26 January, 2010

The Burkha Dilemma

A recent publication in France recommends the option of banning the use of islamic burkhas in public places, BBC reports. Why would they want to do that? Let's see what a French politician had to say about it:
"This divisive approach is a denial of the equality between men and women and a rejection of co-existence side-by-side, without which our republic is nothing."

"It is the symbol of the repression of women, and... of extremist fundamentalism. "

- Bernard Accoyer, President of the National Assembly of France

In the report itself it is said that the use of burkhas is "against the French republican principles of secularism and equality" (BBC).

Looking at the above statements, it is not still very clear what the actual reasons are, or what they're trying to say when talking about burkhas being against equality. Shouldn't it be everybody's right to wear what she chooses to? The second statement by Mr Accoyer reveals, that the matter of equality rests on the assumption that the burkha is a means of repressing islamic women. Anyway, in my humble opinion the reasons for banning burkhas can be summed up in the following way:
  1. Secularism
  2. Equality
  3. Public safety
  4. Nationalism
Secularism is the belief that state and church should be separated. The ideas of secularism can also be applied in the spirit that everyone's beliefs (or the lack of them) are an entirely personal matter. Stretching the argument a little further, it can be argued that it is wrong to preach to others about one's own beliefs. The use of a burkha or a hijãb is interpreted as preaching or "bringing religion too much in the open". Some who advocate the banning of islamic clothing also want to ban other religious clothing and adornments as well, making a coherent secular argument from a mainly atheist viewpoint.

As I said before, the equality argument rests primarily on the premise that traditional islamic clothing is mainly used for repressing women. They make communication much harder and force the woman to live inside her own clothing as a prisoner would, cut off from the rest of society. There is no reliable data on how many islamic women wear the traditional outfit willingly. Therefore, this makes for a pretty unreliable argument. And even if some are forced to dress in this way, what about those who do it willingly? Are we not restricting their lives with the ban, thus reducing equality? For me, the point is that if the repression of women is the problem here, it must be dealt with separately and not be connected to islam directly.

Public safety
Ok, here's an actual reason for once. Dressing in a burkha and covering one's face makes identification impossible, pure and simple. How can we give passports or any other documents to people not willing to reveal their faces? Or even if they have a passport, how can we trust it? For the moment, we can't. The use of biotechnology may change that however, as an retinal scanner might be a good solution to this, though an expensive one. Another option would be the use of fingerprints in all documents with a picture.

A reason that is completely left unnoticed in public media is nationalism. In Europe, nationalism has been on the rise throughout the first decade of the new millennia. The Al-Qaedan terrorist attacks conjured a backlash of nationalism, especially against islam, that is felt today in Europe. I've seen even arguments against islamic immigration because "they are bad", "they're evil" and "they want to conquer Europe". I mean, what the hell? Who are "they" anyway? And I really don't feel that the islamic people I come across in Helsinki are of any significant threat - even if they're wearing burkhas.

As a conclusion, I'd say that this burkha-ban is another case of intelligent dishonesty, where the real agenda is preventing islamic immigration. There are approximately 2000 burkha-wearers in France, and I'm not really confident about French politicians being so sympathetic for them as to be concerned about their (alleged) repression. Secularism, even in France, is not a coherent reason either, as they haven't called for a ban of all religious clothing. Public safety is the only plausible reason, but that wasn't even mentioned in the BBC report. Not sure about the original French report though, since I haven't read that. But still, I feel this is mostly a clear case of religious backlash.

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