Ceci N’est Pas Une Burqa

July 14, 2010

hijabToday’s guest post comes from Nathaniel DeLuca, the Program Coordinator at the Yale University Chaplain’s Office. It concerns the French Parliament’s 335-1 vote to ban burqa face coverings.

NB: Hijab refers to both a head covering and modest dress in general. Check out hijabifashionista to get a sense of how fabulous hijabis can be. The French legislation in question would ban the covering of one’s face; in the case of Muslim women, by the niqab, or veil. Definitions of modesty are unique to each community, as are the many types of hijab; it can mean just a headscarf or an entire burqa (made infamous by the Taliban). For the sake of consistency, I’ll refer to the garment in question as a burqa (please do post critiques of my lexicon!).

As a friend and I were catching up on the phone last week, talking about doctor/patient relationships, long-distance boyfriends, and other human interactions requiring extra care and consideration, she exclaimed: “My little sister has decided to wear the headscarf!”

This was not a call to arms but an exclamation of joy. My friend is no stifler of little girls: she is an arch-feminist who spends her summer days getting Iraqi refugees comfortable with the idea of mammograms and pap smears. She is also a woman who is Muslim, a woman who chooses to put a headscarf on every morning. Her parents don’t make her wear it, her imam doesn’t make her wear it, her fiancé doesn’t make her wear it. It would be a lot easier for her to walk down the street in America without it on, without people thinking headscarf-Muslim-terrorist-danger! But she chooses every morning to put it on, to pick one to match her outfit, to pin it carefully in place, to make it look good. She dons a headscarf because it is her right and her free choice.

Little sister chose to wear the headscarf despite her parents’ warnings; it will be very difficult to be the only hijabi in the hallway when she starts high school in the fall, during Ramadan no less. Little sister has also made the more challenging choice – to represent not only her faith, but to act as a trailblazer for other young girls who might not be so brave when classes start. Does she want to wear the headscarf because her big sister does? Probably. Little sister does not live in a cultural or social vacuum, but she also has the opportunities and freedom to make her own choice.

There are women who wear burqas in terror. If they did not shroud themselves every time they walk out of the house, they would suffer savage beatings, gang rape, disfigurement, exile, and murder. These women live war zones, mountain villages, and in the suburbs of Paris. These women have no human rights.

There are women who wear hijab because they choose to. Why would a woman choose to cover herself if she were not so compelled? Ask a woman who wears one (or a little sister). They’ll all give you different answers. The French government will soon take their choice away. They will be denied a human right.

I fully support half of the legislation passed by the French National Assembly yesterday morning. (It must also pass in the Senate and be approved by the constitutional council). Forcing a woman to wear a face covering would now come with a $38,000 fine or a year in prison. Or, at least, I support the spirit of the law, which protects a person’s right to self-determination. If only this law had been passed 1300 years ago, we wouldn’t have to feel the birthing pains now.

The likely consequences of its enforcement are horrifying. The women whose families compel them to wear the burqa will be imprisoned in their homes for the rest of their lives. If they do go out in their burqa and are questioned, what would they say? What would happen to a woman who pointed a finger at her husband, at her mother? These women have neither the choice to disrobe nor the voice to seek justice.

The other half of the law is a slap on the wrist. Choose to cover your face in public? (Masquerade balls get a pass.) That’ll be $185, or you can pick up litter for a day. Women can march down the street in protest without fear of having a year’s wages gleaned. If I were a Muslim woman in France I’d be sewing myself a new burqa to join them.

The ban’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Any law that restricts a person’s human rights (such as freedom to practice whatever religion they choose, even if that religion dictates you can only show your eyes to strangers) cannot be tolerated by a truly free society. When we grant each other the right to self-determination in a plural society, we should expect that some of the choices others make will be antithetical to our own.

Little sister is going to put a headscarf on next month, and maybe every day for the rest of her life. Every day she gets to choose. I know it’s not a burqa, not even close. But what if she did want to put one on, just for a day? Should she be punished for that? I hope to have a daughter someday, and I hope that she is free to put a burqa on — and not just for a masquerade ball.

nat delucaNathaniel DeLuca grew up at a Lutheran summer camp and is now a Secular Humanist and the Program Coordinator at the Yale University Chaplain’s Office. He likes to flip pancakes for hungry students,  create sustainable community service partnerships, and make “queer” and “religious” fit into logical sentences. Depending on conditions, he’s usually strapped to a snowboard or a bike. Right now he’d rather be camping, driving somewhere off the map with Chris Stedman [Ed. Note: Ditto, Nat].

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8 Responses to “Ceci N’est Pas Une Burqa”

  1. Michael M. said

    Any law that restricts a person’s human rights … cannot be tolerated by a truly free society.

    Sorry, but I find that to be a grotesque overstatement, especially as applied to religious doctrine. We tolerate, and must tolerate, plenty of laws that restrict rights to engage in actions that run counter to pluralism. Reynolds v. U.S. held, correctly, that to excuse Reynolds’ polygamy on the basis of religion would be to “make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” The Mormon Church was forced to renounce polygamy as a condition for Utah statehood. By your logic, this was an undue burden on the religious freedom of Mormons.

    Pluralism does not mean we all get to do whatever we want as long as we can claim some kind of religious rationale for our actions. A pluralistic society will seek to maximize freedom for all of its citizenry, but always with the understanding that

  2. Michael M. said

    (OOPs! Sorry, still getting used to this laptop keyboard!) … with the understanding that some freedoms must be restricted for other freedoms to flourish. I can’t say where burquas fall on this spectrum — personally, I would be more comfortable with the freedom to wear burquas if in came hand-in-hand with the freedom for women to be topless anywhere men are permitted to be topless. But I can say that I find your willingness to countenance any barbaric and oppressive practices on the grounds of religious freedom to be a curious and frightening perversion of the meaning of human rights.

  3. Hitch said

    I’m against the burka ban, but I’m also against the revurka ban (check it out on YouTube). However in our society women are not free to wear the revurka.

    But to be less extreme.

    The real issue is not the burka. The real issue is that the burka does not live in a cultural vacuum.

    What does the burka mean in it’s usual context? It is to control sexuality between the sexes. The meaning is that the male gaze has to be controlled and the woman has to be protected from it (or chooses to do so).

    Now what is the real issue here. If a society wants to ban face covering to prevent rioters at protests to be unidentifiable, does the state have to make special exceptions for faiths?

    Or if say at a traffic stop an ID is part of the procedure, does the state have to make special provisions for beliefs?

    See the burka ban is the fasade. The real issue is that with the burka comes also the demand that a male representative of the state should not ask for a face ID. And even a female representative of the state should not ask for a face ID in public.

    So in order to do simple ID checks and respect the tradition, the state has to always have female officers and locations with privacy ready.

    And people can engage in public protests without being IDable only if they have a religious reason to wear their masking.

    And to say that a burka is always a choice is making an assumption. We should rather test these assumptions than claim it. But the right way to legislate that is of course for the state to offer protection of individuals, not by banning individual expression.

    Indeed women who want to wear the burka should be free to do so, just as much as women who want to go topless.

    Are we going to start protesting that toplessness is forbidden in Islamic countries, or does the outrage over civil liberty limits only apply to countries that have it?

    Finally I think men should be allowed to wear the burka. I am not wearing one not because it’s forbidden, but because I think it is too scary a thought to contemplate.

    We are not really free, and I’m all up for a more free society. But I think we have to be honest where the limits to our freedoms are.

    The burka is not value free. And while we have to avoid demagoguery over the issue, we should also avoid blanket apologies. Women who do not wear them freely are not well served by it and man and women who do want to wear them freely should not ignore the real issues involved in the matter.

    To be able to wear the burka is a feminist right, but to understand the burka and reject it if it is imposed by culture, is a feminist duty.

    Our duties do trump our rights for if we do not observe them the rights are wielded on the backs of others.

    So yes, I am against the burka ban, against the ban of minarets and I am not against a mosque near ground zero.

    But I am against bigotry, blasphemy laws, oppression of gays and women, violent civil laws, intolerance against apostates and a culture of threats and intimidation.

    Standing up for the burka is a small thing if women get stoned for adultery and the men involved go free. Which freedoms are worth our attention more? Those that harm people or those that interfere with a choice of dress?

    To me it is easy.

    • Zil said

      If I remember correctly, Hitch, in some places where the Burqa is permitted to be worn there are provisions stating that, for example, a woman must uncover her face if she is to take a photo for a personal ID (such as a driver’s license, passport, or a similar photo ID). Similarly, faces may be checked in case of an emergency or during a check of persons in an area (at least wasn’t it ruled that way a few years ago when a woman in the US who’d converted to Islam wanted to wear a full burqa in her driver’s license photo?).

      I don’t remember seeing here any statement that wearing burqa is always a choice (although I’ve only scanned this article the last time or two I came to this page), but…. I don’t know. I don’t think people are arguing that we should debate the burqa ban more than the greater injustices of man. However, it doesn’t excuse placing undue burden on one idea that is less to blame than another. (I was going to make a “Wall Street Reform” reference here but it was too hard for my sleepy brain to piece together.)

      My last thought to you, Hitch, is whether after the deeper cultural injustices are confronted and dealt with properly (in whichever way this may be viewed) there would be a repeal of the burqa ban.

      (and now I’m feeling silly for having written much of this but I might as well post it anyway.)

      • Hitch said

        I think you misunderstood my final statement. We see a lot more opposition to the burqa law than we see to the larger cultural injustices. This by no means implies, and I don’t mean it that I approve temporarily with the ban. As I said in the very beginning of what I write: I oppose the ban. There is no condition attached to that.

        But why do we not have at least same vigorous debate about the deeper cultural injustices? I think this is not only a legitimate concern, but a very serious one that is not addressed by hypotheticals about possible repeals.

      • Zil said

        Ah–sorry for my misinterpretation and thanks greatly for your clarification. I strongly agree with you on these points and think that we should, as a culture, strive to make the larger points a bit more clear in our development of cultural ambassadorships rather than some of the smaller ideas–educating people better about the ramifications of these actions and ideas rather than simply trying to regulate the outputs of these thought processes. (That was actually where I was going to go with the Wall Street analogy… I know it’s crude and off-topic, but I feel like on a very basic level it’s a similar idea.)

        I’m glad I saw this post before I went to bed–you brought up some good pondering points I’ll get to think about now and I got to understand you better, Hitch. Thanks!

  4. […] to want to find areas of agreement with people we disagree with. And whether it is the decision to cover one’s head with a hijab, to believe in God or pray, or to utilize childcare while […]

  5. […] Mattos, Sayira Khokar, Rory Fenton, Nate Mauger, Kate Fridkis, Andrew Fogle, Miranda Hovemeyer, Nat DeLuca, Mary Ellen Giess, Jeff Pollet, Joseph Varisco, Corinne Tobias, Vandana Goel LaClair, Nicholas […]

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