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I'm an Irish guy living in France. I like music, books, creative writing, art, history, vegetarianism, people, and chocolate.

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Monday 22 June 2009

Burqa or no burqa?

There is a huge debate going on in France at the moment over the burqa, the Islamic headdress which covers women from head to toe, and which conceals the face behind a mesh screen. Should it be banned by the state, or not ?

On one side there's the majority of French people who, in the name of freedom, women's rights and laïcité (the strict separation between religion and the state) argue that the burqa should be banned in public places.
On the other there are a number of Muslims—mostly the women who wear the burqa themselves—who claim that they are exercising their freedom by choosing to wear this garment and that any legislation banning it would be an infringement on their right to practise their religion.
What is interesting is that it has emerged that most of the burqa-wearers are in fact French converts to Islam ; not immigrant Muslims or second-generation "immigrants". In fact several moderate Muslims have argued against its use.
In an important speech in front of parliament this afternoon, Sarkozy proclaimed his opposition to the wearing of the burqa and anounced that he would set up a committee to decide which measures—if any—should be taken to deal with it.

I believe that the burqa is one of the biggest (and worst) symbols of the oppression of women ; of course extremist Islam does not hold a monopoly on the ill-treatment of women, but that's no excuse. Advocates of the burqa have said that it protects women and "liberates" them by preventing men from seeing them as objects. Yet it seems to me that wearing such a garment is just as dehumanising as selling one's body by working as a porn actor or as a prostitute. Just as sex workers and women in the porn industry are exploited—consciously or not—so it is with the wearers of the burqa. And even if some women wear the burqa willingly, by choice, who is to say how many are brain-washed, frightened or even coerced into wearing it? I don't think it's a sign of "cultural imperialism" or Western arrogance to be against the wearing of the burqa. I don't mind the wearing of the hijab (the "headscarf"). It's not something I agree with but I can understand it. But the burqa? That's simply going too far.

Yet, having said that, I'm not sure that banning the burqa is such a good idea. Perhaps for minors, but not for adults. For one thing, on a pragmatic level, I don't think it's a very good strategy. It would almost certainly further alienate the Muslim community. It could foster a siege mentality, and push even more young men and women into the arms of the wahhabists. Besides, if the government wants to fight the rise of religious extremism, it should work hard at addressing one of the root causes of this radicalisation : poverty, ghettoisation and feelings of alienation because of the fact that our consumerist society has only the latest Ipod to offer as an answer to life's questions.
But I'm also not in favour of the ban for another reason : I believe that too much legislating isn't a good thing ; I don't like the idea of a bureaucratic state encroaching on individual freedoms. It isn't its business. I don't have any answers to the problem, but I don't think that creating more laws is the solution.

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