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Editorial: Criticize the burqa, don’t ban it (unless necessary)

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By Brooks Lindsay, Founder and Editor of Debatepedia.org - May 27th, 2010 See Editor's Blog for other articles.

A woman’s choice to wear the face-covering burqa should be actively questioned and discouraged, but a blanket ban in Western countries usually lacks a compelling state interest, at least for now.

The burqa has earned the right to be despised. The Quran calls for “modesty”, but not for women to cover their faces. Eliminating visible identity perversely disadvantages women in society. How could this be “God’s will”? The burqa facilitates the oppression of women, even if it is true that those that freely choose to wear it find other ways to explain its meaning (ie. modesty, comfort, avoiding sexual harassment, avoiding visual judgment, emulating the prophet’s wives). The burqa is intimately connected with places where the worst violations of women’s rights occur, such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. There is a reason for this. Here, women often cannot leave their homes without the burqa and their husband’s permission, and cannot work, drive, and engage in socially meaningful lives. They are often seen as possessions of men who jealously guard them with the full veil. The burqa emerged from these kinds of misogynist religio-cultural environments, and any individual “choice” to wear it in the West is heavily pressured by the imams and fundamentalist ideologies coming from these environments.

Those that defend the right of women to wear the burqa should not make the mistake of defending the burqa itself. There is a big difference. Instead, friends of those that wear the burqa should feel a sense of responsibility to try to explain its personal and social costs, and that it is entirely needless in Islam. To say “it’s just their culture and religion” is profoundly intellectually naïve and only perpetuates the difficulties these women will face in a life without a public identity.

Nevertheless, in a free society, adults should be allowed to wear what they want in accordance with their own beliefs. The state can ban certain kinds of dress in public places, but only if other citizens’ rights are infringed by that dress, and if there is a “compelling state interest.” Think of bans on nudity in public places, for example.

France, Belgium, and Quebec have banned the burqa for a variety of reasons, but the main criticism they face is that very few actually wear the burqa, making it hard to see the state interest. In France, there are fewer that 2,000 out of 5 million Muslims (the most in Europe). In Belgium, there are less than 300 burqa-wearing women, and Quebec has around 30. It’s hard to see a compelling state interest in these numbers.

But, what makes the issue bigger than the number of women that wear the burqa is, particularly in France, the complicated court cases, accommodations, exceptions, and limitations that necessarily surround an identity-concealing garb. These issues are emerging because some of the women that wear the burqa are actively fighting for the right to wear it in all walks of society. They have been taking the issue to court for years, and stimulating national media coverage and debate.

The biggest issues are security and crime, as they weigh heavily on the question of a “compelling state interest.” Some bad apples are opting to use the burqa to commit crimes and robberies, and a number of terrorists have attempted bomb attacks and have fled police capture under disguise of the burqa. In addition, if a person wearing a face-covering veil commits a crime, witnesses cannot identify them and help solve the case. The UK and France have extensive security camera systems that depend on being able to identity people. These cameras are used for responding to suspicious behavior in real-time as well as for solving crimes after they have been committed. While some say that cops can ask to see someone’s identity if there is a good reason, this does not address most of the above issues, as identity must be exposed at all times for these systems to work. For this reason, supporters see wearing the burqa as an abdication of responsibilities under a modern social compact and justice system. These are fair complaints.

In most Western societies, though, there doesn’t appear to be enough burqa crime and terrorism to justify a blanket ban. But, in France and a handful of European nations with higher Muslim populations, there do seem to be more incidents involving the burqa. And, a quick Google search for “burqa-clad crime”, “burqa suicide bombers”, and similar terms show that these issues are not that small, and there are reasons why so many police chiefs in these countries are actively calling for a ban. Other identity-concealing masks have been banned in public for security reasons in some of these countries, why not for the burqa?

In addition to the security issue, some women have refused to lift their veil when getting their picture taken for photo IDs. Women have been forced to lift their veil for these kinds of things, but have demanded the accommodation that a female be on hand for the process. But, across the board, from commercial transactions to entering banks, schools, public buildings, or even bars, the requirement that a woman always be on hand is certainly not possible. This is particularly true in security and crime situations where rapid identification may be necessary.

And, others have refused to lift their veil when driving, which presents a traffic hazard to other drivers, as the burqa can dramatically limit vision. This is an especially valid point if it is actually the burqa, where the eyes must look through a mesh of fabric (this is different than the niqab, which also covers the face and is usually lumped into the term “burqa”, but which has a slit for the eyes to look through).

Banks, stores, public buildings, and schools all have a legitimate concern when a woman enters with an identity-concealing burqa. The most important concern is the frequent need to verify identity in these places. But, another concern is that these places invest in video cameras in order to deter criminal acts and potentially catch criminals after the fact. The burqa entirely defeats these security systems. Without a public ban, these organizations are forced to juggle the question of a private ban on their own, instead of policy experts and legal scholars taking the lead. Or, the government is forced to create targeted bans for these places.

The concern is especially heavy in schools, as some 12-to-18 year olds wear the burqa. Surely, these girls are not capable of making the “adult choice” to wear the full veil on their own, which is the entire basis of any “right” to do so. This may justify a ban on burqas in schools and even burqa-wearing by all minors. Indeed, schools are banning the burqa in many places.

Another problem is that some Muslim parents come to school dressed in burqas to pick up their children. Dutch schools have banned this because of the necessity of ensuring the identity of a person that comes to pick up a child.

And, women that wear burqas suffer from severe Vitamin-D deficiencies, and put their babies at very high risk of rickets, a bone disease. Measures may have to be put in place to respond to this.

Clearly, allowing the burqa means that major limitations, sub-bans, and accommodations must surround it to protect the rights of other citizens and maintain the social compact. Is this really what the government should be spending its time doing? Do we really want our businesses, schools, and citizens to have to grapple with this question independently? Is this any better than instituting a full ban?

In France, where all of these court cases and issues have arisen in recent years, it is hard to blame them for putting their foot down. Setting a clear line in the sand – banning any face-covering mask in public spaces - saves the rest of society from having to figure out how to accommodate the burqa. And this, on top of the unresolved security risks of allowing face-covering masks in public, may be a compelling interest in itself.

Ultimately, the question of whether banning the burqa constitutes a state interest depends on the country, and the extent of the problem. France seems to have the strongest case to make that the issue has become a compelling state interest. Quebec, with 30 women wearing the burqa and few security concerns, has a much weaker case. In most Western countries, unless these issues are constantly arising and forcing the government’s hand, it is best to maintain the right of women to wear the burqa, limit the costs of accommodating them, and urge them to re-think their choice.

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