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Why Burqas Are Just Fine for France and America

5 years ago
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Well, Bonnie. I'm so glad that you ended your thoughtful post on why France and the United States should ban women from wearing burqas with a call for more conversation on this admittedly thorny issue. I couldn't disagree with you more -- and in the uppity spirit of this ladies blog, I'm happy to tell you why.

As I wrote in a post on this topic last summer, I think the ban on burqas in France is a bad idea. It's not that I don't get where you -- and other feminists -- are coming from on this issue. Three and a half years ago, before moving to Europe, where burqas are far more of a daily reality than they are in the U.S., I might even have agreed. But having now lived in a country with many Muslim friends and acquaintances, I really think that this sort of thing needlessly throws fuel on an already flaming fire.

In my earlier piece, I talked about why this was a bad idea philosophically (there's something kind of weird about telling someone else how to be "free"), practically (the actual percentage of French women who wear burqas is trivial) and politically (in an environment already characterized by growing and dangerous tensions between Islamic and non-Islamic groups, why on earth would we want to alienate the large French Muslim population even further?).

Let me dwell a bit on that last point, as -- since writing that piece last summer -- quite a bit has happened to make Europeans of all faiths even more tense. You may recall the recent ban on building minarets in Switzerland, a country with -- ahem -- four minarets and a fairly un-religious Muslim community. A few weeks ago, a Somali man was charged with trying to murder Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who once mocked Mohammed in a comic strip. Oh yeah, and toss in a few Western-educated Islamic terrorists and this is a veritable powder keg we're talking about.

Towards the end of your article, you also raise one of the limitations of your argument. You recognize that it's logically inconsistent to favor a ban on burqas while being simultaneously OK with nuns wearing habits. You're right. It is inconsistent.

Which brings me to America. I think that one of the reasons burqas are such a bugaboo for some American women is that they don't encounter them all that frequently. I suspect that outside certain Muslim enclaves like Detroit (and perhaps near where you live in D.C.), a lot of Americans never come into contact with burqas. I certainly never did before moving to London. So they seem, at first glance -- and here I agree with you -- weird and foreboding and . . . repressive.

But it's not like that in Europe. I was in an eye doctor's office just this morning with my daughter when a woman strolled in wearing a burqa. When the nurse came out, this woman had a long conversation with the nurse, explaining what was wrong with her daughter's eyesight and asking for help. She wasn't shy. She wasn't repressed. Like the rest of us in the room, she was advocating passionately and articulately for her daughter's health. She was, in short, just another mom.

You also say that when you see a woman in full body garment or headscarf, you take it as an "affront." Really? Headscarves?

When I read that line, I felt a bit like Melinda did when she read Ria's post about how access to abortion for women should be treated in the same way that access to Viagra is for men. I realized that -- on this point, at least -- we are 180 degrees apart and never the twain shall meet. A lot of my Muslim friends, and one of my daughter's teachers, wear headscarves or otherwise cover their bodies out of modesty's sake. It never occurred to me to view that as repressive. To me, it's just the way they choose to observe their religion.

In fact, it's the American part of your argument that I find most troubling. Your basic point seems to be that Muslim American women (or Muslim women visiting the U.S.) should adhere to the "when in Rome" rule and let their proverbial hair down. But why? To my mind, what's best about America -- what we do so much better than most other countries in the world -- is precisely our open attitude towards immigration.

Unlike countries such as France, which maintain -- often to their peril -- a national mythology that everyone's the same, America has never even tried to pretend that we're all the same. We welcome difference and we embrace it. And what makes us American isn't how we dress or what we eat or where we worship, all of which can and must diverge. What makes us American is a common shared ideal that, despite our melting pot, we're all committed to the same basic values. One of which is freedom to make choices for ourselves.

Why on earth would we scrap that in favor of compulsory assimilation?

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