By not allowing a group of women to practice their religion freely, not only would they be oppressing the women as well, but they would be going against their commitment to freedom of religion. Even though it is important to make sure that women have equal rights, in this case, with the population of Muslim women who wear the burqa in the European countries being so small, it seems like a case of paranoia at a religion that has recently been taking a lot of heat in the media. Islam has continuously been negatively publicized, especially for its treatment of women, even though it preaches equality in its purest form. While the burqa is definitely a religious norm to question and to speculate the necessity of, it is not the governments place to intervene on the religious territory of a woman’s daily life.
Carpenter, Mackenzie. “Muslim women say veil is more about expression than oppression.” PG News. N.p., 28 Oct. 2001. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.
Dhanan, Jay. “On Burqa Ban in Belgium.” Pragoti: Progress and Struggle. N.p., 17 Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Feb. 2011.
Gauthier-Villars, David, and Charles Forelle. “French Parliament Passes Law Banning Burqas.” The Wall Street Journal 15 Sept. 2010: 1-4. WSJ.com. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.
Schultz, Teri. “Belgium Unites to Ban the Burqa.” Global Post. N.p., 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.
Sheen, David. “After France, Israel considers ‘banning the burqa.’” Haaretz 10 Feb. 2010: 1-3. Haaretz.com. Web. 9 Feb. 2011.