Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Behind the Burqa

The French President Sarkozy says “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. The burqa is not a religious sign; it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

Is the burqa a sign of subservience as Sarkozy says or this is a typical Western cliche which derides the understanding of other religions, without understanding their cultural subtleties? The burqa has become a symbol of oppression (rightly or wrongly) and we are appalled at the Burqa culture being carried out by the Taliban and the rest of extremist Islam, in the name of safeguarding their religion. But the very presence of a burqa does not make a nation backward or its women subservient.

The very principle of freedom of expression that Sarkozy and the West invokes while outlawing the burqa is violated by this ban. If the burqa is a forced wear, as in some nations, it definitely needs to be condemned but when people wear it out of their own accord as in many parts of the world, including the liberal West, it is undemocratic for the State to step in and ban it. For every woman who has the right not to wear a burqa, every woman also has the right to wear the burqa.

There is a difference between a secular state and an irreligious one and what Sarkozy is doing is moving away from the principle of equal respect to all religions and enforcing the might of the State. The threat of radical Islam and terrorism is scaring Europe leading to such “popular” actions as seen in France and Turkey. The melting pot culture of US provides freedom to religions to practice freely without getting into the debate of State Vs Religion while what Europe is trying to do is essentially force a spirit of Europeanism on its people, fearing an invasion of its culture (assuming that something called homogeneous European culture actually exists).

While Sarkozy has gone public with his remarks and set up a Commission to look into the burqa laws, France’s reaction is not an isolated one. For the past 80 years, Turks have lived in a secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who rejected headscarves as backward-looking in his campaign to secularise Turkish society. (Even so, it is estimated that as many as 65% of Turkish women cover their heads with a scarf).

The city council in Maaseik, Belgium on December 27, 2004 criminalized the wearing of the burqa and the niqab in its public places. The Dutch Government has been debating a law to say ‘no’ to the burqa in public spaces, claiming that it disturbed public order, citizens and safety. In July 05 the Italian parliament approved anti-terrorist laws which make hiding one's features from the public - including through wearing the burqa - an offence.

There are cultural differences among various nationalities and religions, which Sarkozy has not attempted to understand. What exhibits itself as subservience to one culture probably reflects the urge of the other to assert oneself using one’s religious identity, here clearly, a frontal expression of Islamic identity. When the State tries to crush such symbolism, it invites trouble for itself and makes it difficult for it to reach out to its own people. Coercing someone not to wear something in the name of freedom does not make you very different from the perpetrators of the original threat.

As Amit Varma also points out, wearing a burqa may be a rational decision taken by an individual to handle societal and family cultures to adhere one’s traditions. While this may not be a perfect situation, it does not give the State the freedom to impose its ideas of mistaken freedom on people, who are happy with their freedom.

Also, Sarkozy needs to realize that irrespective of the symbolic nature of the burqa in the Western Eye, not every woman wears it out a sense of coercion and that there are many who like to wear it either due to a personal liking or because it presents them with an opportunity to associate themselves with their identity of being a Muslim.

Thomas Jefferson said we can use our laws to coerce the acts of the body, but not the operations of the mind. People should be free to worship their god freely, so long as other laws, neutral laws of general applicability, are not violated. Coercive attitudes towards any direction can be counter-productive and banning the burqa may only push the liberal Muslim more towards radicalism as he fears his culture being trampled by a majoritarian culture.

In the same vein, if burqa represents an ugly side of Islam, what stops Governments from looking at Sikhs with turbans and bearded Muslims as militants ? Who determines what constitutes the dress of a fundamentalist vis-a-vis that of a liberal. Should the State get involved in personal matters and dilute its rule in administration by bringing in regulations in areas where it has no business to be in?

Nothing symbolizes the rift between Islam and the West so non-violently but pungently as the burqa, which Westerners find especially offensive when located on their own streets. The real issue of security and religious freedom is being drowned by focusing attention on symbols which are merely periphery items on the war on global terrorism. But then banning a headscarf is so much easier to do than trying to make an effort to dig and sort out the larger brewing problem of religious fundamentalism.


  1. Very nice. Completely agree to you. And the day the news came in, I was thinking on the same lines.

    Liked the quote from Jefferson…very nice.

  2. Ur last line says it all !! very well put forward.

  3. its becasue of you pseudo secular / moderates like you that the fundementalists thrive. After burqa they will go for polygamy. then what? the next thing they will want Muslim personal law board like in india. Then madrasas preaching hatered. Its better to cut it off in the bud. Atleast in france they have a single law for every body. They have banned sikhs from wearing turban to schools rite?
    Religion is not for display but something very personal.. displaying in public should not be encouraged.

  4. It is an equally fundamentalist view that the State will tell what to wear and what not to wear…What I wear is my right and I would not like someone to tell me what is to be worn..If forcing someone to wear something is violation of freedom, the same applies to forcing someone not to wear…

    How come the same countries do not ban Jewish skull cap then? If tomorrow, I smear vibhuti on my forehead, then am I not asserting my Hindu religion? You may as well initiate a ban on that. ..France may have banned burqas and turbans but there are so many others who have not…Barack Obama has said - the US values religious freedom and would never ‘tell people what to wear’ unlike France…