Liberté and the Burka?
It all started with a call by 65 French MPs to create a parliamentary commission to study a small but growing trend of wearing the full body garment in France.
Then last week, president Sarkozy himself said that the burka cover for Muslim women is "not welcome on French soil".
"The burqa is not a sign of religion. It is a sign of enslavement. It is a sign of subservience."
"I want to say officially, it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind netting, cut off from any social life, deprived of any identity.This is not the idea the French Republic has of a woman's dignity", he said. (BBC news)
Needless to say that just like anyone else, I was in shock the first time I saw this garment in France (previously, you'd just see the niqab worn by rich Saudi tourists in Paris). Covering the face and hands cannot be compared to any other form of clothing. In this respect, it cannot be compared to a nun 's habit or even the hijab (the 'regular' veil). Covering the face makes communication very hard if it doesn’t prevent it at all. It also causes all sorts of issues with regard to identification.
That being said, does my malaise justify a ban by the law? Is the law the proper response to something that remains marginal and is not yet well understood?
There are different speculations as to why some women have begun to wear them.
What is certain is that neither the burka nor the niqab belongs to the tradition of north-African and African cultures (from where most Muslims in France originate). The former is worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the latter in the Gulf States. So it is easy to see this as a sign of import from extremists in the Gulf region (from the Wahhabists and Salafists).
The center of the debate has been about whether these women are forced to wear the full garment (by their husbands, fathers or family) or whether it's a choice of their own.
French president Sarkozy has made up his mind by framing the topic as an issue of women's right and not as a religious issue.
Two possibilities : either those women choose to wear the niqab or they are forced into it. However, in this (latter) case a ban on burkas/niqab would most likely only confine those women to their homes which would be counterproductive and might only alienate them even more.
Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party, says: "If a law bans the burka,
these women will still have it but will remain at home; they will no longer be
Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate head of the main Paris mosque, described the burka
as a radical import that is alien to the tradition of Islam. (USA Today)
A number of surveys indicate that a solid chunk of Muslims [in France], possibly the majority, do not go to the mosque regularly or observe Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. (USA Today)
"the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member
of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to other"
But what sort of society should give the state the power to tell people what to wear and what not to wear?
Those circumstances in which a woman must show her face must be defined by the law, and other than those it is not the business of the government to tell people how to dress or to show their faces if they choose not to - unless their clothes represent a clear danger to society.
I am afraid most French people do not really see the issue this way, and it seems that many other European countries have taken considered similar bans (in Belgium, the Netherlands, for instance).