February 15, 2010

Beneath the Burqa: Islam, Secularism and Liberty

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Ever since French President Nicolas Sarkozy infamously stated that the burqa was “not welcome” in his country, triggering a contentious debate between Muslims, secularists and everyone in between, I’ve been struggling to identify what exactly is at issue. Women’s rights? Secularism? National security? French culture? Is the French parliamentary panel’s proposed ban on full-veils — the burqa and the niqab — legitimate legislation or the latest form of Islamophobia?

A few arguments:

1) The burqa does not signify piety, but is a symbol of radical political Islam.

To some extent, this is true, but not entirely. The Quran does not stipulate that women must wear the burqa; in fact, the burqa is not mentioned at all. The Quran only instructs Muslims to dress modestly — both men and women. However, Islamic scholars have interpreted this requirement, called hijab, in many different ways, most commonly by covering hair. In Saudi Arabia for example, where the ultra-conservative Wahhabism is practiced, women are required to wear the headscarf in public by law. Yet most women wear the burqa. The connection between Wahhabism and militant Islamist groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban, and moreover, the Taliban’s brutal treatment of Afghan women has caused many in the West to associate the full-veil with not only the subordination of women, but with terrorism. Yet this logic is somewhat flawed — just because burqa-wearing Afghan women were oppressed does not necessarily mean that burqa-wearing French women are also oppressed, or have anything to do with the Taliban. Such assumptions are ignorant and endorse false stereotypes on which militant extremists thrive. In the words of the NYT editorial board, “the Taliban would be pleased.”

2) The burqa ban violates individual liberty — an idea fundamental to democracy and the French national motto: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity).

Freedom of dress — and of religion — are core Western values. Yet so is secularism, especially in France where separation between church and state is, in some views, extreme. In 2004, French parliament passed a ban on religious symbols in public schools. Though the law was perceived as an attack on Muslim headscarves (which cover just the hair and not the face), it applied to the Jewish yarmulke, Sikh turbans and large crosses as well. The proposed burqa ban goes one step further in that it would prohibit women who wear the full-veil from using all public services including hospitals and public transportation. Is it a crime to be ultra-modest and go beyond the pious dress stipulated in the Quran?

3) Something to consider: Secularism is to France as Islam is to Saudi Arabia.

If I go to Saudi Arabia — an Islamic country governed by Sharia law — I would be forced to comply with Islamic law and wear the hijab, regardless of my own religious beliefs. Refusing to adopt Islamic dress would not only be deemed culturally and religiously intolerant, but illegal. So if Saudi women come to France, is dressing in accordance with secular law — i.e. no hijab — really any different? France is staunchly secular in the same way that Saudi Arabia is staunchly Muslim.

The problems with these arguments is that they are absolute and do not account for the women beneath then veils. Instead of trying to understand French-Muslim women’s history, identity and their reasons for veiling, Sarkozy has wrongly assumed that they are all “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” In advocating a stereotype that all burqa-wearing women are oppressed and subservient — focusing on a piece of cloth at expense of individual women — Sarkozy is also depriving women of their identity. While yes, it is true that some women are forced or coerced to wear the burqa, it is also true that many women choose to wear it. And despite common belief, not all of these women are Saudi or Afghan or have any personal connection to the Arab/ Islamic world. In their eyes, they are as “French” as anyone else.

The burqa is not one symbol, nor is there one sole reason why women wear it. In an ideal world, all women would be able to choose for themselves whether to veil or not to veil. While Sarkozy may seek to protect Muslim women who may be forced to wear the burqa, forbidding women from wearing it altogether undermines the very principle of choice on which French liberty is founded. If passed, this law will only affect a tiny portion of the French population — fewer than 2,000 women currently wear the burqa — though the plausible backlash and resentment from the greater Muslim community will likely be profound.

Ultimately though, the burqa ban is not about liberating women, but the greater struggle to reconcile Islam and the West in our increasingly globalized world. As evidenced by the recent minaret ban in Switzerland, and the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, hostility towards the growing Muslim voice in Europe is a harsh reality. What really needs to be addressed is the lack of integration of Muslims in Europe, both culturally and economically. While it is easy to point to an article of clothing or an architectural feature as the reason for such assimilation challenges, these are ultimately weak and superficial efforts at dealing with complex, hard-to-tackle issues. Women are empowered not by fashion choices, but social, cultural and economic changes that give them opportunities to make decisions independent of any man, family member or government official. Now that is liberty.

Carolyn Witte is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cwitte@cornellsun.com. Wit’s End appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte