“La burqa n’est pas la bienvenue en France” (The burqa is not welcome in France) President Nicolas Sarkozy solemnly pronounced in his state of the union message last month. “The burqa is not a religious sign - continued the French President - it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.” As a Moroccan woman, I would add that it should not be welcome anywhere.
France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and has historically been at odds with this minority population. In 2004, the Muslim headscarf was banned in public schools, along with the Jewish kippas and Christian crosses, and in 2005 a series of riots erupted throughout the country fuelled by the death of two North African immigrants. An estimated 5 million Muslims live in France, although few women wear burqas or niqabs, a similar garment that covers everything but leaves only a slit for the eyes. The announcement by Sarkozy was met with a mixed response from the Muslim community around the world.
Mohammed Moussaoui of France’s Muslim council replied that the burqa is “an extremely marginal phenomenon” and expressed concern that the debate would stigmatise France’s five million Muslims. Britain’s Muslim Council went further and accused Sarkozy of fanning Islamophobia with his “patronizing and offensive” remarks.
There is always “concern” when it comes to take action against something that even vaguely pertains to the religious sphere. Too bad that this concern is all too often one-sided. In a recent football tournament, that took place in South Africa, the International Football Federation chastised the Brazilian team for having thanked God, with a Christian prayer in the middle of the field, after winning the final. If the underlying principle in sports is to stay away from religion and keep it secular, it may sound like a good decision. But then why did the same Federation keep silent when the Egyptian team prayed, again in the middle of the field, for thanking Allah after it had defeated Italy?
With the burqa, a dress that annihilates the woman as a person, I can hardly see why so much time should be spent debating about it. I would expect that any member of our society should flately reject this dress and act to prevent women in our countries from being humiliated by wearing it. But sadly, this does not happen. The fact that this dress has become customary among a few Muslim groups makes the high priests of political correctness take a stand that, in the best of cases, tends only to be even-handed.
The New York Times, on July 2nd, published two op-eds, one in favour of, and one against, the burqa.
The one against it was written by Mona El Tahawi, a Muslim woman. “The best way to debunk the burqa as an expression of Muslim faith is to listen to Muslims who oppose it,” says El Tahawi, who explains that the burqa has nothing to do with Islam and that it is nothing but an old Bedouin tradition. She also writes: “I blame such reluctance [to condemn the burqa] on the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi ideology — practiced most famously in Saudi Arabia — in leaving its imprimatur on Islam globally by persuading too many Muslims that it is the purest and highest form of our faith.” She writes that she wore a headscarf for nine years. One day in the Cairo subway, El Tahawi met a woman wearing a burqa. She pointed to her headscarf and asked the woman, “Is this not enough?”
“If you wanted a piece of candy, would you choose an unwrapped piece or one that came in a wrapper?” the woman replied.
“I am not a candy,” El Tahawi answered. “Women are not candies.”
The pro-burqa article was written by Ronald Sokol. His arguments are, in my view, indefensible. Says Sokol: “Covering one’s face from the view of others is a way of protecting one’s anonymity. The right to anonymity, if there is such a right, is closely linked to the right of privacy that is guaranteed by the French civil code and by the European Convention on Human Rights. On public streets or in an outdoor market, one’s anonymity enjoys legal protection from photographers.” There is no such thing as the right to be anonymous. If a policeman or a border officer asks for your papers, including the possibility to check your facial features, whether these papers really belong to you, you can’t simply answer “I have the right to remain anonymous”. Mr. Sokol’s discourse then expands into the realm of social diversity: “While the burqa has become a useful political distraction, it could be turned into a symbol of a state that welcomes diversity. It could exemplify a state that knows that its role is to promote equality, protect diversity and forbid discrimination”. Excellent, if diversity, regardless of its quality, is our aim, then why don’t we also have some soul enriching public flogging accompanied by some occasional beheading?
Even though I agree that the burqa or the niqab problem is still very limited in the West, it is nevertheless expanding. These dress codes do not even belong to the traditions of many of the Muslim countries where growing minorities of fundamentalists are adopting customs that come from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Still these dresses are part of the strategy of international intimidation in its challenge to modern societies. Al-Qaeda has responded with heavy threats to the pronouncement of the French President. To be against burqa is not a sign of Islamophobia but a sign of respect for women and, in the end, a matter of common sense.