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Time to Ban the Burqa? French Minister Says Yes

4 years ago
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Oh, dear. The burqa wars are back. In an interview with the Financial Times on Saturday, one of France's junior ministers -- Fadela Amara -- called for an all-out ban on the garment.

And she didn't mince words. According to Amara, the burqa represents "the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation." An outright ban would help stem the spread of the "cancer of radical Islam." Amara -- a feminist and former woman's rights organizer -- is of Algerian descent.
Support for a ban on burqas has been steadily gaining steam in France over the past few months. In June, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that burqas are not welcome in France. He rejected the notion that they are a form of religious expression, calling them instead a sign of subjugation. A parliamentary committee was set up to determine the compatibility of the burqa with France's republican tradition of equality between men and women. (As of 2004, it is already illegal to wear headscarves in France's public schools.)

Just last week, the flames of this fire were again stoked when a 35-year-old French convert to Islam was kicked out of a public pool east of Paris for wearing a "burqini" -- a veil/tunic/pants ensemble designed for swimming. While local authorities insisted that she was ejected from the pool for reasons of hygiene, the woman is exploring legal actions on the grounds of discrimination.

There are two predictable sets of reactions when the subject of veils comes up in Europe. On the one hand, you have people like Sarkozy and Amara who see this through the prism of women's rights.

Others see the issue through the prism of the growing Islamization of Europe. The anxiety here is that the more you demonize Islamic dress, the more likely you are to fuel anti-Muslim discrimination (which is -- not incidentally -- on the rise, particularly against women who wear headscarves applying for drivers' licenses, etc). You also arguably create Islamic ghettoes that only marginalize the Muslim community all the more, when the very purpose of all this legislation is ostensibly to integrate.

Me? When I moved to London three years ago -- and to the extent that I thought about this issue at all, which was very little -- I was more in the women's rights camp. I didn't know any Muslims in America. I simply never came in contact with them. So the idea of a woman encased in some kind of garment did seem pretty severe.

It still does. But now most of the shops and restaurants I frequent are Muslim-owned and -managed. And a lot of my friends are observant Muslims who wear headscarves or cover their arms for modesty's sake. So I've changed my tune a bit. Sure, it's a bit odd when I'm seated next to someone on the bus and I can barely see her eyes. But an outright ban?

That just doesn't seem right either, as much for philosophical reasons as for practical ones. On the philosophical end -- and as a particularly thoughtful writer in the Guardian put it recently -- when we force Muslim women to comply with Western notions of freedom, we are, in effect, telling them how to be free. There's something a bit odd there. (He invokes Hegel to make this point. I'll spare you that.)

But there's a pragmatic argument to be made here as well. Especially given how few women actually wear a full burqa -- estimates in France have it at around 300 out of a Muslim population of some 5 million -- is this really where we want to put our energy? More pointedly, in a world where -- as Christopher Caldwell puts it in his new book, "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West" -- there is a "standing fatwa" against Islam's critics, can we really afford to demonize the Muslim population by criticizing their clothing?

I don't think so.

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