Friday, April 15, 2011

Is it Islamophobic to ban the burqa?

The French government led by Nicolas Sarkozy has banned the wearing of the burqa and niqab, resulting in protests in Paris and London.

It’s an issue that makes for some strange bedfellows. Left-wing feminists can find themselves agreeing with right-wing xenophobes in wanting it banned. Left-wing civil libertarians find themselves in agreement with right-wing Islamic hardliners in supporting women’s right to wear it.

A common stance you’ll hear is that the current climate of opposition to the burqa and niqab, which has led to debate in the UK and Australia too, is a reflection of a growing feeling of Islamophobia. Is this correct, or is it possible to separate opposition to the burqa from anti-Islamic prejudice?

Let’s establish one thing from the start. Yes, there’s a lot of Islamophobia around. And yes, the French government’s moves to ban the burqa are almost certainly part of a broader agenda that is at least somewhat informed by racism and xenophobia. Thus, many Muslims see the attack on the burqa and niqab as an attack on Muslims in general, and understandably take an “us vs them” position.

It’s also important to note, however, that not every misgiving expressed about the cultural impact of Islam on our society deserves the label of “Islamophobia”. And the fact that a ban on the burqa is supported by some fairly unsavoury xenophobic elements does not mean that it is therefore xenophobic to oppose the burqa. (Hitler was into vegetarianism, but that doesn’t make vegetarians nazis.)

There are plenty of reasons to oppose and indeed ban the burqa, which have absolutely nothing to do with hate and fear of Muslims. It is possible to separate a people from a practice. As an example, FGM (female genital mutilation) is an ancient (and most would argue, barbaric) practice that is prevalent in the Horn of Africa; it has been estimated that around 74% of Ethiopian women (Christian and Muslim alike) have experienced some version of “female circumcision”, usually carried out on children by older women. Now, I quite like Ethiopians and have no problem whatsoever with them immigrating to my country, Australia. But does that mean I think FGM should ever be tolerated in Australia? Hell no.

I don’t particular like the idea of women feeling obligated to wear a hijab (headscarf), but I don’t object if they choose to wear it, and would support their right to do so. Hijab doesn’t really impede a woman in any meaningful way, and allows her to interact with society just like anyone else. But it is not really possible to experience the full range of social interactions that most of us take for granted while wearing a full-body covering. Covering the face is an enormous obstacle to communication with others, and makes it extremely difficult to identify an individual.

It’s also important to note that while wearing the burqa and niqab is something practiced by some Muslims, it is not mandated or even encouraged by Islamic teachings. It is a cultural practice (the burqa is Afghan in origin and the niqab is from the Arabian peninsula). Islam states that women should dress and behave modestly, which may or may not involve wearing a headscarf, but it says nothing about covering one’s face.

Before lumping the anti-burqa crowd together with the Islamophobes, it’s worth reflecting that many Muslim nations have taken a firm stance against the garment. Turkey, Tunisia and Malaysia, for example, have all introduced laws banning or restricting its use. Now, I’m not holding up any of those countries as any kind of benchmark for civil liberties, but they demonstrate that one can oppose the burqa and not be anti-Islam. (Indeed, the majority of French Muslims apparently support the ban.) The aforementioned countries have had no problem declaring that “we are Islamic, but face-covering is not an accepted part of our culture.”

Probably the most common reason for opposing a ban on the burqa/niqab is freedom; in a liberal democracy, we do not have the right to dictate what others wish to wear, even if we personally find it distasteful. This is obviously an essential point to consider. I agree that it is highly problematic to have government-mandated “style police”. Likewise, the wearing of a particular costume is a “victimless crime”, in that if a woman chooses to don it, then she is clearly not being harmed by it, and nor is anyone else.

But this ignores that The State already dictates what we can wear in public. Try walking naked or semi-naked in the jungles of New Guinea and you wouldn’t be doing anything out of the ordinary; yet try it in a public place in a major Western city and see how long it takes before the police arrest you. Likewise, in some rural traditional societies one can openly display a machete or gun on one’s person, yet this would be a crime in a great many cities worldwide.

You could also argue that polygamy between consenting adults is also a victimless crime. Likewise for incest between consenting adults. Yet most countries have strict regulations forbidding these practices. Child marriage? Accepted in some countries, outlawed in most.

There are no outraged cries of Islamophobia from Muslims and civil libertarians that polygamy is outlawed in most Western countries. Because as in all the above cases, the laws reflect that certain practices are simply not compatible with the culture of a nation.

So is it really a woman’s free will to wear a full-body covering? Or is it being forced upon them by men? In Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, it is certainly not a free choice, at least in the majority of cases. What about in the West? That’s a trickier proposition. Some women clearly exercise an apparently free choice to wear these garments. I say "apparently", because I freedom of choice is questionable here. Burqa and niqab symbolise the belief that there is something inherently sordid and temptful about a woman's face, and that it is somehow unsafe for anyone to see it aside from her husband and relatives. It is unquestionably a symbol of male oppression of women, and a woman who chooses to wear it is unwittingly complicit in her own emotional abuse. Think of it as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Some who wear the garment believe that it is a way of better pleasing Allah, but I'll believe that when Muslim men start pleasing Allah by wearing it as well.

And I have absolutely no doubt that the more women choose to cover their faces, it will lead to more women being coerced to wear them. This already happens with the hijab. In countries where hijab is common but completely optional, there is still frequently a judgement that accompanies those women who choose not to wear it; this kind of social pressure leads to more unwilling wearers of hijab, and I do not doubt that the same thing would happen with the niqab or burqa.

One of the better arguments against banning the burqa is that those women who wear it will be isolated; they will be unable to venture out of their homes, as they can only go outside if they are covered. (This usually comes with the assumption that this isolation is being enforced by their husbands, which says it all really.) I do realise this is a reality and will happen in some cases. However, such a perspective is admitting defeat. I firmly believe that a woman who is unable to wear a burqa and unable to leave the house will soon decide that integrating with wider society is not such a bad thing after all. Even an oppressive husband will most likely come to the same decision due to the sheer impractically of keeping his wife at home all the time.

Rather than looking at wanting to ban the burqa as Islamophobic, look at it this way; the presence of such garments actually increases Islamophobia. Given that the garment and what it represents is abhorrent to most non-Muslims, it is likely to provide fuel for those negative sentiments in the community towards Muslims. In a time when the presence of Muslims in the West is under increasing scrutiny, most Muslims wish to show the wider community that they can fit in, and that despite some differences, “we are just regular people like you”.

Why tolerate something that says exactly the opposite? The niqab and burqa symbolise rejection of the wider social norms, rejection of the possibility of normal social interaction with the vast majority, rejection of the cultural values that people in Western countries hold dear. Women clad in these garments are a walking advertisement for those who believe that there is something so starkly different and backward about Muslims that they cannot fit into Western society. It is very much in the interest of Muslims that these costumes and their accompanying cultural mindset are confined to history.


  1. Wow. I wasn't expecting this--mostly because as fellow liberals, we usually support anything to do with free expression--but I actually agree with you. It's a small price to pay for the creation of a more tolerant society where everyone can fit in.

  2. @ BigWOWO:
    yep. I would also add that the fact that anyone at all who lives in a Western democracy would even want to wear a burqa is an enormous red flag which says that we are not integrating some people into society well enough. (Or alternatively, THEY are not integrating into society well enough.) Thus the burqa to me is a good sign that the boundaries of what is acceptable under multiculturalism are being pushed.
    I'd also argue that when ethno-cultural minorities are involved in overly radical expressions of non-conformity to the wider culture, it makes things more difficult for other minority groups. Radical Muslims are like manna from heaven for the anti-immigration crowd, for example.

  3. Exactly. And I think part of it has to do with current events and politics. It's just not the right time to push it, especially given the violence that has taken place in the name of Islam. It's not to say that moderate Muslims are guilty of violence--they're not--but part of living in a multicultural society is being sensitive to the people living around you, especially to the symbolism that they've come to understand through violence.

  4. "Rather than looking at wanting to ban the burqa as Islamophobic, look at it this way; the presence of such garments actually increases Islamophobia. Given that the garment and what it represents is abhorrent to most non-Muslims, it is likely to provide fuel for those negative sentiments in the community towards Muslims."
    That proves too much. There are many aspects of Islamic culture (or the culture of predominately Islamic peoples?) that might arouse islamophobia. There are numerous traits of women, men, whites, blacks, gays, straights etc that could inspire enmity. We usually don't think that merits prohibiting those things.

  5. @ teageegeepea:
    you misunderstand me. I agree with you, that is not, in itself, a reason why the burqa should be banned. (There are other reasons.)
    What I stated there is a reason why it is in Muslims' interests to take a stand against the burqa, rather than cling to it as something Islamic that they should fight for.
    I hope that makes sense.

  6. Thanks, that does make more sense. Although for reasons of asabiya, they might not find the prospect of increased islamophobia to be too negative.

  7. thanks for this..doing a project on the issue and this has really helped!