Posted by: cousindampier | 12 August 2010

On the Burqa Ban

Here is interesting, but old, coverage of it

(Ayaan Hirsi Ali was how I found this, because I was curious about what she had to say. Her life, briefly, is she was born in Somolia, was genitally mutialted at age five in accordance with tradition by her grandmother, though her father was opposed, went to a Saudi-funded religious school in Kenya where she became rigerous in her interpretation of Islam, wearing the burqa and living by the book. She was exposed to the West when attending Secratarial school in Nairobi, and fled to the Netherlands when her father arranged for her to marry her cousin, claiming asylum there. Also noteworthy: When Theo van Gough was murdered in Amsterdam, the note stuck to his body by knife was addressed to her, informing her that her death was next, as she had worked on van Gough’s film Submission.)

I think the issue isn’t freedom of religion as much as it is the cultural acceptance of freedom of religion. The First Amendment states directly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

On that basis, the ban in France is entirely wrong. Government should make no law prohibiting the free exercise of freedom of religion. Yet, government also has a duty to ensure each individual has that freedom – the first hundred years of the American existence voided the rights of blacks to practice free exercise, speech, press, assembly, and, obviously, petitioning the government for a redress of grievances; not to mention the rest of the Amendments nor the restrictions placed on First Nations, women, bi-racial people, and males who did not or could not own land.

Slavery is obviously wrong. The essence here is what Ali believes to be true: Islam has not had a discussion about the role of women, nor the relationship of women to men, nor the basic human rights which other countries had.

That sounds like cultural supremacy. I argue it is not, on the basis that to the extent Islam had a reformation it is over who is the rightful heir to Mohammed; also, it is the youngest of the three religions by roughly 400 years and the way in which it was spread – from the steppe as opposed to from the land (waves of invaders as opposed to settlements) prohibited conflagration of thought. If it is cultural supremacy, then it is simultaneously cultural supremacy to impose our view of religious freedom on France. Here, the statute was established to protect both the state and religion from claims by the other. In France, freedom of religion is traditionally meant as the protection of the individual against the claims of organized religion, and religion in country is considered to be something relegated entirely to the private sphere. Public expression of religion, while not wrong, is frowned upon.

Also, Islam as a whole is not wrong. It can co-exist peacefully, to roughly the same extent as other religions can (we need look no further than Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland, and the support each garnered in America).

In essence, the question becomes: Can Islam tolerate the same freedom of thought and expression mixed with adherence to religious doctrine? Like Jewel pointed out, wearing the burqa in America tends to be different. Few communities can exist in total isolation in this country, and any women forced to live a life without choice will have a tremendously difficult time avoiding exposure to other thought and viewpoint, but that brings up an excellent point in itself. Why is there a serious debate in France but not in America? Because in America, the percentage of females who wear the burqa is smaller. That is either because the population is more dispersed, or more likely, fewer women wear it. This can be for any number of reasons, but the main point remains that given the choice, women choose not to wear it. France also has a much more concentrated immigrant population, as opposed to the United States, and those communities can interact with each other solely more constantly.

(The issue of Islamic law and American law come into consideration here. We’ve not had a major case of a father murdering his daughter, or cutting off her nose and face which I can recall; there is, undoubtedly, bound to be one, pitting Freedom of Religion vs. Freedom of Speech (expression)/Basic Human Rights).

So is Islam in other societies the same way? In this respect, I see the French Law roughly the same as the Arizona immigration law. With Arizona, I don’t agree, but I understand why it happened. (I tolerate the French law more. It seems more just to me, but I do not know if it is fair). I think other societies do, but the European version of the America hysteria over Hispanics tends to be over Muslim immigrants. Therefore, much of the outrage may well be against the outsider, which is unfortunate because it ignores what is an entirely legitimate question: What is the relationship between Islam – the type which requires the burqa to be worn – and human rights? Do women in Islamic communities have the same freedom of choice and expression as men?

That, I’ve no answer for, as I don’t know the Koran that well. But in the cases of the burqa, or Aisha (women on the cover of Time, whose response to “What will you do now” was, “I’d like a new nose.”), or Hirsi Ali, the answer is very much no.

In regards to the idea of Catholic Nuns wearing their garb – I think they should ditch that too. And I know there is plenty about different cultures in the United States which doesn’t allow female choice on the equality of males – the Mormons spring to mind rather quickly. But because something is wrong in this country doesn’t mean all problems must be solved here before we look abroad, nor is it hypocritical. There are many things unjust about the world, this is just one of them.

I don’t know, exactly, where I fall on the notion of a ban. I tend to think it is wrong, but I also tend to think many women don’t have the choice about wearing it. I will say I think banning the burqa in school is a good idea, as is the English law making it a criminal offense to leave the country to engage in genital mutilation. We don’t have that law in the US – it is only against the law to do it in the country. People are free to leave and return, having committed the crime out of country.



  1. You are right; the burqa is associated with thousands of human rights violations. However, one thing I would like to research is the number of laws passed that prohibit articles of clothing/uniforms because of their connections to violence, oppression, etc. I guess i’m just wondering what the ban would solve and whether Muslims in France and around the world would actually appreciate what the French government claims it is trying to do. In my experience, most religious people value a “higher law” more than their elected officials. And unfortunately, Islamic law puts women at one rank above dogs. How would the French govt or any govt handle imprisoning a woman wearing a burqa by choice? I haven’t read the text of the ban, and maybe there’s some exceptions for certain situations. But i don’t the ban functioning the way it’s supposed to or benefiting anyone in the end.

  2. ‘This American Prospect’ has a good article on the issue as well, pointing out that:

    “Even worse, it could lead to those in the most fundamentalist of households being trapped inside their homes altogether. It would be cruel to limit these women’s options in the name of liberation, even if their clothes are a rebuke to the secularism that the French rightly hold sacred.”

    If the issue is choice, and choice is encouraged by intermixing, then a ban is completely counterproductive because it further isolates that portion of society.

    Link is here:

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