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JANUARY 22, 2010 7:31AM

Ban the Burka, Chalk One Up For Terrorists

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Today France votes on whether to ban the burka from being worn in public places.  Should any self-respecting free republic make wearing a particular garment a criminal act?

Personally, I am not comfortable with the burka.  It is a common sight in parts of Britain these days but still a troubling one for some people.  Often when I see a man with a woman in a burka, the man is wearing Western attire, jeans or a suit, and the woman, swathed in fabric from head to toe, is walking at least five paces behind him.  I always wonder if that woman is wearing the burka because she wants to or because he wants her to.

In Western culture, covering the face is so often associated with disguise and subterfuge it is difficult to overcome an ingrained reaction against it.  For example, in old movies the outlaws always tied a bandana over their faces to conceal their identities.  Bank robbers and terrorists alike don balaclavas while Klan members favour hoods.  In a Western context, covering the face implies you have something to hide.  Here in West Yorkshire recently, a man wanted in the shooting of a police officer managed to elude the authorities by donning a burka and pretending to be a woman.  Such a possibility, that the burka can be used to conceal, adds to the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

While a burka is seen by many to deny the identity of the woman wearing it and to be a symbol of the subjugation of women in general, it can also be seen as an insult to men.  The implication is that men are unable to control themselves and the mere sight of a woman's face could be enough to transform them, werewolf style, into slavering beasts.  Also, what is the message to women who are dressed in Western clothes?  Is a woman wearing shorts and a t-shirt being quietly censured by the woman completely covered who she passes on the street?

From a practical point, the burka can hinder communication.  Recently I was chatting with a girl in a burka covering all but her eyes, which were visible through a slit.  She was friendly and outgoing and spoke clearly but I found myself wishing she would move her veil aside so I could "hear" her better.  We rely on many non-verbal cues when we strike up a conversatin with someone, and her veil was blocking those cues, meaning that I was unable to read her face.  Our encounter was pleasant but vaguely frustrating and I wish I had asked her about her choice to wear the burka.

According to scholars, Islam does not require that a woman cover her face and the burka is not required Islamic dress.  Women who choose to wear it do so for their own reasons.  It is worn in Britain more often by young women born in this country than by older women who immigrated here in generations past.  Some young Muslim women say they choose to wear it as a reaction against the revealing clothes found in Western society, against its perceived promiscuity, its drink and drug culture.  Many non-Muslims feel threatened by the burka because they see it as a condemnation of the way we live our lives or as an endorsement of a politicized Islam.

As uncomfortable as I am with the burka, I am even less comfortable with seeing government interfere in something as personal as what a person chooses to wear.  Opposition to radical Islam seems to be motivating the French proposals to ban the burka.  The irony is that in order to protect themselves against oppressive ideas, they are instituting oppression of their own.

In order to protect the freedoms we value, we need to uphold those freedoms for everyone.  We never want to be told we must wear the burka, but we should never tell women that they must not wear it.  Making criminals of those who do will only feed the radicals who prey on young minds already dissatisfied with their place in Western society.

© Julia Barr 2010

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fear, france, burka

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I am on the fence with this... I see both sides having valid reasons.
I didn't know about the man using a burka for a disguise, though I have thought it to be a great way for a criminal to conceal himself rather a bank robber or a terrorist. So it is interesting that it was actually used. I wonder if there could be a compromise... like wear the burka, but face must be showing. It would still cover their bodies, but would allow people to recognize a friend or foe. But who would listen to me? Anyway, just rambling. I really liked your entry. I agreed with all points you stated... for and against. Rated.
Thanks Sarah. I know what you mean, I really question myself on this issue. It seems to hit so many instinctive buttons on so many levels.
Hi eviltwit, thanks for your comments. I just don't like the idea of banning things.
In a surveillance world the burka can be the ultimate blow for freedom of the individual against the authorities ... talk about regaining your right to privacy and not being judged for your demeanor!
Anyway, I think France should institute burka Thursdays when everyone has to wear one and see what happens.
I'm not comfortable with the burka but I'm really not comfortable with a country banning people's rights to wear what they want. That smacks of oppression to me, which in this case seems ironic.
Absolutely. This act is in the same grain as allowing women to "go to college" in the U.S. Before that, we were told our brains were too small so we couldn't go. The burka is a man-made oppressive tool to enslave women. Ban it. 7th century oppression has no place in the 21st century.
I hate to seem xenophobic. However when these people leave their home country, they need to realize they cannot dictate either morals or attire. "When in Rome!" It's a shame that they cannot understand this.
First, a little bit of a vocabulary issue: burqa/burka/chador is more properly the loose outer garment, which depending on culture and satorial style, may or may not cover the face. Niqab is the facial veil; hijab is the head covering, though it can more generally refer to overall modest Islamic womens' dress.

What most seems to trouble people is not in fact the burqa/chador, but rather the niqaab. As you point out, it can be unsettling not to see your interlocutor's face if you are accustomed to listening with your eyes.

As you point out in your last two paragraphs, if we do not want our governments to impose on us what we can or cannot wear, then we should insist on the same sartorial freedom for others.
On balance I think your post is fair. It is perfectly reasonable that a practice so alien to your home culture would give you pause. What you have done-- that so few other western self-described "feminists" bother with--is to take responsibility for your feelings. In other words, your discomfort is about you, not women who cover. You are right when you describe some of the negative associations with face covering we have in the west. What you haven't filled in though is the parallel religious and cultural justification for doing the practice, which is about modesty-- not shame. A woman's covered body is literally un- commodifiable, which is one of the reasons young women embrace the practice, as you've noted.

But really, if western feminists find themselves uncomfortable with covering then perhaps they might actually ask Muslim feminists who have a direct relationship with the practice how they feel and then listen to what they have to say. There are no shortage of such women: Roksana Bahramitash, Leila Ahmed, Saba Mahmood etc. etc. Making proclamations about what Muslim and Arab women "should" or "shouldn't" do without even considering their thoughts on the matter is an act of near-colonial arrogance.

And just to be clear: comments like Deborah Young's are racism, nothing more.
Noah, maybe you should write to President Sarkozy with that suggestion.

Mary, my sentiments exactly.

Deborah, a ban just goes against my instincts. I think we need to dig deeper in this.

Kenny, quite often people wearing the full face veil are people born here.

Wordsmith, thanks for the vocabulary corrections. I'm no expert. I agree with your points about freedom.

Joseph, as I say in my post, I wish I had asked about why the girl was wearing the burqa. Although I probably felt it would have been a bit rude, perhaps that is the way forward for better understanding.

Thank you all for commenting. Much appreciated.
Part of the reason this issue is so interesting to me—and another reason these movese to ban such garments so rankle me—is that on more than one occasion I have very sincerely wished I had the option to wear such a thing. To shield my person from prying eyes. To be heard for my words and not seen for my "attributes". To be able to choose who looks at me and how. As a personal choice rather than a cultural imposition I find the notion extremely liberating. I recognize that most Occidental minds will find that statement exceedingly ironic.
W-That is a really interesting point. I think I just go into what I might call "public transport" mode, where nobody looks at anybody else, no eye contact, that sort of thing, when I don't want to be looked at.
I like that a government is concerned about women, but banning something you do not understand is not doing anyone any favors. I heard on National Public Radio that France is also about to pass a law against spousal nagging and insults. No joke...though it was on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" it is for real and expected to be passed within a couple weeks.
Interesting discussion.

My family is currently planning a vacation in Thailand, and not to the beaches. We've been reading up on Thai customs. Specifically dress--outside the major cities and the sex industry, Thais are modest by Western standards (at least according to Lonely Planet). They don't wear tank tops, or shorts, they cover their arms, they never wear shoes inside a house, etc. Some swim fully clothed rather than wear a swimsuit.

As a visitor, I have every intention of trying to respect their culture as much as we can. Obviously we'll stick out like sore thumb Western tourists, but we can at least be respectful, non-offensive tourists. When in Rome.

Likewise, and I agree with other posters here, I have a problem with the face veil for people living in or visiting a Western country. A head covering, a full head-to-toe robe, that's just clothes, and people can do as they like. But a face veil, in Western culture, has a very specific meaning. The person is trying to hide, or to get away with something immoral or illegal. We depend on seeing people's faces in many, many social and legal contexts. Hiding the face is not just a religious choice. What about a driver's license photo? Identifying someone using a credit card? Making sure the right parent picks up the right child from day care?

In addition, we depend on faces for social interaction, as several posters have noted. Even a conversation with someone in a restaurant or grocery store just works better if we can see faces.
Mimetalker--No spousal nagging or insults? That's what passes for conversation in my house. You can't just ban things and see them go away. Thanks for your comments.

Froggy, sounds like a great vacation destination. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.
Hi Barking, the reason that it is not "French" is, I think, going to cause some real anger. Will be interesting to see what they end up doing. Thanks for reading my piece and commenting.
"According to scholars, Islam does not require that a woman cover her face and the burka is not required Islamic dress."

There is your definitive answer. It is not an Islamic thing; it is a cultural thing. Therefore it should be worn only in countries with such culture. A burka should be illegal unless the woman is robbing a bank.

What are we shielding ourselves from? I ask that of the people, I sometimes don't know if the burka or the message is more powerful.
Great post here... interesting and eye-opening.
Thoth, I'm just not happy to see things made illegal because they are not part of the culture. I think a lot about this issue and it makes me uncomfortable, as I say in my post, but I think the solution is somewhere outside the box. We've really got to hang on tightly to what we value and freedom to wear what we want, to express ourselves, is so important. Thanks for reading and commenting.

N. Jordan, thank you for your comment. Yes, we all have our own interpretation of these issues. What message is the burka meant to be sending and do we get it? I sometimes think our points of view are so far apart we are never going to meet in the middle.
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