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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