'To Burkini or Not to Burkini' – A Defence of the French & Bulgarian Burqa Ban

Opinions |Author: Fayzal Mahamed | October 9, 2016, Sunday // 14:15|  views

Novinite is publishing an article by Fayzal Mahamed written on the occasion of the blanket ban on face-covering garments in Bulgaria and, earlier, a prohibition to wear burkini in France.

In Bulgaria, known as "the burqa ban" - even though women wearing the veil in question can hardly be seen in the streets - the legislation has sparked controversy, with the opposition and human rights activists blaming lawmakers of being driven by populism, amidst migration and security concerns in the country.

To the contrary, Mr Mahamed, a Research Associate at the Department of Social Work at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, has chosen a more general point of view, one leaving aside the domestic contexts in the two countries, to make his point supporting the ban.

The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the view of Novinite.

We encourage all scholars, activists and other people with expertise on the issue to share their opinion, be it related to the specific Bulgarian context or to a more general debate on burqas.

Since August 24, when news of the French ban on the burkini first broke out, there has been a frenzy and a knee jerk reaction by almost all liberal civil organizations, feminist and the media to condemn the ban as a violation of human rights, a form of religious intolerance and a discrimination against Muslim women to choose what she would like to wear in a public space. The furore around the burkini ban has continued unabated now that Bulgaria has banned the burqa veil covering the face and Germany is considering similar measures. I am also a liberal thinker and while I agree with other liberals and feminist on the general principle of women having a free choice of what to wear, I disagree that the French and Bulgarians are violating that principle and go further to agree with the French and Bulgarian ban on the burqa. Let me explain why.

I want to begin by extending my argument not only to the burkini but to the niqab and burqa and by this I mean not only the burqa that covers the face that has been banned in French and Bulgarian society but includes the niqab that leaves the face uncovered. For the purpose of this article I will refer to the term “burqa” but this will include the niqab.

To understand what the burqa represents you have to begin at a period over two thousand years ago. Historically, the burqa predates Islam and was used by medieval society to distinguish between women of nobility from the common women of society. Islam adopted the burqa into its religious beliefs as a religious law (Sharia), whereby Muslim women were restricted to wearing a burqa in order for their “modesty to be guarded”. The Sharia not only restricted the dress of Muslim women but also imposed other behavioural restrictions such as “lowering the gaze”. In fairness, some of the restrictions applied to Muslim men but the harshest form of restrictions was reserved for Muslim women. The harsh religious restrictions applied to women is not surprising if you consider that all the major religions and religious beliefs were deeply embedded in patriarchy.

Modesty and decency is the catch phrase used by imams to give a veneer of morality to religious laws in Islam. The burqa as a dress code of modesty is not only applied in the Islamic religion but to other religions as well such a Judaism and Amish Christians. The difference that makes the burqa stand out today is because it is the only dress code that is enforced upon women to wear in many Muslim countries of the world such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia. This enforcement of a dress code and by extension to a particular behaviour by state religious authorities subjugates, represses and enslaves millions of Muslim women. In other countries with a large Muslim population outside of the Middle East it is enforced or coerced by tradition and a patriarchal religious society to conform to the religious dress code.

The argument used by liberals, feminist and “westernized Muslims” is that Muslim women wearing the burqa in western countries are doing so out of their free will and out of their own choosing and to ban the burkini means violating the human rights of women to choose what to wear. I agree that banning a women’s right to freely choose her clothing is a violation of a basic human right of women but I disagree that the burqa is a dress code that is voluntarily and freely chosen by Muslim women in the conventional sense of dresses freely chosen by women in western countries. Muslim women choosing to wear a burqa do not have a free choice as this choice is always restricted by her religious beliefs or imposed from outside, either by her husband or family or a religious society. A test of this freedom to choose is to enquire from Muslim women wearing the burqa if they would wear a bikini or a mini skirt in public and the answer would always be negative. If you asked whether Muslim women in Islamic countries such as Iran and Afghanistan should be allowed to wear a bikini or mini skirt, the answer will always be “no”. If you asked the same Muslim women if they would approve of Muslim women wearing a mini skirt in Mecca or Madinah in Saudi Arabia and you will find them shocked at the mere suggestion. On the one hand you had Muslim women claiming to wear the burqa out of choice but refusing to extend the same right of choosing what to wear to other supressed Muslim women. All this indicates that the choice of wearing the burqa in western countries is bounded and restricted by a Muslim woman’s religious beliefs or imposed from the outside and is not equivalent to the free choice of dressing that almost all women experience in a free and democratic society.

There is another subjective reason why the burqa should be banned in French and Bulgarian society. Muslim women wearing the burqa will claim that they are doing so because it is a religious requirement to dress modesty. This implies that there is a morality attached towards the wearing of the burqa and that Muslim women feel that they are morally upright when they wear the garment covering their entire body as opposed to the indecent and immoral dressing women have adopted in western nations. It follows that because of the morality attached towards a dress code, Muslim women wearing the burqa will have a feeling of moral superiority to other women who are deemed morally inferior. Racism comes in many forms and disguises. There is no difference between a Muslim woman feeling superior to other women because she wears a burqa than a white person feeling superior to black persons based on the colour of the skin.

Another relative argument allows for the French and Bulgarians to choose their own restrictions on religious beliefs subject to a secular constitution that provides for equality and freedom of expression and freedom of religious beliefs. French and Bulgarian society may feel it is an affront that a Muslim woman would wear the burqa claiming moral superiority while at the same time millions of Muslim women are subjected to subjugation and repression of their basic human right to decide what to wear. French and Bulgarian society may also feel that the burqa impedes assimilation of French and Bulgarian Muslims into the mainstream society. This relativism makes it difficult for an outsider to judge how French and Bulgarians decides on the assimilation of Muslims to French and Bulgarian society given the historical and cultural differences of each nation.

I conclude by stating that while I support the human rights of all women to choose what to wear, the rights of Muslim women to wear the burqa has to be seen in the context of a restrictive religious practice that subjugates, represses and enslaves Muslim women. Western nations have a duty to confront the subjugation and repression of the rights of Muslim women in Islamic countries. It begins by sending the message that the wearing of the burqa, symbolic of the subjugation and repression of Muslim women, will not be tolerated on home soil. The French and Bulgarian banning of the burqa and burkini is a tool that the French and Bulgarians are using to convey this message. The discrimination of Muslim women wearing the burqa in French and Bulgarian society has to be seen as a positive discrimination similar to the affirmative action discrimination a white person faces because the overall discrimination is meant to correct an injustice or an imbalance even if that injustice or imbalance is not occurring in France but in other Islamic countries.

Finally, an appropriate analogy is that of a school inviting all the girls and boys to come for a school prom and half the girls attend wearing the burqa. Besides preventing the intermingling of the sexes, the burqa would spoil and put a damper on the entire party. Who would blame the principle of the school if he had imposed a ban on the burqa in the first place?

I would like to be noted that I have not included the hijab in my discussion. The hijab is normally a square scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face uncovered. The reason I have not included the hijab although some of my arguments may apply to this Islamic garb, is because many women, Muslim and non-Muslim, wear this form of dressing. By this I mean a Muslim woman could wear the hijab and a mini skirt at the same time and that could be construed as a form of choice not compulsion.

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Tags: burqa, niqab, hijab, France, Bulgaria, burkini


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