A few weeks ago, the world began to hone in on France and the public reaction to the newly-enacted burqa ban. I wrote this piece as the reaction was taking form, but decided to not publish it until the noise began to settle.
I have read and written on this issue for the past two years now, and I still feel the same today as I did when I started: what is happening in France is a troubling and destructive trend that is engulfing various democratic countries across the Western world.
In the quest to define and in some cases salvage our Western identities, we have allowed ourselves to create different classes of citizenship – where it has become appropriate and even patriotic to question someone‘s loyalty to the state based on a flawed notion of what it is to be a “good” citizen.
Increasingly, decisions being made by today‘s Western governments are running counter to pluralistic and democratic principles – the supposed bedrock of modern and open societies.
In every country that has recently passed or is currently debating legislation that limits a Muslim women’s right to wear a burqa, three main arguments usually surface: women’s rights, secularism and national security.
To begin, not every woman who wears a veil, burqa or niqab is necessarily oppressed. For some women, the choice to wear their Islamic garment is a legitimate choice that reflects their individuality and sexuality. Although this may not seem logical to the Western mind, it is indeed a reality for many women in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world.
If France (or other Western nations) want to really defend women’s rights, perhaps a good start would be to defend equal pay for women in the workplace, or proactively working to remove the glass ceiling that exist in politics and so many other professions.
Secondly, secularism by definition is the separation of Church and State. It is not, and should never be, a licence to legitimize anti-religious beliefs. There is a substantial difference between a country deciding not to fund religious schools or eliminating all religious symbols in schools (as France currently does), and a country that attempts to limit an individual’s freedom to express themselves. Legislating behaviour and dress code in the public sphere should not be taken lightly.
The tendency to erode religion in France and all over the Western world, including here in Canada, is not genuine secularism; it is the unjust practice of legislating religious intolerance by cherry-picking which religion is more worthy of state support.
France’s new ban would be easier to digest on the grounds of secularism if the French government eliminated the long-standing practice of using public funds to restore, renovate, and preserve their Catholic institutions.
Lastly, the idea that a woman in a veil or burqa threatens the security of the general public is really quite extraordinary. I challenge anyone reading this to provide the percentage of crimes in France (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) that are committed by women in burqas.
If the concern here – and it usually is – revolves around reducing the likelihood of another terrorist attack, I am not certain banning Islamic garments on women is the answer; in fact, it may just do the opposite and ignite the extremists forces within Islam.
At the core of international relations lies one common purpose: the successful integration of citizens. Unfortunately, a superficial defence of women’s rights, dogmatic secularism and a flawed sense of national security will not get us there.
It has often been said that in times of war, the law falls silent. But, we are not at war with our Muslim brothers and sisters, despite what several politicians and academics may suggest. The erroneous and obstructive “clash of civilizations” discourse does not concern itself with tackling the substance of these issues; it constrains us all to a dialogue aimed at confronting the mere symptoms.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth about the increasing support for burqa bans such as the one in France: our collective silence is empowering governments to persecute the victims. There is now little difference between that oppressive man at home who forces his wife to dawn a veil and that regressive government who forces her to take it off.
Decisions regarding a woman’s body need to finally rest with the only people who actually matter in all this – women themselves.
We, the citizens of the West, are all living in frightened nations. In order to finally begin to understand one another, what we now need is healing – not more fear.