Burn Your Burqas! Should the Burqa Be Banned?

October 13, 2009

Should the Burqa be Banned? The Case of France, Italy, Canada, Egypt and Obama.

PART ONE: France and Italy.

Should the burqa be banned? What on earth is a burqa? What is the difference between a burqa and a niqab? A burqa is the head to toe, loose tent-like covering or outer garment, with a mesh grill in front of the eyes that some Muslim women are obliged to wear in public over their normal clothes, thus covering their entire bodies. The term niqab is often used synonymously with burqa, but perhaps more strictly it should only be used for a face veil, with a slit for the eyes, as opposed to a mesh-like grill in the burqa.

In June 2009, President Sarkozy of France stirred up a debate when, addressing a joint session of France’s two houses of parliament, he declared that "We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic".

Sarkozy’s views are entirely consistent with France’s tradition of secularism or "laicite". It is one of the few countries in Europe which has a strict separation of church and state in its constitution, a separation which is staunchly defended by everyone from school teachers to government ministers. When a priest or a nun teaches in a state school, for example, he and she are obliged to do so in "civilian" clothes. France banned Muslim girls from wearing any headscarves in schools in 2004, again this was consistent with their already existing legislation banning any outward manifestations of religious affiliation- Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and so on.

The recent comments by Sarkozy were made in the context of a demand by a group of sixty five cross-party Members of Parliament [MPs] for a parliamentary commission to be set up to investigate the spread of the burqa in France, fearing that it was sign of a radicalisation of Islam, and that it may undermine French secularism. This call for a commission has the backing of Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque and a former head of the Muslim Council. Boubakeur also fears that many women are forced to wear this garment, something which "amounts to a breach of individual freedom on our national territory", as the Communist MP, Gerin, put it. Further support for the idea of banning the burqa comes from Muslim Women’s Rights groups. Fadela Amara, a rights campaigner of Algerian background, who is also the Housing Minister, expressed her concern at the number of women, "who are being put in this kind of tomb.We must do everything to stop burqas from spreading."

Earlier this month, Italy announced that it too was considering legislation to ban the wearing of the burqa. MPs from the Northern League Party, which is a part of the ruling right wing coalition, have presented the proposal in a bill. While France has five million Muslims, out of which perhaps 100 000 women wear the burqa, Italy has just over one million Muslims but it is rare to see women wearing the full burqa. However there have been a number of incidents in northern cities where women wearing the veil have been asked to remove it. One such incident involved Daniela Santanche, a Centre Right politician, when she urged Muslim women to remove their burqas at an end of Ramadan festival.

The Northern League has the full support of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party.The League’s proposal aims at amending a 1975 law, which was introduced at a time when there was serious concern over domestic terrorism of groups such as the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades who believed in the armed struggle to bring about a revolutionary state. The 1975 Law bans anyone wearing anything which makes their identification impossible.The League’s Roberto Cota claimed: ‘We are not racist and we have nothing against Muslims but the law must be equal for everyone.The aim of this bill is to clarify the 1975 law in a definitive way and allow the ban to be extended to garments worn for reasons of religious affiliation.’ MP Barbara Saltamartini, of the People of Freedom, said:’ "Banning the burqa can not be considered anti-Muslim because wearing it is not obligatory in Islam. The Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, has just stated unequivocally that Muslim women have the right to their own identity and that the burqa is not part of Muslim tradition.This position is of extreme importance not only because it dismantles false myths perpetrated by a patriarchal fundamentalism, but also because it shows how the dignity of a women is compatible with the symbols and values of Islam. It would be absurd now if countries like Egypt ban this instrument of submission and we continue to avoid dealing with the question."

NEXT WEEK: Part Two: The Case of Egypt, Canada, and Obama.