As some of you may know, the French government is currently considering banning the burka altogether from public life. French President Sarkozy created something of a controversy when he said the following to French lawmakers:
“The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France”.
The notion that the wearing of the burka is ‘not a religious problem’ or ‘religious symbol’ is preposterous. Of course it is a religious problem and a religious symbol. There is no way to evade that reality. Whether or not a literal interpretation of the Koran demands that women cover themselves, or whether it is a practice that has been grafted on over time is completely irrelevant; for millions of Muslim women, wearing the burka is a part of their religious practice and expression, however it came to be so.
The problems with this legislation are numerous and egregious, whether in the French context or that of any other democratic country. First, there is the obvious, blatant hypocrisy. It is absolutely ludicrous to argue that one can simultaneously respect women (or anyone for that matter) while depriving them of their right to make decisions about what they wear and how they express their religious beliefs. By banning the burka, by suggesting that it is necessarily and always a symbol of oppression, they insult and disrespect the millions of Muslim women who freely choose to wear these garments.
When I was in college, I would see Muslim women wearing headscarfs on campus all the time, and in my classes as well. Occasionally I would see women with their faces covered. They were as intelligent and as capable as anyone else of making their own decisions as citizens in a democratic society. The idea that these women must have been backwards, unenlightened dupes and/or helpless victims of male tyrants at home, on no other evidence than that they wore a burka or a headscarf, would have been laughable to me and extremely offensive to them.
Even if it were the case that many Muslim women are forced, or feel pressured against their will, to wear the burka (as I am sure it must be in some places less open than a college campus), banning its appearance in public would do nothing to solve the deeper problem of a controlling, possibly violent husband. In such a relationship being forced to a wear a burka would be among the least of a woman’s problems. This legislation is not for the benefit of the Muslim women of France. It serves another ideological purpose.
The French government wishes to do all in its power to retain France’s status as a “secular state”. Even seeing a headscarf or a veil covering the face in public – a full burka covering the entire body is, from what I understand, more rare – is a reminder that not everyone is on board with the project of total secularization. The burka has become more than a simple covering. It is a symbol of resistance, against secularization, against the assault of modernity, and heaven help us, post-modernity, on tradition.
As a Christian, and as a Catholic who is more partial to traditional forms of the liturgy, I stand in religious solidarity with the Muslim women who choose to wear the burka. I also stand with those women who choose not to wear it. But I will never stand with those who believe that Muslim women shouldn’t be able to make the decision for themselves, whether they are Muslim men, or European politicians.
And I hope America remains a society where women can wear burkas and I can attend a traditional Latin Mass without being singled out as an enemy of “progress” by the state.
Update I: I found another article that makes the following claim.
“A few thousand women wear the burka in France, many of whom are French converts who chose to cover themselves to assert their faith, according to Le Figaro.”
If this is true, it only reinforces everything I wrote above.
Update II: It appears President Obama agrees with me as well, and I’m not sure what to make of that.
In his speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo early this month, Obama appeared to reference the case: “freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion … that’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.”
Elsewhere in the address, Obama said it was important that Western countries not prevent Muslim citizens “from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”