In a free society, people should be able to express themselves and their opinions as they see fit. However, recently in France, legislation has come into effect that effectively bans the wearing of a burqa, the full-body Islamic veil, in a public area or space (wearing a burqa in a public school has been banned since 2004). French authorities say that only about 1,900 women wear the burqa or the niqab, two versions of the full covering with a mesh or slit for the eyes. This amounts to 0.038 percent of France’s Muslim population.
Jean-Francois Cope, UPM (Sarkozy’s party), uses the popular opinion of national security, and has cited bank robberies and bombing attacks that were conducted by individuals wearing burqas. This is an entirely true fact, however, it is serving as a straw man argument. The most widespread terrorist attack on European soil has been conducted by placing bombs in backpacks, and, if my memory serves me correctly, wearing backpacks in public is still legal.
For those not so nationally-inclined, there is another dispute for a free society to allow all to see all, and to abide by reasonable expectations Đ for example, full body nudity is not permitted in public areas, with few exceptions. Unlike the nationalist security model presented before, the free society debate is inclined to garner support of the left-leaning and dovish elements of the state. For the known history of the European west, visibility of one’s face has been the norm, not mandated, but the custom. France, however, like many European countries, has recently condemned the failures of multiculturalism, and polls show a growing xenophobic conservative wing of traditionally liberal European democracies.
Another common argument is an effort to dictate the burqa or hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for women, as a model of oppression, sexism and religious compulsion. The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine recently had a week dedicated to purge certain misconceptions about Islam, with a focus on the assertion that “Islam empowers women.”
However, this last argument and counter-argument are actually both fundamentally flawed. Banning the wearing of the burqa, or the hijab (as is done in public schools in France and even “Islamic” Turkey) completely removes the element of free choice in society. Indeed, at a raw level, it is an individual’s choice to wear head or body coverings, and there are some that actually choose to do so, as they feel it makes the opposite sex instead focus on one’s intelligence, values and personality versus physical attraction. Under the auspices of freedom of expression, women should be free to wear a burqa or hijab in public areas, including schools.
Let us be clear: religious fundamentalism (Islam included), inherently, does not “empower” women, and all religion is included. Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the three Abrahamic faiths, all have certain rules and exclusions that are applied to specific genders. In Judaism, for example, it is instructed that males undergo circumcision and, in an Orthodox perspective, Judaism is passed down only through the mother’s side.
The hijab or burqa, in society, is both a blessing and a curse. Undoubtedly this will be an unpopular opinion, but the common response of “most women choose to wear hijab” is overplayed and under-researched. This is a common attempt to downplay the reality that in most Arab and Islamic countries, there is institutional, clerical, societal and, more often than not, state-led directives to wear the hijab and follow Islamic law (to various extents, depending on the country); the element of free choice is far from achieved.
The burqa ban certainly overplays the security, societal and feminist arguments to stigmatize Islam and Muslims and should be reversed. Enacting such a law takes an approach that will polarize and entrench opinions. President Obama had said, “In the United States our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.” Indeed very few Muslim women want to wear face veils, but telling them they can’t will make them want to do so to protect what they see as an attack on their identity. It also certainly raises more issues: are women who wear the full body veil now permanently confined to their homes?
Matan Lurey is a fourth-year software engineering major. He can be reacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.