GUESTVIEW: Wearing a burqa will now be a crime?

January 23, 2010
burqa 1

Veiled woman in Kabul, 10 Dec 2009/ Omar Sobhani

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading Indian Muslim intellectual and activist, is head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, where he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities.

By Asghar Ali Engineer

The French parliament is preparing to pass a resolution to denounce the wearing of burqas in France. It aims to pass a law afterwards that will actually outlaw the garment. This is  the first time that women would be penalised for wearing a burqa. In 2004, France banned Muslim girls wearing the hijab in schools. It argued that these religious symbols interfere with its commitment to secularism and its secular culture.

In fact, nothing happens without political ideology being behind it. This measure is being championed by right-wing politicians who are exploiting anti-Islam feelings in France among a section of people under the cover of secularism. However, the socialists are opposed to any ban on the burqa, though they are also not in favour of women wearing burqas. They feel women should be discouraged rather than banning the burqa covering the face.

Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan

Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan

Socialist spokesman Benoît Hamon announced that wearing a burqa is not desirable but he is not favourable to legal ban, which would be inconsistent and ad hoc.  Mr. Hamon said on RTL Radio “We are totally opposed to the burqa. The burqa is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic,” he said. “But an adhoc law would not have the anticipated effect.”

The stand taken by the Socialists appears to be quite logical. One cannot stop women from wearing burqas through a legal ban. It is quite undemocratic to punish someone for wearing a certain type of dress. It is anti-democratic and anti-secular for a multicultural society. At the same time, let it be very clear that to cover the entire body including the face is not necessarily Islamic.

The ulema hold different views on the subject. The majority of them hold that covering the face and hands is not prescribed by the Qur’an or Sunnah. Only very few theologians and jurists want women to be fully covered. To compel women to so cover their bodies and faces is indeed against women’s rights and dignity. A woman should be a free agent to decide for herself what to wear within decent limits and her cultural ethos.

However, this freedom also includes the right of women to cover their faces, if they so desire and if they think it is a requirement of their religion. When I was lecturing in Bukhara University among a class of women students, all of whom were wearing skirts and had their heads uncovered, two women came in fully covered, including their faces. All other women demanded that these two burqa-clad women should be thrown out.

I said they should imagine that burqa-clad women were in the majority and two women arrived in skirts and uncovered heads and the majority of burqa-clad women demanded those two women be thrown out. What would you feel? I asked.  Therefore, I argued, let us not get violent because someone dresses unlike us. We should dialogue with them and persuade them, if we can, not to wear such dress fully covering themselves.

There could be a number of reasons why one prefers to wear certain kinds of dress. Maybe there is coercion by parents or husbands, which is undesirable. Or maybe one thinks it is a religious requirement and tries to assert one’s rights. Or maybe one is trying to fight cultural alienation. Certain types of dress become identity markers. Many Muslims who migrate from Asia and Africa experience cultural shock when they see French or other European women wearing scanty dresses or bikinis. Thus they feel all the more compelled to wear their traditional dress.

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Women shopping in Leers, northern France, 6 Jan 2010/Farid Alouache

Also, in France and several other European countries, migrants are marginalised and have a feeling of alienation that pushes them into practicing their own cultural norms. And then it is also to be remembered that all Muslim women in France do not cover themselves fully. In fact, many Muslim women have integrated themselves into French society by taking to western dress.

Thus a legal ban will only build up resistance among traditional Muslim women and they would try to defy the law,  resulting in social tensions. It would be far better to resort to persuasive ways to discourage traditional Muslim women not to wear the all-covering burqa. And persuasion alone will not work unless backed by other measures,  economic as well as social, to fight the alienation of religious and cultural minorities.

Thus one needs multipronged measures to contain this problem. Muslim ulema and intellectuals living in France also have to adopt creative ways to reinterpret Islamic traditional sources to suit new conditions. It is quite necessary to revisit traditional sources rooted in medieval feudal culture.

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While I quite agree that the burqa should not be outlawed, one must remember the source of the discomfort.

In France, as well as other countries, Muslims often wish to immigrate there and enjoy the benefits of the community without becoming a part of the community. The burqa is symbolic of this approach. Because terrorists have been known to dress in the burqa to conceal explosives, the Muslim standoffish-ness combined with the fear of unknown terror puts such concealing clothing in a bad light in Western countries the terrorists have declared war on.

What is the solution for such a thing? Somehow, Muslims within another cultural setting must be willing to embrace it rather than so obviously reject it. Furthermore, all over the Muslim world there must be a rise of voices against terror, against violence, and in favor of freedom of choice and religion.

While there have been some few Muslim voices raised against violence, there have been far too few. People rationally see the Islamic world as supportive of the terrorists because they see so little rejection of them.

If Muslims would like the western nations they live in to abandon their xenophobia, it is incumbent on Muslims to abandon their own xenophobia. And while it may be unfair, Muslims must do it first. One cannot demand of others what one is unwilling to give.

And there, I submit, is the crux of the problem. Had French Muslims a desire to embrace French culture and enrich it with their own faith perspective, I have no doubt that the French would be much more open to Muslims in return.


Posted by rtgmath | Report as abusive

The burqua needs to be banned.

Posted by Lisa77 | Report as abusive

When in Rome do as the Romans do. When I live in another country I accept their ways.

Posted by hi_profile | Report as abusive

When in Rome … When I live in another country I accept their ways.One woman stationed there [Saudi Arabia] who purports to be comfortable with the rules said, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ But how far does that go? To feeding the lions?
[2001 Washington Post 8 Dec. A25]

Posted by hi_profile | Report as abusive

If France makes it illegal to wear the burqa in public, this will simply lead to the seclusion of more Muslim women in the household, their exclusion from public life — which is probably what their Islamicist husbands want anyway. How would this serve gender equality, and the integration of Muslims into French culture? Obviously, it would have the opposite effect.

Posted by cupton | Report as abusive

I am very disapointed in France. First may I say Burqua Hijab and niquab in all black, magnifique! France is suppose to be the fashion industy, France is suppose to be abstact, France is suppose to be Art l’ Art, What is wrong with France today? Viva Burqua! The whole reason of wearing it is to be beautiful and mysterious! Why should they have to show the men their mystique? Is it enought that the women this day are thrown on camera and in magazines with out clothes on? Women today are treated like filth, with bad words thrown at them and loose reality shows…What is wrong with burqua!
If it is because of Terrorist, than every white man should take of his color! I think it is the President of France! He hates beautiful women except that harlot he’s married too; she’s probley the one behind it because shes jelouse and he’s emberrising French men all over the world what and unmanely thing to do!!

Fashion Fashion
Tres’ Islamique Cashe’
Burqua is Fashion!

Posted by Susannah | Report as abusive