Sunday, April 17, 2011

Should the west ban the burka?

France just recently enacted a law which bans wearing full face covering in public. With the specific intent of preventing practising Muslim women from wearing full face religious veils such as the burka.

This is a very hot topic at the moment and I have to say that leading up to this point I was quite undecided on which side I stood. Both sides have some valid and strong points and I'm really not sure there is a clearly right or wrong answer. In the end, while I agree it completely sets off all my “anti-xenophobic" alarms, I have to say I support the ban of face covering in public, especially as a display of religious affiliation. 

Here is why. 

The bottom line is the burka and similar outfits are a backwards custom which symbolises oppression and inequality, subjugates women and promotes an unwillingness to assimilate or partake in free society.

 The main issue seems to be that even if it is all those things, shouldn't Muslims be free to do this in our so called free society? Banning anything just because we don't like it is undemocratic; it reduces freedom not increases it. It is argued that some, maybe many, Muslim women wear a veil completely of their own free will. They don't think it is oppressive or discriminatory, they believe it is part of their religious duty which they undertake, even with pleasure. 

Especially in America there really seems to be a culture of aversion regarding ANY laws which can be interpreted to intrude on freedoms in any way, indeed it seems that there is quite a lot of opposition to this law coming from the States. But I think it is too easily forgotten that the freedoms we enjoy today were often hard fought and won by people in the face of opposition, not just the result of "people being free to do whatever they want". The fact is, like it or not, our society already legislates things to conserve a certain level of fundamental cultural norms. Our free and equal culture is not some sort of default that would be reached if everyone did whatever they pleased. People left to their own devices would most certainly not result in a free and equal society for everyone.

There are such things as laws that protect our freedoms, as well as protect certain norms that we consider decent and valuable in society. There's a spectrum of laws which try to obtain a balance, It's not always (or even often) clear cut or black and white, but we do our best, slowly improving on the norms of the past. I'm not claiming every step is in the right direction, but over all progress is undeniably being made. Western cultures have fought for freedoms and rights that we now enjoy and mostly take for granted, some of those freedoms which Muslim cultures have not yet achieved. I'm thinking specifically of movements such the sexual revolution and the woman's rights and more recently gay rights movements. Each of these have had massive impacts on our culture and what we consider to be normal, equal and fair. These are some of the reasons why why we wouldn't imagine creating a culture where one gender is expected to never show so much as a wrist in public, let alone their nose or hair. These are movements which do not have analogues in any Muslim society and I think most of us these days take that for granted. 

Do people now assume that anyone growing up in a different culture is just going to come to a democratic western society and automatically "get it"? They'll see our way of life and it'll be like a veil falling from their eyes? Pardon the pun, but that's some of the sentiment that seems to be coming from the people who oppose this ban. As if we got to this point without any effort and as if our society is so obviously “better” that resistance to assimilation is futile. All we have to do is let them see and they'll be converted, but I don't think that is at all necessarily the case. I think it's predominately a numbers game and I think the burka is the very embodiment of opposition to the free democratic western way of life. 

There would be some cultures which would like to import customs like genital mutilation or stoning but we already have "umbrella" laws about causing direct physical harm to others, so those customs have to be left behind, no matter how pious they are to the adherents. We also have other laws about direct sexual discrimination which don't cause immediate physical harm, but we still legislate them because they contribute to our free society. However we've never had "umbrella" laws about burkas purely because our society never had that kind of issue to deal with before. This I think is a very important point. Just because we never had a law regarding what we can and can't wear, doesn't mean that such a law would be automatically undemocratic or unfair. But of course we DO already have some laws regarding what people can and can't wear in public.
I think part of the difficulty is that people in free western societies are prone to judge other cultures through their own “filter”, as if all cultures are equally progressive and we should display equal tolerance to all of them. If I think I should have the right to wear a burka if I want, then why should that right be denied anyone else? This seems like the politically correct thing to do. In my opinion however the problem with this argument is the difference in “intention”.

I offer a quote: 

"President, Bazm-E-Khwateen, Begum Shahnaz Sidrat stated that burqa or veil in any form cannot be termed as a sign of backwardness. "It is a means for women to remain modest while they are venturing out for work or other purposes. The females of western countries do not use veil and are thus promoting indecency rather than development," 

For many Muslims the burka is not just a symbol, but indeed a physical shield to prevent inadvertent “westernisation”.

If we tolerate or harbour these backwards customs, we are in effect giving a "free pass" for some to ignore the freedoms our society has fought to establish. Give out too many free passes and we might find our societies literally divided between those who want freedom and democracy and those who want everyone to obey ancient barbaric customs from centuries ago. If it's not politically incorrect to demand that backwards customs like FGM and stoning be checked in at the border, I really don't see why some people are finding it so outrageous that we could expect the same of a custom so oppressive and overtly sexist as the burka.

However like I said, I do think it's a numbers game. I don't believe every western society all of a sudden needs to ban the burka. In most countries, isolation and alienation play a strong enough part in seeing these kinds of customs disappear, even if it takes a generation. However in countries like France that have large potentially self sustaining communities of Muslims, a law like the one they've introduced might give it that extra needed push. 


  1. That is well said, but I wonder if you're still looking at it through a cultural filter - which in itself is kinda necessary cause nothing exists in a vacuum.

    The way I look at it though, and I think this is divorced from cultural leanings, is that I can't walk around 24/7 with my motorbike helmet on. I can't walk into banks and most stores, or go to work wearing one, and if I wore it around on the street long enough eventually a copper would stop me, ask me what I was playing at, and tell me to take it off.

  2. I support the oppressive side of your argument. Let's now tackle the catholic church...


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