Is it difficult to be a woman, Muslim and a self-proclaimed fighter of gender discrimination – and NOT support the French government’s ban on the burqa? Nope, no problem. In fact, I feel I am in a position of vantage to be part of a religion that has come under increasing fire from the world’s democracies as well as being a woman who is outspoken about equality in both sexes. Let me iterate here: I do not support the ban on the face veil. It is tantamount to human rights violation on the minorities in the country.
The French government says that the face veil is discriminatory against women and a symbol of oppression and servitude (not a direct quote, but a reference to the spirit of the ban). A veil doesn’t allow women to integrate into society, French society to be particular, and distances the Muslim population from adopting French culture and values. In the enfolding drama of the last 48 hours, the one question that keeps nagging me is this: What IS the French culture about? Guccis, Pradas and other Italian brands that cater to a ‘Westernized’ concept of clothing and body type? Does it mean sporting D&G sunglasses with a chic Armani blazer?
The first point here is to define modernity. Whose concept of modernity are the Muslim women supposed to accept and adhere to? If they give up their full body shifts / clothing and adopt jeans and shirts, would they be representatives of a modern French society? Do they need to have shiny cosmetics and leather bags? Do women in French provinces and villages really have similar clothing choices? I doubt.
If dressing code is imposed on one tiny section of an already tiny Muslim population, then it is tantamount to singling out the minorities. Roughly 2,000 of the 5-6 million Muslim population in France are women who prefer to wear veils. If a dress code is being enforced, let it be uniform. Let the French government codify the do’s and don’t’s of what is appropriate or inappropriate to wear in France. Then we can all follow the dictum: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Secondly, feminists have strongly supported the burqa ban, saying it’s an anachronism and outdated system of patriarchy. Honestly, I do agree with them. From a religious viewpoint, it’s clear that the Quran doesn’t make any reference to a full body or facial veil at all. It suggests that women AND men dress modestly and cover their sexual / vital parts in public and from non-relatives. It’s no one’s fault that the fundamentalists and power-hungry clerics of ages ago decided to interpret and twist those wordings to their own benefits.
However, face veils and head scarves are not just religious dictums. They also form a part of many other cultural and ethnic traditions around the world. How can a democratic government force a minority population to give up their cultural and ethnic identities or signifiers / symbols of their own culture? Why don’t citizens have the right to express their religious affiliations through their clothing when it really doesn’t affect public discourse? Is excluding an entire religion’s way of life not tantamount to a totalitarian attitude and xenophobia?
Thirdly, all of us who are fighting for the rights of the ‘oppressed’ Muslim women, well, why don’t we take a vote of confidence first. Let’s ask them if they want to be represented by us. The so-called progressive, anti-religious, anti-cultural feminists who want to push their agenda and their IDEA OF EQUALITY on to women who MIGHT have different viewpoints about equality. Do we ever pause to think about those women who WILLINGLY CHOOSE TO ADOPT religious symbols or outward signifiers as a mark of their practice?
Lastly, it is against the values of fraternity and tolerance to criticize religion as an outdated institution and champion the cause of a non-religious, secular existence. Every human being belongs to a group, community, class, idea, ideology, circle or affiliated to institutions and clubs. What would be your first reaction if your membership to your hobby club was denied or revoked on account of your clothing, religious background or the language you speak?
As for women who do not want to wear the veil, all measures must be taken to support them with resources in the form of helplines, NGOs, civic institutions that reach out to distressed women, etc. Let the French government focus on issues of illiteracy, poor economic index or other kinds of abuse that might occur in Muslim households as in other non-Muslim families. We do know a lot of women who do not want to be under the veil, but out-rightly banning a symbol which many Muslims consider religious is a symptom of a much more deeper malaise – increasing intolerance for non-Western way of life.
French ban on the face veil is nothing more and nothing worse than bullying. French Muslim women and men are not forcing their customs on non-Muslims. French Muslim women – unlike their Saudi Arabian counterparts – have access to professional and career choices, education and literacy, social and political participation, financial independence and what not. Give them the freedom to dress as they please. On the face of it, it is we the ‘liberals’ who are behaving like the ones whom we frequently love to label as ‘orthodox’. I smell a phobia here, and it begins with I and ends with m.