As the French ban on the burqa comes into force today, here is part of an essay I wrote last year, when the French debate first kicked off, for the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten.
THERE IS CERTAINLY SOMETHING MEDIEVAL ABOUT THE BURQA AND THE NIQAB. The idea that in the 21st century women should be hidden from view for reasons of modesty or religious belief is both troubling and astonishing. Yet, there is also something surreal about the way that this piece of cloth has been turned into a battleground for Western values and about the idea that the burqa poses some kind of existential threat to the West.
The campaign against the burqa is particularly puzzling when in reality so few women choose to wear it. The sight of a burqa in Paris or Brussels is almost as rare as a glimpse of a bikini in Riyadh or Karachi. France has a Muslim population of 5 million. Its government estimates that fewer than 2000 women wear a niqab or burqa. (The original survey, conducted by DCRI, the French secret service, came up with the oddly precise figure of 367; that was so low that the Interior Ministry told the DCRI to count again.) In Holland some 500 women in a Muslim population of one million do so, in Denmark the estimate is fewer than 200 out of 170,000 Muslims.
So why, at a time when Europe is beset by so many fundamental economic and social problems, have legislators become so obsessed by this piece of cloth? There are three main kinds of arguments against the burqa: practical, political and existential.
The burqa, Jean-Francois Copé, leader of the majority UNP party in the French National Assembly, has suggested, ‘poses a serious safety problem at a time when security cameras play an important role in the protection of public order’. Many worry that the burqa would allow terrorists to evade airport security or provide the perfect camouflage for bank robbers. Others fret that wearing the burqa makes it difficult to perform certain jobs, particularly those that require face-to-face contact with clients or the public – doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers.
There are clearly practical problems that come with wearing the burqa. It is, after all, a piece of clothing designed for feudal life, not the modern world. Practical problems, however, can usually be solved on a case-by-case basis without the need for national soul searching or draconian legislation. Airports already require veiled women to reveal their features when passing through security. Police have no problem demanding to see faces when checking ID cards. And if banks insist that people should not wear bulky clothing, so be it. But that is very different from the state imposing an outright ban on such clothes.
If wearing a burqa is incompatible with the needs of particular jobs, then those particular employers – hospitals, schools, shops even- can legitimately demand that employees not be clad from head to foot. But again, one can impose dress codes for certain jobs without banning a type of clothing for everyone. After all, we don’t have judges and teachers wearing bikinis on the job either.
The practical arguments for a ban on the burqa are weak and shallow. More profound is the political case. The burqa, proponents of a ban argue, undermines gender equality and makes social integration impossible. It is, Bernard-Henri Lévy has written, ‘not a dress, it’s a message, one that clearly communicates the subjugation, subservience, the crushing and the defeat of women.’
The burqa is certainly demeaning to women, and often used to enchain them. Many other practices and rituals that Western societies tolerate are, however, also degrading. Orthodox Jewish women must shave their heads and wear a wig when they marry. The Catholic Church forbids women priests. Many Protestant evangelical churches insist that wives must ‘obey’ their husbands and that the role of women is to breed new evangelicals. Nobody seriously suggests that Jewish marriage rituals be banned or that the Catholic church be forced to accept gender equality in choosing priests or that evangelical wives be saved by state legislation from being baby factories.
A liberal society accepts that individuals should be free to make choices that may not be in their own interests and that, to liberal eyes, demean them. This applies even to particularly distasteful expressions of degradation, such as the wearing of the burqa.
What of the suggestion that women are forced to wear the burqa, and so need protection from the law? It is true that in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Yemen women have little choice but to cover up their face. That in itself is a good reason for liberal societies not to impose coercive dress codes.
If women are forced to do something against their will, the law already protects them in democratic countries. But what evidence exists, suggests that in Europe most burqa-clad women do not act from a sense of compulsion. According to the DCRI report in France, the majority of women wearing the burqa do so voluntarily, largely as an expression of identity and as an act of provocation. A second French report by the information authority, the SGDI, came to similar conclusions. Burqa wearers, it suggested, sought to ‘provoke society, or one’s family’, and saw it as a ‘badge of militancy’, and of ‘Salafist origins’. The burqa ban will only deepen the sense of alienation out which the desire for such provocation emerges.
The burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women, not its cause. If legislators really want to help Muslim women, they could begin not by banning the burqa, but by challenging the policies and processes that marginalize migrant communities: on the one hand, the racism, social discrimination and police harassment that all too often disfigure migrant lives, and, on the other, the multicultural policies that treat minorities as members of ethnic groups rather than as citizens. Both help sideline migrant communities, aid the standing of conservative ‘community leaders’ and make life more difficult for women and other disadvantaged groups within those communities.
What of the impact of the burqa on social integration? The veil has been rightly described as ‘ghetto walls that a person wears’. It often inhibits normal social interaction – that, after all, is its very purpose – and may preclude those who wear it from integrating into society. But given that virtually no Muslim woman actually wears the burqa, it can hardly be held responsible for creating a sense of social separation.
The real significance of the burqa is that it has become a symbol of the anxieties that have come to beset Western nations. What does it mean to be French? Or British? Or Swedish? Most Western nations have undergone a crisis of identity as both traditional values, and trust in the institutions in which those values were invested, have become eroded. Unable to define clearly the ideas and values that characterize the nation, still less to win people to those ideas and values, politicians have taken the easy step of railing against symbols of ‘alienness’. In this sense the burqa bans are similar to the prohibition imposed two years ago by the Italian city of Lucca on kebab shops ‘to protect our culinary tradition’ or to the decree by the mayor of Rome that schools can no longer serve couscous or Chinese fried rice but only ‘regional cuisine dishes’. They are attempts to define ‘Western values’ or the republican tradition by showing what such values or traditions are not at a time when politicians find it increasingly difficult to express what they are.
And this takes us to the existential argument against the burqa. ‘This is not about the burqa’, Bernard-Henri Lévy claims. ‘It’s about Voltaire. What is at stake is the Enlightenment of yesterday and today, and the heritage of both, no less sacred than that of the three monotheisms. A step backwards, just one, on this front would give the nod, all fanaticism, all the true thoughts of hatred and violence.’
The idea that the entire weight of the Enlightenment tradition should rest on banning a piece of cloth worn by a few hundred women shows how absurd has become the debate about the burqa. Certainly, it is important to defend liberal social values, the secular society and the heritage of the Enlightenment. But we cannot do so by promoting illiberal policies, stigmatizing immigrants, or banning symbols of ‘otherness’. The very values that Lévy believes are undermined by the burqa demand that we oppose any attempt by the state to ban it.
(First published in the Göteborgs-Posten, 13 June 2010)