On Tuesday, the French Parliament began debate on the now-infamous burqa ban, the bill that would prevent women from wearing full-face veils (the niqab or burqa) in public. In a recent address, President Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized his support for the ban, telling French lawmakers, “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” He went on to state, “The burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement…It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”
The burqa is not just unwelcome in France, though. Belgium‘s lower house recently passed a similar measure and “Spain‘s senate recently narrowly voted to impose a ban, too,” reported BBC News. As the debate intensifies over the ban, polarizing statements by MPs, experts, and supporters will only lead to “more contentious headlines,” noted the Guardian’s Nabila Ramdani. She added, “The images used to accompany the scaremongering will be a combination of sinister figures clad in black; if possible set against the background of the kind of rundown council estates that blight France’s reputation for civic élan.”
I won’t delve into my in-depth opinion on the burqa ban, mainly because more eloquent people have already weighed in, (here is a great piece on Feministe). However, I do think an effort to ban the burqa/niqab won’t lead to more integration (one of the main tenets of French citizenship), but may instead exacerbate feelings of marginalization. Taking away a woman’s choice (if it is indeed her choice) is a violation of the individual, whether that translates to a veil ban or enforcement.
I do find the burqa debate as well as other commentaries on Muslim integration (the criticism over the building of mosques in the United States for example) important because they are a reflection of much wider issues . Two weeks ago, NY Times’ video journalist Adam Ellick had an interesting report on Burqavaganza, a satirical play written by Shahid Nadeem and produced by the Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan. The play, described as a “a love story in the time of jihad,” involves a young couple’s “struggle to form a relationship as societal forces try to keep them apart.” All the characters in the play – male and female – are clad in burqas, a metaphor for “creeping Talibanization” and “hypocrisy in a ‘hidden nation.'” The play was banned by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, that bowed to pressure by Islamist groups, including the women’s wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The wing’s leader Samia Qazi told Ellick, “We are not against their freedom of expression…but freedom of expression ends when you start hurting somebody.”
So what does the burqa ban in Europe have to do with the Burqavaganza ban in Pakistan? First, the burqa, or the veil, is more symbolic than literal in both these controversies. In the case of France (and Europe), the full-face veil is seen as a threat to French values of secularism and [gender] equality, instead an indisputable sign of “subservience” and “imprisonment.” In Pakistan, supporters of the Burqavaganza ban noted the satire threatened to “pollute young minds,” showing a “contempt for history and local traditions.” The play, in its commentary on the oppressive use of the burqa, was seen as an attack on Islam and, in turn, on society.
Both bans/controversies therefore stem from a desire to preserve what is traditional and inherent in their respective societies. In many ways, they reflect the problem of ruling by fear, (fear that their values are under threat, of the unfamiliar, etc.) rather than allowing an open and genuine discourse to take place. Such policies and practices, regardless if it means banning the burqa or banning criticism of it, are ultimately unproductive because it further polarizes the debate rather than resolving any of its underlying issues.