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Ban the Burqa in the U.S.? Over My (Seldom Worn) Yarmulke

4 years ago
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The post by my Politics Daily colleague Bonnie Erbé suggesting that the U.S. follow France's lead in considering a ban on burqas leaves me gobsmacked. She says:

"Whenever I see a woman in full body garment or headscarf -- and there are plenty of them in my community, where there are many immigrants -- I take it as an affront.

I say this knowing it is highly controversial to do so, but it feels to me as if they are holding American women back. . . . In fact, I wish the U.S. would pre-screen for women who want to take full advantage of the freedoms they gain by moving from a society that represses women to one that does not. Immigration is a privilege and not a right."

PD-er Delia Lloyd has already weighed in with a view from England. PD-er Alex Wagner has commented about the difficulty of policing fashion. And PD-er Lizzie Skurnick offered a personal story of burqas and Christmas Day in her neighborhood.

My angle is a look at the constitutional and religious implications of banning burqas.

Among the rights we have in this country is freedom of religion and, within rather broad boundaries, freedom in figuring out how to practice that religion. Pilgrim, Baptist, Catholic -- many of the first Europeans who came to these shores did so specifically because they wanted to practice their faith as they saw fit. That freedom is nailed down pretty clearly in the Constitution and in a couple of centuries of Supreme Court interpretations.

All of which makes the likelihood of the U.S. following France's lead on this topic somewhat less than the chance of Le Cordon Bleu teaching students how to prepare freedom fries.

But let's assume that the courts would suddenly spin like a top on this issue.

What does Erbé have to say about the tens of thousands of Orthodox Jewish women in this country whose hair is just as covered as any Muslim who so chooses? And whose style of dress, while not quite as encompassing as a burqa, leaves little in view?

And then there are the Amish, whose women -- and men, by the way -- dress in ways that she might take amiss. Add the Dunkards, Mennonites and other Christian denominations who set similar standards on attire.

Amish aren't the only religious group whose men dress distinctively, either. From the yarmulke to the broad black hats, many American Jewish men wear head coverings. And the fringes of their prayer shawls peep out from under their shirts. Sikhs wear their turbans and beards. Mormon underclothing isn't visible to the public, but it sets them apart.

The attire in each case is designed precisely to create a visual, public separation between the wearer and mainstream Western culture. Or any other culture in which they might find themselves.

Here's how far one can slide on that slope: There are plenty of people who consider the crucifix an emblem of a patriarchic, oppressive hierarchy. Would you hand those people the right to deny women (or men) their right to wear it?

And beyond the specifics of religion, how about women whose choices of lifestyle might not match what Erbé would consider taking "full advantage" of freedom? Should the government screen for that, too? Stay-at-home moms with lots of kids, perhaps? Or single women who do not have children? I don't know which choice she considers full freedom. But I do know I don't want her -- or anybody else -- to be in the deciding business for others.

To quote Erbé again:

"Is it a sign of repression, even when the wearers aver they have 'chosen' to don it? What is the impact of a woman's wearing of a burqa or a headscarf on other women in that society? These are deeply personal questions to which every woman (and man) will have a very different answer."

True, that. And they are questions that I am thankful are not ever asked by the U.S. government. Me, I'd like to keep it that way.
Filed Under: Religion, Culture

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