It’s official. France, home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, with an estimated six-seven million, is the first country in the world that has officially made the wearing of the burka- face covering (also known as the niqab or the veil) illegal. It is exactly two weeks since that the controversial law has come into effect, the government claim that the move is aimed to help Muslim women integrate into society.
The French lower house of parliament approved the bill proposed in July 2010 which proposed the banning of the wearing of the veil in civic buildings such as schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and the workplace. The ban not only completely prohibits women from wearing the veil in public but also any woman caught with her face covered will face a penalty fine of €150 and will be forced to enrolled in French citizenship course, where they will be taught the French values. The new ruling has left many women afraid to speak out and even leave their homes.
The wearing of the veil in Islam is not a compulsory requirement for women, in fact a very small minority wear it; it is a choice made by certain Muslim women as a step in which they believe will increase their piety and devotion to their faith. I can’t quite comprehend why something that is practiced by small number of people deserved such extreme measures as passing of a new law. Many critics whether Muslims or non-Muslims around the world are perplexed by this action which completely ignores the basic human rights of an individual, and has left many to further question the motive of the French government.
A French deputy has said that “those who wear the burka are walking coffins and they need to liberated, even if it’s against their will”. Women’s rights activists also support the ban, branding the burka “as a symbol of oppression”. The only opinion it seems that has not been taken into consideration, funnily enough, is that of the women who choose to wear the burka and who unfortunately face the consequences of this new law. If the overall aim is to ‘liberate’ these women, then why have their rights not been considered? And what’s more questionable is, how does criminalizing these women help them to integrate more? How are they supposed to integrate when they are too frightened to go out into the streets, in fear of being pursued by police forces.
One of the conditions of this ban is that, if women are found to have broken the ban twice, they will be sent on a course where they will learn about the values of the French citizenship. Which leaves many asking the million dollar question, how does one define French values? And does this apply to the Christians, Jewish or even the French anarchies? And if one doesn’t agree with some aspects of the French values, what happens to their constitutional rights as people, their individualism, and their freedom of choice and of course the equality of all? The bitter irony of it all is that, this ban comes from the country that wrote the Declaration of Human Rights.
As a Muslim woman living in the west myself, what often infuriates me are these continuous baseless claims that Muslim women are oppressed, and the western superiority and bravado that Muslim women need to be ‘liberated’. And that the western way is the only way through which liberation can be achieved. I do not doubt that in some countries, culturally women’s rights are violated by men with the use of misinterpreted religious references as a justification. This however is not the case universally: it is important to maintain the spheres of what is cultural and what is religious separate, for it is this confusion that generates tension and bottomless fear.
However, it seems that over the past years we have been exposed to more easily digestible modern forms of ideological imperialism, and its slowly making a visible mark in Europe and beyond. Post 9/11 has given birth to a new wave of political extremism at both ends of the spectrum. Modern commentators on the issues of colonialism- believe what once was known as ‘the colonial carving of a continent’ is now been replaced with a new age propaganda – a battlefield over the hearts and the mind of people in support of the states interest. Post-colonialist thinkers recognize that many of the assumptions which motivated the “logic” of colonialism are still active forces today. It just so happens to be that in this case ‘Islam i.e. the burka’ is in question. It seems that French leaders are experimenting with an old school formula- the ‘carving tool’ but with a new refined uniform designed to dehumanize sections of our society by promoting segregation and alienation.
We all know that racial prejudice never departs for good, its indefinite absence from you- is swapped with navigating around the world, haunting new communities. If we look back in history, at the start of colonial regimes and some of the wars influenced by that, we learn that demonisation was a tactic best used, by highlighting the differences between people, focusing on their appearances through profiling. Whether it represented their race, ideology or faith it was used against them to make them feel inferior to the empire, diagnosing people as uncivilized- ‘them against us’. This gave rulers the consent to prosecute and pick on whomever they pleased. It’s a known fact and we constantly witness it in the media- when you categories and depict people in such manner; the truth no longer has any relevance.
The question now is, will this kind of political extremism become the norm? Is Islamophobia going to be used as a political tactic to divert attention from western country’s internal woes? President Sarkoszy said “the burka is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement,” and “It will not be welcomed on the territory of France”. By making a link between issues that have absolutely no affiliation with each other, it gives the French leader the approval to transfer what is essentially a social struggle within the country and turn it into an ethnic and religious one, using the ban as a form of scapegoat. As many suspect, the French government is using the burka law to win back votes from the right and is deliberately stirring interracial attentions in the country. This will, no doubt, heighten the already extremely Islamaphobic climate and give the far right groups such as, the National front and the British equivalent The English Defense League more momentum and ammunition to discriminate and incite hatred.
The burka, niqab or the veil- whatever you want to call it, is essentially a piece of cloth covering the face, is an individual’s choice. The clothing that a person chooses to wear should be an individual’s prerogative and it is their right to preserve it without the intervention of the state. The burka proposes no harm to Europe nor does it threaten the identity of any country in the world: it never has and probably never will.
There is clear, a widespread growth of anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe, with Islamic symbols also being under attack. As we witnessed in November 2010, Switzerland saw the far right group’s referendum calling for a ban on the building of Mosque minarets being passed. Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Spain are having the similar debates about the burka and headscarfs, and one can only hope that they don’t follow the same route as France. But let’s not camouflage the growing hostility towards Muslims, and turn this into a make-believe image of liberalism. Frankly, it’s insulting.
As France implements its new law, I can’t help to reflect upon, in this case- the ironic words of the French Enlightenment philosopher- Voltaire. A preacher of freedom of thought, denouncer of cruelty and oppression in all its forms: “I disapprove of what you wear but I’ll defend to death your right to wear it”.