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Banning Burqas Is A Bad Idea

Burqas are repellent. They stand as a testament to why Islamic fundamentalism offends the sensibilities of enlightened people.

Nevertheless, I have watched the spreading impulse in Europe to ban them with considerable disquiet. Since I think the “spirit of religious freedom” is more than an aside, I find Mike McNally’s assertion that it’s “shameful” that Britain is, so far, eschewing this impulse unconvincing:

Across Europe, moves are underway to ban the burqa and similar Islamic face coverings. French and Belgian lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly for bills that, if enacted, will ban the wearing of full-face veils in public. Politicians in the Netherlands and Spain are considering bans on burqas in public buildings (a more widespread ban was narrowly rejected in Spain), while bans have been introduced by local authorities in several other countries.

A notable and shameful exception is Britain.

It’s certainly true, as he says, that many “Muslim women wear the burqa because they are forced to.” And there’s certainly a rational basis for prohibiting them in secured places — that’s no different from not allowing someone to wear sunglasses in one’s driver license picture. But a total ban on wearing them anywhere in public is misguided at best.

Likewise, France’s overreaction to the hijab. While the law was crafted in neutral language (it bans wearing all religious symbols in French schools), the fact that it was obviously a response to a growing trend of among Muslim girls could hardly have been lost on the relevant subculture. Even leaving aside the impact on everyone’s religious freedom, the debate could hardly have been better designed to marginalize Muslims. This is all the more unfortunate since the hijab was an example of, from our point of view, positive cultural evolution within the Muslim world.

The world would undoubtedly be a better place if Islamic fundamentalism reached even 19th century Western notions of individualism and gender equality. But cultures evolve over decades, and bans on their practices are not useful means of promoting positive change within them. Bans often as not tend to reinforce what they purport to inhibit. While we consider it a kind of “false consciousness,” this is a culture that exults in martyrdom. It will not quietly set aside a practice it sees as either holy or, in some cases, a symbol of social status.* Rather, Western Europe seems determined to turn thousands of Muslim women into self-proclaimed Islamic Rosa Parkses.

I have no “fear of being labeled Islamophobic” by anyone. But “Islamic misogyny” will not be undone by coercive secular dress codes. That’s tantamount to treating the symptom while ignoring the disease. Neutral enforcement of existing laws and mores is a far more effective means of inculcating Western values in subcultures which reject them. Such a strategy doesn’t just avoid the pitfalls of targeting a specific subgroup and the attendant unintended reinforcement of the practices one hopes to amend. It also just happens to be the one that’s genuinely consistent with the values we hope to spread.


* Hard though it may be for us to believe, for some Islamic women the putting on of the burqa really does represent liberation. The very ability to abide by the religious injunction to remain aloof from unrelated males by means of the burqa shows that they are above the social level of lower class women that cannot do so because it interferes with their work. In short, within its cultural context, it’s akin to Western women wearing heels to work rather than “practical” shoes. If one imagines how an American woman would react to having her Manolo Blahniks banned by Christian fundamentalists, one gets at least a sense of the difficulty of the task at hand.

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About Dodd
Dodd, who used to run a blog named ipse dixit, is an attorney, a veteran of the United States Navy, and a fairly good poker player. He can kill a mime using only his thumb. He joined the staff at OTB in May 2007. Follow Dodd on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m conflicted on this issue but I come down on the other side.

    We do place limits on religious freedom, even here in the States. We forbid polygamy, animal sacrifice, religiously-dictated stoning and whipping, ritual mutilations. We mandate medical care for children of Christian Scientists. In fact anyone who decided to follow the strictest biblical practice would soon find himself in prison.

    When we banned polygamy among the Mormons we essentially prevailed. The vast majority of Mormons complied and shifted their doctrine accordingly. The Turks banned extreme forms of Islamic dress and they, too, have essentially prevailed albeit with some recent backsliding.

    These laws are not promulgated with the idea in mind of stigmatizing minorities — in that case, if we were talking about yellow stars — I’d be definitely opposed. Rather these laws seek to liberate women and allow them to exercise their rights in a free society.

    It also sends a message to those contemplating emigrating to France: if you can’t play by our rules, stay home. I don’t see that as a bad thing. We send the same message to legal immigrants: if you want to be a citizen you have to abandon your citizenship in other countries, learn our core dogmas, and function within our set of rules.

    Religious freedom is a right that we limit when it impinges on other rights. The burqa impinges on France’s core beliefs and denies equal rights to many within France’s borders. I think the French government and others have a right to ban them.

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  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Those places that require the wearing of vails. How is the practice of religious freedom there? How many Christian churchs are there in Saudi Arabia? If something is your sworn enemy, do not let them use your freedoms against you.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    ZR3:

    Yes, we should always sink to the level of our enemies. Brilliant.

    Those places also burn Bibles. Shall we burn Korans?

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  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Interesting both Reynolds and Ragshaft reach the same conclusion about burqas but get there each by a different path. I agree with both. With respect to Dodd’s opinion I have to say the bans do more good than bad.

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  5. tom p says:

    Dodd, I agree. Both with your reasoning and your conclusion.

    ***These laws are not promulgated with the idea in mind of stigmatizing minorities — in that case, if we were talking about yellow stars — I’d be definitely opposed. ***
    So, Michael, you are ok with the banning of public displays of the crucifix and the yammukah (sp?) by individuals? In this country, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

    ***Rather these laws seek to liberate women and allow them to exercise their rights in a free society***

    Suppose these women (as Dodd pointed out) have a different defintition of freedom than you? What then?

    A correction:*** if you want to be a citizen you have to abandon your citizenship in other countries***

    This is untrue. I thought so as well, until my wife became a citizen of the US. (Her oath even says so…) but the reality is, she can choose to be a dual citizen if she likes (she proved it to me)

    I have the links (somewhere) if you like, but right now I have to finish dinner.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Tom P:

    So, Michael, you are ok with the banning of public displays of the crucifix and the yammukah (sp?) by individuals? In this country, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Do crucifixes reduce the wearer to second class status? No. Are they imposed? No. Apples and oranges.

    Suppose these women (as Dodd pointed out) have a different defintition of freedom than you? What then?

    We can’t know that, can we? In a patriarchal society men set the rules and the women have no say. It’s like arguing that slaves might prefer slavery. Well, no doubt one or two did. But in a society where slaves are not allowed to express their opinion it’s useless to speculate, isn’t it? First people’s rights have to be assured, only then can we know what they prefer.

    I stand corrected on dual citizenship.

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  7. mike says:

    I think it is only men who have to give up their dual citizenship – at 18 yrs old. probably tied to the draft rules. Reynolds, I enjoyed your analysis of this issue and completely agree.

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  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not prepared to say what the French should or shouldn’t do. Ideas of fundamental rights and even basic fairness aren’t universal. For the British crossing the land is a fundamental right enshrined in Magna Carta. Here we call it trespassing. An official secrets act along the lines of the one that the British have would be an intolerable intrusion on First Amendment rights here. And so on.

    The arguments I’ve heard from the French on this have been of several different varieties: secularism, integration into French society, and preventing women from being coerced into wearing burqas or hijabs. It seems to me that all three of those are values that we hold here, too: separation of church and state, equality, protection of people from coercion. We differ mostly on how those values should be implemented and I don’t know enough about the notions of fairness and rights in France to comment with any confidence on what they should or shouldn’t do.

    Basically, I think the French are entitled to be French, the Swiss are entitled to be Swiss, and Americans are entitled to be Americans and we each should be able to do any damn fool thing we care to in our own countries.

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  9. Gary says:

    Mr Dodd makes an interseting assertion that he fails to then explain: “…the hijab was an example of, from our point of view, positive cultural evolution within the Muslim world.” And he says something that I simply don’t understand:”…for some Islamic women the putting on of the burqa really does represent liberation. The very ability to abide by the religious injunction to remain aloof from unrelated males by means of the burqa shows that they are above the social level of lower class women that cannot do so because it interferes with their work.” If he’s talking about muslim women in western countries, I can tell him that working class muslim women in the UK have to wear the burqa to go to the shops.  It is not a status symbol. If he’s talking in general, societies that enforce the burqa generally don’t allow women to work. If Mr.Dodd or anyone else can explain if I missed something I’d be grateful.

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