Burkas — religious / cultural freedom vs. women’s rights / dignity

The big religious news in Europe the past few weeks has been French President Nicolas Sarkozy ‘s recent address to the French Parliament, in which he declared that burkas "won’t be welcome" in France. Well, he said it in French obviously, but that’s the translation.

I see the Pat Condell has recently posted a video on this as well. If you’re stateside or just haven’t read much about it, you may have a few questions: what the heck does a burka look like, and why would the French President seemingly attack women who are just practicing their religion?

Well, here’s a photo montage from the French daily newspaper Le Monde showing different types of veils often associated with Islam. People in the West have a tendency to call them all veils or burkas, but there are differences.

Les différents types de voiles

In a nutshell, the hijab in the 1st picture s the headdress that is described in the Quran, although according to Le Monde what exactly it is supposed to cover is "subject to interpretation".

The niqab (photo 2) has two veils, one to cover the hair, and the other to cover everything but the eyes. Le Monde says it’s "mainly worn in Persian Gulf countries."

The burka itself (photo 3)  is the one that has a "grill" on it, basically netting with small holes so that you can’t even see the woman’s eyes. Le Monde says they are normally worn in Afghanistan and some regions of Pakistan.

The last photo shows the chador , worn in Iran says Le Monde, which shows the entire fact but has no place for one’s hands.

So Sarkozy specifically singled out burkas apparently because they, according to him, "deprived women of identity" and are a "sign of subservience" (translations by BBC News ; the full video and part of the original text in French is here; note that the speech dealt with many issues, not just the burka).

Sounds like an attack on Islam, right? Well, as hinted at earlier in the descriptions of the different veils, an attack on burkas is not necessarily an attack on religion. Burkas aren’t mentioned in the Quran. So Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized this non-religious aspect, saying:

C’est un problème de liberté, de dignité de la femme. Ce n’est pas un signe religieux, c’est un signe d’asservissement, c’est un signe d’abaissement. ["It's a question of a woman's freedom, of her dignity. It's not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience; it's a sign of humiliation." Translation mine, "abaissement" can also mean "degradation/being degraded".]

A distinction is apparently being made by Sarkozy between the hijab, which shows the face and is mentioned in the Quran, and the burka, which hides it and is not. The burka, as stated in Wikipedia and elsewhere, comes from a cultural tradition that predates Islam and is not observed everywhere Islam is practiced.

Since it’s not seen as a religious practice but as a tradition, there will  be a parliamentary commission to investigate whether burkas should be outlawed in France. They already controversially outlaw veils in schools (as well as other overt religious symbols, in theory at least).

I agree that it is degrading to women to be completely covered and faceless to the world when men don’t have to. Despite the lack of mention in the Quran (absence of a doctrine in one’s Holy Book often doesn’t stop zealots from any religion), some women are coerced or forced to do so by their husbands or their mosques. This is clearly against individual freedoms guaranteed in most Western societies. But some women actually choose to wear burkas, as crazy as it may seem. What about those who say they willingly wear a burka or other garment which covers their face?

The issue of security comes up (you can hide stuff under burkas and since no one can see your face, apprehension and prosecution of law-breakers would be difficult. But then, one could say the same thing for Mardi Gras and Halloween costumes and masks in France. Are those to be outlawed, too?

It’s a growing issue in Europe, where more and more immigrants and 2nd- and 3rd- generation followers of Islam want to show their religious and cultural heritage. How much should people be allowed to follow the customs, rights, and laws of the country they’re in, and how much should they follow those of their religion or ancestors’ culture?

The issue in my mind is less with security and more this: if a woman says she is okay with degrading herself by becoming faceless because she thinks her God wants it, should society let her?

I really don’t know. I believe people have the right to choose their beliefs, but many of these women are coerced or forced into this degrading practice. I used to be more of a "let it be" type of atheist like Jon Stewart appears to be .  I just wish that these women wearing or wanting to wear a burka would realize that a God or anyone who tells you you have to hide your face in public does not give you the dignity or  respect that you deserve, and is not one that you should love and respect.

EDIT: Here’s a YouTube video of a British show discussing the issue, which Quit Your Apathy posted.

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