No symbol is more emblematic of the tension between East and West, and between assimilation and tradition, than the burqa, a full-face veil worn by Muslim women to preserve modesty. The garment has come under fire in recent years, being banned in a number of countries across Europe – in France, Belgium, Denmark and Germany, among others. (COVID-19 and related mask-wearing mandates has presented an interesting challenge to these countries’ bans on full face coverings. Time will tell how this paradox will play out.)
Proponents of banning the burqa argue the need for security and cultural cohesion, while human rights advocates claim such legislation is discriminatory and a violation of religious freedom. Should the West embrace the burqa as part of its guarantee of religious freedom, or does it have the right to restrict dress that it feels antithetical to its cultural values?
Below, we’ll explore three arguments for banning the burqa, and three arguments against a ban.
The burqa should be banned.
The veil is sexist.
The veil can be seen by some as sexist in two directions. While assuming men to be fundamentally incapable of controlling their sexual appetites, the veil instils real gender inequality by placing the onus of checking male impropriety solely upon women, for whom the consequences are great. Veils, like the burqa and niqab, which obscure the face, prevent the women who wear them from full participation in society. She cannot eat or dine in public. She cannot be easily heard by others, and without faces to remember, she is easily forgotten. The sum of these factors is the overall diminishment of female personhood, a notion that has no place in societies that place a premium on equality in general and gender equality in particular.
Muslims oppose the burqa too.
Even in Muslim majority countries, many view the burqa as unwelcome encroachment of Saudi-brand, ultra-conservative Islam. Morocco’s government officially cited security concerns as the reason for its 2017 ban on the sale and manufacture of the burqa (terrorists have used the burqa to hide bombs and other weapons). However, the pretext of deterring the integration of Salafist versions of Islam into Moroccan society is certainly present. In Egypt, where religious scholars and public officials have contested the necessity to cover the face in the name of modesty, universities and hospitals have banned the niqab, and the government has mulled over banning them in public spaces entirely. Controversies surrounding full-face veils in the Muslim world underscore their complex social, religious, and political implications – implications that dictate a need to regulate their use in the public sphere.
The burqa endangers Muslim women.
While anti-Muslim hate crimes have dropped in recent years in ten of America’s largest cities, Columnist Sabria Jawhar argued in the past that in light of Islamophobic incidents in general the necessity for safety overrides the necessity to dress according to one’s cultural mores. Jawhar noted that rather than fulfilling its purpose to repel attention from Muslim women, in the West, the burqa and niqab produce the opposite effect – attracting unwanted attention and in many cases, harassment or violence, which has become more and more normalized on social media. Official burqa bans could help women who might be ambivalent about removing their burqas make a decision that will better ensure their safety. Those who protest that the victims of bad behavior should not be the ones to make concessions will kindly remember that the burqa itself is intended to help women ward off lascivious male gazes.
The burqa should be welcomed.
Restricting religious dress is a violation of civil liberties.
Contrary to popular belief, Muslim women in the West and the East alike (Saudi Arabia and Iran notwithstanding) choose the veil as a religious prerogative. The rights to religious freedom and the freedom of expression are enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which promises “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School points out that the amendment protects “actions taken upon behalf of [religious] beliefs” – which necessarily, includes clothing. Just as we would not restrict a person’s right to proclaim their faith in Jesus by wearing a cross, so too should Muslims be allowed to express their faith through dress.
A burqa ban will only fuel extremism.
Banning symbols associated with extremism does not necessarily combat extremism. In Australia, there have been different bills introduced over the years to ban women from wearing the burqa in public. However, its national security agency, ASIO, concluded that the measure would only fuel radicalization campaigns and further isolate vulnerable populations. The ASIO’s conclusions have already been brought to bear in Asia: the USSR’s studious repression of Islam in Central Asia in the twentieth century gave way to Islamic revivalism that turned to radicalism in the twenty-first century, with groups like the Taliban and ISIS gaining influence in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Similarly, China’s restrictions against public expressions of Islam like growing a beard or wearing a veil has been a significant catalyst for unrest in the country’s predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region.
Live and let live.
Wearing a burqa is no more harmful than wearing a Marilynn Manson shirt. Sure, it might make some people uncomfortable, but it does nothing to threaten the safety, liberty, or freedom of any other individual. If anything, today in the middle of the pandemic, those women wearing a burqa may actually blend in, given that no one else’s full face should be uncovered out in public. Furthermore, women in the West who wear burqas are a minority within a minority – Muslims in the US constitute less than 1.1 percent of the total population. As such, no legislation is required to protect onlookers from a piece of cloth most Americans are unlikely to be confronted with in the first place.
Bottom Lines: As the East and West draw ever closer, governments will continue to be challenged to rethink the delicate balance between secularism and religious freedom. It is a question of values and ultimately, we must choose which value gets priority over another. If given the choice to create policy, what would you choose?