Friday, July 16, 2010

The French ban of the burqa is a good thing

The French ban of the burqa has received a lot of attention and a lot of criticism. The European Citizen says that a ban is disproportional and paramount to a publicly imposed dresscode. And the Council of Europe sees an infringement of the right to personal identity and freedom of religion as they are stipulated in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR, articles 8 and 9) and threatens to go to the European Court of Human Rights.

But I think that it is a good thing that the sovereigns in several European countries forbid the full-body veil by law. I agree with the European Citizen that official programs to integrate Muslim women into Western societies are absolutely necessary. But I also believe that the European sovereign may give himself the right to ban a full-body veil from European streets by law.

Personally, I would feel awkward and nervous asking a completely veiled women for directions in the street, probably just as much as if she was completely nude. The burqa threatens the openness to look somebody in the face, to see their reactions, to allow them interactions with others on an equal level. As little as I would walk through the streets dressed as General Grievous, I want to be subjected to a person that speaks to me through a veil. I see the freedom of peaceful coexistence and interaction in a multicultural city threatened by the fact that I have to speak through a veil and interpret my interlocutor's words via their intonation.

Viewing the case from another perspective, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe believes that the prohibition of the burqa is "alien to European values". I completely agree that tolerance of religion has to be guaranteed and the ban of the burqa should in no way be interpreted as a discrimination of Islam. Instead, everything should be done to integrate Muslims into European society where this has not already been successfully achieved (let's not forget that most Muslims are perfectly integrated).

But on the other hand, a commitment to multiculturalism and tolerance must not turn into a European carte blanche for every conceivable bit of cultural influx. A lot of cultural influx into Europe is not harmful, and it would be ridiculous to ban Americanization by law. But Ayaan Hirsi Ali, former Muslim and an passionate fighter for women's rights in Islam, asserts for example that the Dutch government closed its eyes to Muslim honor killings on its own soil for too long due to a commitment to a tolerant, multicultural society. European society cannot close its eyes before this; and I believe the European sovereign has a right and a duty to set clear borders to the tolerance that it extends to others and that it enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

As a last remark, in Iran it is absolutely inconceivable that a women dresses in shorts and a t-shirt. In Vatican City, shorts are forbidden because they dishonor the Holy See. I don't mean to say that the European sovereign should give himself the right to install a European dresscode. But in my view, it must be possible to forbid the fact that on certain streets in Paris or London, it is only possible to speak to a piece of cloth where you try to make a conversation.

Update: An interesting round up of different voices can be found here


  1. Interesting post, though I think we're probably going to end up agreeing to disagree here.

    I'm still unclear over how your unease over communicating with someone wearing a burqa leads to the need to ban it (and other similar clothes for the sake of equality on that level), nor exactly how the burqa is a threat to European culture (or a stable level of multiculturalism). I have to admit that I would probably be uncomfortable talking to someone in a burqa - where I live is pretty sparely populated and monocultural. However, surely the awkwardness would lessen with more frequent contact, or with a less intense and necessarily negative view that has been culturally projected on to it?

    I would agree that there shouldn't be a carte blanche when it comes to multiculturalism. My starting point is a liberal approach to human rights/civil rights, and how I view multiculturalism is mostly through this prism. So generally the "cut-off point" (or point where justified qualification on rights comes in) is where the exercise of a certain right would damage other people's rights or a necessary public good (to give a crude rule of thumb).

    So when it comes to the burqa, I don't see it really impacting on any public good or the rights of others in any sufficiently serious way during day-to-day life (I mentioned some possible exceptions in my blog post). A general sense of unease or slight inconvenience in talking doesn't seem to be enough for me for it to be curtailed - and surely this sense of unease when it comes to interaction should be a part of what integration is supposed to overcome?

    On the other end of the scale is the honour killings you mentioned. These are a clear breach to a public good (safety) and to the rights of others. So I think that integration and multiculturalism can be combined to a degree, though there is a point where tolerance can't tolerate some cultural practices in our liberal society.

  2. Thanks a lot for your comment. You're probably right and we won't find common ground on this question. Still, why not give it a try?

    It is true that a burqa does not place others in fundamental danger; it's more an inconvenience to third people than a threat to public security.

    But then, I'm not proposing to ban the burqa out of pure laziness to accept other forms of expression. In my view, European countries should be very clear about what cultural influx they want and where they want to draw the line. I think the European sovereign should have the possibility to determine the cultural mix in which he wants to live. I don't mean to say that defenders of the "christendom"-idea should get the possibility to forbid Islam altogether, God beware. Islam is a part of Europe. Nor should the debate about the burqa be instrumentalized as a debate about Islam.

    Yet, we Europeans claim that we give freedom of expression to everybody. In some cases, Muslim families have been hit hard by this promise:

    When I worked as a Somali-Dutch translator in Holland, I was often called upon in cases where parents reacted violently to the Westernization of their teenage Somali daughters. I remember on girl at the child protection office close to the city of The Hague. She was about sixteen but looked twenty-five. Her hair had been straightened and colored with red and brown highlights. Her nails were extremely long, curled, and painted in shimmering green. She wore the tightest possible tank top with the lowest possible cleavage and a black skirt that was so short her underwear was visible when she crossed her legs, which were clad in red fishnet stockings and high-heeled ankle boots.
    Her father had to be physically restrained so that he would not hit her. He kept screaming, "She looks like a whore! Look at her mouth! It looks like she fell on the throat of a slaughtered lamb! She has killed me, this girl has killed me!" This was, at least metaphorically, true. I knew that with such a daughter, he was now socially dead to his clan; he had become a thing of mockery and pity. He could leave his house or enter public places only with a bowed head and gritted teeth. But his daugther shrugged in response, waving her hands dismissively.
    The Dutch social worker said to the father, "This is what we call self-expression. Your daughter is not doing anything unusual for her age."

    -Excerpt from Hirsi Ali (2010). Nomad, pp. 156f.

    This behavior is certainly harsh on Muslim families. Nonetheless, it is our ideal that everybody can express themselves in the way in which they choose, without being forced into sexual submission by wearing a full-body veil.

    This can be shown by another quote of my favorite author:
    I believe that the subjection of women within Islam is the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West. It is a subjection committed by the closest kin in the most intimate place, the home, and it is sanctioned by the greatest figure in the imagination of Muslims: Allah himself.
    Many Muslim parents believe that a Western education corrupts the Muslim way of life. In truth, it does. The education of girls in independent thought is a challenge to Islamic teaching, just as it once was a challenge to Christian teaching and Orthodox Jewish teaching.

    -Excerpt from Hirsi Ali (2010). Nomad, p. 160.

    So, what I want to say is that Europeans should have the right to shape the integration of those Muslims which are not yet integrated into the "European" way of life, in the interest of further peaceful coexistence. And I see the interdiction of the veil, which is probably the biggest existing epitome of female submission, as one of the means to determine this integration. Even if it also hits some women who freely decide to wear the veil.

  3. I'm trying to write a piece on how far the banning of the burqa in France is consistent with the countries claims of being a multicultural society...what are your views on this?

  4. In my view, healthy multiculturalism can only exist if the rules are clear for everybody in the game. As soon as two cultural groups in the same country play by different rules, troubles are bound to come (see here for example).

    I believe that there is a consensus among most people in France that unlike different religious practices or the differences between church towers and minarets, it is the burqa that really creates different rules between these two groups. For almost everybody - except Muslim men and very few Muslim women - the burqa does not represent freedom of expression but female submission of women to men in Islam. It means that Muslim families develop in a different way than Christian, Jewish or secular families (see the second quote in my comment above).

    Not wishing to allow these double standards to prevail, the French parliament cast a majority vote to ban this sign/symbol. But this doesn't stop the French from cheering on a multicultural football team, from making the Congolese singer Jessy Matador the French representative at the Eurovision Song Contest or from allowing mosques and synagogues.

    Therefore I believe that a ban of the burqa is well in tune with a multicultural society; it provides the common ground on which peaceful coexistence and develop further.

  5. (Sorry for the late reply André).

    The freedom and liberalism which are now such a part of the European way of life that says that women in positions like you discribe should be permitted to wear what they want and be able to choose their path as an individual. It took a long time for this to become part of the European way of life.

    You raise several points about the cultural aspects of a community that permit/mandate that community to control large areas of people's lives. I agree that European societies have the right to say: you have to respect that in our societies, which believe in the freedoms and rights of the individual, you have the right to follow your culture as long as you don't infringe on other people's rights to decide their own individual path.

    I don't understand why a woman's right to choose to wear the burqa isn't as cherished as a woman's right to dress up/live according to a more western fashion.

    Banning the burqa may send a signal against female oppression, but it also could be a symbol to the islamic community living here that, while European freedom permits them to be more liberal in their personal lives, it doesn't permit them to be more conservative in their personal lives - and indeed publically delegitimises personal religious decisions independent of whether they affect anyone else or not.

    To me that's a breach of the European way of life as we understand it today. It confuses the target of female oppression with a possible symptom of it, and is contrary to the idea that people can be free to live according to their conscience, as long as it doesn't conflict with the rights of others to do likewise.

  6. Hey Conor,
    no worries :)

    You've thought about this topic very much and I can see the point that allowing liberal dresses should also mean that more conservative attire is allowed. However, I still cannot share it.

    First, I have to say that I have only briefly lived in a neighborhood where people wore the burqa. I have never actually had contact with women who wore it.

    So I admit that my view is determined by what I learned through the media and via others. Mostly Ayaan Hirsi Ali to whom I have referred to above. She grew up in a Muslim family in Somalia and fled a forced marriage when she was on a stopover in the Netherlands. As an ex-Muslim, she started fighting against the oppression of women in Islam and was even elected to be a Dutch MP. Among others she released the short film "Submission", after which her director Theo van Gogh was shot dead by a radical Muslim.

    After her personal experiences and various impressions that she got as a "member" of the Somali community in the Netherlands, she estimates that the integration efforts of Muslims in the Netherlands, i.e. in matters of school education for girls etc. have not been sufficient and that there are in fact two parallel societies living next to each other.

    I am basing my views on her experiences when she says

    When well-meaning Westerners, eager to promote respect for minority religions and cultures, ignore practicies like forced marriage and confinement in order to "stop society from stigmatizing Muslims," they deny countless Muslim girls their right to wrest their freedom from their parents' culture. They fail to live up to the ideals and values of our democratic society, and they harm the very same vulnerable minority whom they seek to protect.
    -Excerpt from Hirsi Ali (2010). Nomad, p. 164.

    What she proposes is help for Muslim women given by the European culture in which they are growing up. A top-down way is certainly not the best manner to bring about change, and government education programs would certainly be better. But a top-down decision also sends the signal that the cultural environment no longer looks away when women are imprisoned in their homes, their families and their burqa. I think it is necessary and it is fair that the European citizens take a vivid interest in this issue and that they want to become active to change the situation. Even if it means that liberal dresses are allowed and this singular conservative dress is forbidden.

  7. Hi there, having been arm-twisted by Eurogoblin, I've also written a post covering this over at my blog:

    Essentially I think I agree with Conor - if we've fought for equal rights for women in Europe, that means allowing them the free choice to wear whatever type of headscarf they wish.

    However, it is the freedom of choice on the part of the woman that is important here and is the European value that we are trying to uphold, not their right to be oppressed by men.

    There is also an issue of respect - respect for genuine religious belief that covering up more is a sign of devout devotion however distasteful we in the West might find this.

    But is there an obligation to have respect for a culture in which you live?
    That seems to be the crux of your argument.

    A Christian I knew working in Jordan used to wear a loose headscarf when out and about. She didn't refuse and flaunt her Christianity as the reason, she complied with an acceptable level of "decency" that was expected of her culturally.

    So is it decent of us culturally to do something that contradicts a sense of decency sincerely held by others?
    What are the values that we hold that require us to do this?

    Actually, I think there's a degree of common sense that can be applied, rather than an outright ban.
    For example where a full-face veil can stop someone doing their job properly (such as language teaching, where seing how the mouth moves is important to teach proper pronunciation) then we have a right to expect the job to be done in an acceptable manner.

    But if you ask people with a genuine and heartfelt religious conviction to give it up for society's good, don't be surprised if they choose their faith.

    Why? Because faith is not just about today but about the future for all eternity. You don't want to get that one wrong!

  8. Do you think the French burqa ban is a multicultural approach or an assimilationist one. Or simply put, do you think the French ban of burqa enhance multiculturalism in France or it challenges it?