There seems to be a new trend going around in Europe: that of banning the burqa, or niqab, and other methods of the complete veiling of the body that a minority of Muslim women are wearing in public. France is strongly considering the ban, Belgium has already followed through with it, and just over a week ago the first Spanish city, the Catalan Lleida (Lerida), officially prohibited the wearing of the burqa in municipal buildings. These decisions are precedents for the rest of Europe, so I believe it is necessary to think about them and take a stand.
Here is what I think: as a feminist and an atheist I do support the idea of getting rid of the burqa as a means of oppression, not just in Europe but in the entire world. Being a (Western) feminist I find it hard to believe that any woman would wear this attire voluntarily, for obvious reasons. However, there are Muslim women who have claimed to do so, not in submission to men but in submission to their god. As an atheist, I naturally don’t care much for this explanation. At the same time, there are women who claim to have been pressured into it and that it is, in fact, a patriarchal tool imposed on women to silence and degrade them. As a feminist, I naturally want to render that an impossibility.
However, should there be a state legislation that prohibits women from wearing the burqa in public? I think, this question can be answered if we look at the possible consequences as well as the implications of such an official ban.
Most women who are forced to wear the burqa in public are already to some extent barred from society. Banning the only possibility they have to leave their homes – to cover up entirely – will probably lead to their removal from the public sphere. Either way, women will always be the ones to get punished. Fining them for wearing the burqa may never affect the men (or women) forcing them to wear the burqa to begin with. Therefore I am convinced that there may be many reasons why governments want to ban the burqa, but freeing women from oppression is not one of them. The real reasons have probably more to do with the common fear of the unknown, a latent (or not so latent) islamophobia and a false idea of security.
We should also consider that this ban is an official restriction of our freedom of choice. If we look at the burqa as a form of religious expression, we might want to ask ourselves which religions are still welcome in Europe. After all, I can think of one or two other religious traditions that imply the violation of an individual’s freedom of choice (for example male circumcision). Should they be banned? In my opinion yes, but that would take this discussion to a whole other level.
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It seems equally wrong to me to force women, or anyone, to wear or not wear something, especially when the question of choice is unanswerable. Is it really my choice to wear high heels? Or is there not rather a system behind it that tells me high heels will make me look long-legged and sexy? Who cares? If it is my choice, conscious or not, to reveal most of my body in order to look sexy, it should be someone else’s choice not to reveal her body or face in honor to her god or because she simply wishes for her body not to be looked at. What’s worse: women as bodies only or women as non-bodies?
I believe there are better solutions than imposing new regulations on people who are already extremely regulated (by their religion or their men). We should strive towards being an open and tolerant society. We should show people that there are different ways to lead one’s life. Are they any better? Well, the only thing that should matter is that everyone should have the possibility to find out. Therefore I strongly advocate that government measures should be positive and constructive rather than negative and debilitating. We should promote communication between the nations and religions instead of stigmatizing them with prohibitions. And we should give every woman who is oppressed, be it by her parents, her husband, or her religion, the opportunity to escape these constraints through women’s shelters, human rights organisations, education and job training, so that she can make decisions based on her own freedom of choice and not on a state law.
Here is a very interesting video that lets those speak who are concerned: Muslim women. I also like that, all the religious reasons aside, there is a fascinating post-body argument in what the woman in the niqab is saying…