Burqa ban will not protect women
13 Jul 2010
The Burqa debate has captured European imagination. Despite being worn by a fringe within a minority, the covering has emerged at the forefront of the European political map, and been met with near unanimous condemnation across the political spectrum. In Tarres, a village in north-east Spain, the parish council is currently debating the ban, despite none its 108 inhabitants actually wearing a burqa, while its nearby provincial capital, Lleida, formally passed a ban today. Barcelona recently became the first major Spanish city to ban the use of face veils in municipal buildings and in Belgium, a country which can’t even agree on a national language, a parliamentary committee this year agreed to ban face veils in public.
In neighbouring France, the lower house of parliament looks set to approve a ban. President Sarkozy has already stated his belief that the garment reduces women to servitude and undermines their dignity, saying the burqa is “not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity”. This, despite (or perhaps because?) not having consulted a single woman who wears the face veil in the committee set up to “discuss” the issue. In a move which presumably is not an affront to human dignity, Sarkozy announced that women wearing full-face veils would be turned away from hospitals, public transport and government buildings and his UMP colleague Frederic Lefebvre demanded that any woman breaking the proposed law, be “deprived of her rights”.
Absent are the voices which might question whether the French traditions of equality and secularism are truly threatened by 200 women wearing face veils. Or who might ask if, in fact, those ideals are not themselves threatened by a judicial precedent which singles out a minority of women for persecution, despite one of the key battles of France’s revolution having been inalienable rights for all citizens, regardless of class or creed.
The truth is modern France is in the midst of an identity crisis, just like, if not worse than, that being faced by the rest of Europe.
The homogenous nature of Europe’s intellectual elites has, like broader society, begun to shift. This change has led to a questioning not so much of society’s guiding principles, but of some of their real world applications. This challenge to the hegemony of the older European elites in matters of culture and power continues to be filtered through the, as yet unburied spectre, of (post-?) colonial superiority. Historically, the colonised Arabs needed emancipation from their debased state of being through the imposition of “French” culture, the so-called “civilizing mission”. Today, many French can’t tolerate the thought these former barbarians turned citizens might have a say in defining modern French identity. Meanwhile, the ripple effect of this discriminatory legislation is vindicating already widespread islamophobia and racism. French Muslims of Maghreb ancestry are already the victims of nearly 68 per cent of racist violence and in May, a Muslim woman’s veil was ripped off in what police describe as France’s first case of “burqa rage”.
It is no surprise that here in the UK, it was Philip Hollobone, Tory MP for a small semi-rural Northamptonshire county, who raised the ban, after stating that were a burqa-wearing constituent to come to his surgery, he’d refuse to talk to her. In other words, despite being her elected representative, Mr Holloborne would actively discriminate against one of his constituents and this, with uncritical support from portions of the media and political class.
This debate was never about the smoke-screen of security or women’s rights. It is about who gets to define Britishness and its limits in a post 9/11 climate where Muslims are suspect citizens. The reason this debate is rousing sleepy villages from Tarres to Kettering, is because in a Europe whose homogenous identity is gradually fading away, these rural cantons are the last bastions of a former concept of national self. The burqa ban is symbolic means of repealing dreaded immigration and its attendant cultural changes. In other words, it is a focus for Europe’s xenophobic angst.
The government’s attempts to present the motivations of the al-Qaida operatives as ideological, rather than more accurately, as political, has compounded the problem, blurring the distinction between Muslims and terrorists. Former head of counter-terrorism, Dr Robert Lambert recently stated, “we went to war not against terrorism, but against ideas, the belief that al-Qaida was a violent end of a subversive movement.” The remainder of the proverbial iceberg is a Muslim community whose allegiance to an ill-defined conception of Britishness continues to be called into question, marginalising them from the debate and leaving symbols, such as the burqa, open to suspect status.
In a climate of fear, compounded by a gloomy economic outlook, which historically has seen Europe retract into its darkest postures of xenophobia, such symbols can mobilise a disgruntled population, whose substantive concerns are less easily alleviated. The burqa has become a rallying point in an attempt at reclaiming a righteous posture of cultural superiority, which informed the glory of the former Empire. At a time of insecurity and ambiguity, it appears to offer an obvious point of certainty, by embodying Europe’s most sensitive issues, notably immigration, Islam and terrorism.
What it really offers is a glimpse of how our society treats minorities and manages diversity, the real measure of a civilised nation. There are those who will decry the burqa as the marker of a backward mentality at odds with liberal values and women’s rights. The truth is, only women who wear the burqa can truly tell us what its significance means to them. As a society, we must offer women the space to make informed decisions about all aspects of their being, not least their dress code, and ensure that the actions of our leaders are guided by a desire to empower women, not by cheap populism or misguided concerns. Once women are given the necessary parameters of education, safety and freedom from which to make informed decisions about themselves, we must not infantilise or marginalise them, out of a false sense of superiority. More broadly, we should never let the exigencies of a particular politico-historical juncture betray the fundamental ideals of this society.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and a PhD candidate at Oxford University