The French parliament is preparing to pass a resolution to denounce the wearing of burqas in France. It aims to pass a law afterwards that will actually outlaw the garment. This is the first time that women would be penalised for wearing a burqa. In 2004, France banned Muslim girls wearing the hijab in schools. It argued that these religious symbols interfere with its commitment to secularism and its secular culture. In fact, nothing happens without political ideology being behind it. This measure is being championed by right-wing politicians who are exploiting anti-Islam feelings in France among a section of people under the cover of secularism. However, the socialists are opposed to any ban on the burqa, though they are also not in favour of women wearing burqas. They feel women should be discouraged rather than banning the burqa covering the face.
Socialist spokesman Benoît Hamon announced that wearing a burqa is not desirable but he is not favourable to legal ban, which would be inconsistent and ad hoc. Mr. Hamon said on RTL Radio “We are totally opposed to the burqa. The burqa is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic,” he said. “But an adhoc law would not have the anticipated effect.”
The stand taken by the Socialists appears to be quite logical. One cannot stop women from wearing burqas through a legal ban. It is quite undemocratic to punish someone for wearing a certain type of dress. It is anti-democratic and anti-secular for a multicultural society. At the same time, let it be very clear that to cover the entire body including the face is not necessarily Islamic.
The ulema hold different views on the subject. The majority of them hold that covering the face and hands is not prescribed by the Qur’an or Sunnah. Only very few theologians and jurists want women to be fully covered. To compel women to so cover their bodies and faces is indeed against women’s rights and dignity. A woman should be a free agent to decide for herself what to wear within decent limits and her cultural ethos.
However, this freedom also includes the right of women to cover their faces, if they so desire and if they think it is a requirement of their religion. When I was lecturing in Bukhara University among a class of women students, all of whom were wearing skirts and had their heads uncovered, two women came in fully covered, including their faces. All other women demanded that these two burqa-clad women should be thrown out.
I said they should imagine that burqa-clad women were in the majority and two women arrived in skirts and uncovered heads and the majority of burqa-clad women demanded those two women be thrown out. What would you feel? I asked. Therefore, I argued, let us not get violent because someone dresses unlike us. We should dialogue with them and persuade them, if we can, not to wear such dress fully covering themselves.
There could be a number of reasons why one prefers to wear certain kinds of dress. Maybe there is coercion by parents or husbands, which is undesirable. Or maybe one thinks it is a religious requirement and tries to assert one’s rights. Or maybe one is trying to fight cultural alienation. Certain types of dress become identity markers. Many Muslims who migrate from Asia and Africa experience cultural shock when they see French or other European women wearing scanty dresses or bikinis. Thus they feel all the more compelled to wear their traditional dress.
Also, in France and several other European countries, migrants are marginalised and have a feeling of alienation that pushes them into practicing their own cultural norms. And then it is also to be remembered that all Muslim women in France do not cover themselves fully. In fact, many Muslim women have integrated themselves into French society by taking to western dress.
Thus a legal ban will only build up resistance among traditional Muslim women and they would try to defy the law, resulting in social tensions. It would be far better to resort to persuasive ways to discourage traditional Muslim women not to wear the all-covering burqa. And persuasion alone will not work unless backed by other measures, economic as well as social, to fight the alienation of religious and cultural minorities.
Thus one needs multipronged measures to contain this problem. Muslim ulema and intellectuals living in France also have to adopt creative ways to reinterpret Islamic traditional sources to suit new conditions. It is quite necessary to revisit traditional sources rooted in medieval feudal culture.
Asghar Ali Engineer, Reuters, 23 Jan 2010