HRS International

The burka ban – and the bigger picture

On the 12th of April, France officially banned the face veil in public places and on public transport. Muslim women are still allowed to wear the veil inside their homes, at places of worship (where, ironically enough, they can’t wear it, as the face must be visible during prayer) and in their own private vehicles. For all the outrage this ban has caused, it’s important to look closely at the politics at play here.

The burka ban – and the bigger picture

By Rooshanie Ejaz, HRS

(Islamabad): On the 12th of April, France officially banned the face veil in public places and on public transport. Muslim women are still allowed to wear the veil inside their homes, at places of worship (where, ironically enough, they can’t wear it, as the face must be visible during prayer) and in their own private vehicles. For all the outrage this ban has caused, it’s important to look closely at the politics at play here.

The face veil, whose evolution I’ve analyzed extensively here, is considered by some to be a fundamental part of a necessary Islamic practice. It should therefore be a subject of serious and open debate.

In a sense, the conflicts over the veil and over the terrorist threat are even more intimately related than might seem to be the case. Consider the following. Most Muslims are moderates who are busy living their ordinary, day-to-day lives: they have jobs or schools, families, and hobbies that keep them occupied. Before 9/11, most of them didn’t really face any discrimination in the Western countries to which they (or their parents or grandparents) had migrated in the 1960s and 70s. Since 9/11, though, things have been different. If you have a Muslim name, you usually spend a much longer time undergoing airport security checks when entering a western country.

The reason for this, of course, is the advent of large-scale terrorism bred in the Middle East. Now, terrorists by no means form a majority of Muslims. They’re a tiny minority. Yet because of their actions, Muslims all over the world have been affected in some way or another. On the one hand, this is unfair. On the other hand, security concerns are genuine. Too many members of the extremist minority have made sure of that.

Similarly, women who wear face veils and burqas make up a tiny proportion of the Muslim population in the West – in France, the figure is about 0.03 %. Like profiling at airports, banning the veil seems to be a case of targeting a minority. But is it really? The government of Turkey imposed a ban on the face veil for a period of time. This did not spark protests and open anger. Is it permissible for religious bodies to ban or require certain lifestyle choices but not for governments to do the same? Or is it acceptable when a Muslim majority votes to forbid the burqa in Turkey but not when the mostly secular French public does so?

It almost seems as if Muslims fail to regard themselves as ordinary French citizens. This being the case, it seems illogical to fume and riot over the French burqa ban. As Muslims, after all, we bow to the commands of clerical bodies and the will of fanatical masses, which we accept as final and inarguable, but at the same time we refuse to assent to the openly debated and legitimately adopted legislation of the non-Muslim secular democracies in which we reside. There is a dire need to change this mentality. Because not until the majority of Muslim begin to acknowledge and obey the laws of the countries in which they live will it become possible for a substantial number of the moderates in their midst to voice their opinions on religion.

The discrepancy I have mentioned is, to a degree, hypocritical – for while edicts on religious matters may be derived from holy texts, they are, nonetheless, promulgated by people.Governments, too, are run by people. If an individual chooses to live under a secular government, is it not his or her obligation to live by its laws?

Of course, it is important to note that the new law, while targeting the niqab and burqa, does in fact prohibit all facial covering in public, and can thus be construed as an attack on Muslim women’s rights to dress as they please – to cover or uncover, as they wish. Still, since the burqa is worn by a minority of Muslim women, it is equally imperative to realise that the ban does not, in fact, remove any freedom from the majority of Muslim women in France.

Another important point is that the number of adolescent girls wearing the burqa in Europe has increased. One needs only to take a walk through downtown Oslo, as I did recently, to discover this. I am sure that some of the girls I saw wearing a niqab were as young as 6 or 7. Lately I have also seen young girls in Islamabad donning the niqab – something I’d never saw before. Isn’t it important to recognize and acknowledge that these girls are surely not wearing the niqab of their free will? I don’t think it’s possible to want to cover yourself from head to toe at that age unless you’ve been taught by a parent to do so.

So when the debate focuses on the oppression that this ban will supposedly engender by shutting women up inside their homes, or on the fact that some of the women in niqab have never bared their faces to strangers and that it will be psychological torture to force them to do so, I feel compelled to emphasize that making a toddler wear a niqab is also a kind of psychological torture. If you bring up a child to believe that the only “safe” way for her to appear in public is with her face behind a piece of cloth, you aren’t exactly giving her a choice. That twisted notion will shape her entire way of thinking. Another damaging aspect of putting girls in niqab is that what it amounts to is the blatant sexualisation of children. It is just plain wrong to teach a young girl – who should only be concerned with being a child – that she’s an object of desire that must be covered for her protection.

The niqab/burqa also leads to bigger problems. Girls with their face wailed can’t integrate easily with their ethnic European counterparts. I know this because I spent part of my childhood as a schoolgirl in Norway. In my class there were two other Muslim girls, both in hijab, along with youngsters of other nationalities who were learning Norwegian in addition to the usual third-grade subjects. By the end of my first few months there, I was friends with every single one of my classmates – except for the two hijab­-wearing Muslim girls. They continuously asked why I was dressed in such “Western” clothes if I was a Muslim, and they also “warned” me regularly about the “sins” I was accumulating by being friends with the boys in the class.

Luckily, I was brought up by liberal parents, and I always brushed off these attacks because I placed far more importance on having fun, studying and getting along with my classmates than on anything else. Why such a stark difference between me and those two girls? Because I was not brought up with the “fear” of Islam. Which is not to be confused with the fact that I was brought up as a Muslim! I learned to pray, fast and read the Quran at a very young age – but thankfully, my parents considered my social interactions to be my own business.

If the burqa were a quirky hat that a few Muslim women wore to identify themselves as devout Muslims, I don’t think France or Belgium would’ve banned it. But it’s not just a harmless hat. It’s an article of clothing that, in our time, is highly charged politically. If it isn’t part of the Islamic religion, then all this protest against the ban seems moot. These protesting Muslims need to decide: do they think Europe is being Islamaphobic, or that it’s being racist? The truth might be that since the burqa is openly pushed on Muslim women in these “dark times” in which Islam is (according to clerics) under such severe attack, taking away this tool is hurting somebody’s plans.

For my part, I think the reason why there is so much outrage is that Muslims are not ready to let religious edicts evolve. Most people who oppose the ban argue that “today it’s the burqa; tomorrow they’ll be telling us we can’t read the Quran or keep copies of it.” These are the same people who don’t believe in the right of ordinary Muslims to shape their own spirituality. It’s as if being a Muslim requires a uniform. They might even argue that I have no right to participate in such arguments because I don’t follow their Islam down to the absolute last rule and am therefore not a “real” Muslim.

But this is exactly why a ban like this might do some good. It’s an extreme measure that might just turn around things a little. Women can’t be kept shut inside their homes; they’ll have to step outside eventually. But I must admit that when I think of the women who abhor the burqa, have been forced to wear it, and won’t have to wear it anymore in France, I think forbidding burqa is a great thing. If only because it will allow those women to step out into the sun without having to hide, the ban is worth it.