Home US & World News COMMENTARY: Would burka ban defend women or victimize them further?

COMMENTARY: Would burka ban defend women or victimize them further?

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Fadela Amara, who compares the burka to a "tomb" or a "coffin," has repeated her call for a ban on the article of clothing in an interview with the Financial Times reported Friday.[1]  --  A former community activist of Algerian descent who has been since 2007 the French minister for urban regeneration (secrétaire d'état en charge de la politique de la ville), she said that "the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam" needed to be fought because, in addition to sexual oppression and poverty, it constitutes a "third form of oppression -- extreme religiosity, the presence of fundamentalist groups who continue to propagate their discourse.”  --  “The vast majority of Muslims are against the burka," she told the Financial Times in an interview.  "It is obvious why.  Those who have struggled for women’s rights back home in their own countries — I’m thinking particularly of Algeria — we know what it represents and what the obscurantist political project is that lies behind it, to confiscate the most fundamental liberties," adding:  "The burka represents not a piece of fabric but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principle of equality between men and women — one of the founding principles of our republic.”  --  An American Muslim woman, writing last month, regretted Amara's position: "The burqa is rare in France," she said.  "But Muslim women, who the West views as being victimized at every turn by a patriarchal society, will be further victimized by Western governments who apparently know better than Muslim women what they should wear and not wear."[2]  --  The Herald de Paris reported on Jul. 31 that "A report by French newspaper Le Monde revealed Wednesday [Jul. 29, 2009] that just 367 women wear the full Islamic veil in France."[3]  --  Moreover, said Ben Piven, "most of the 367 women in question are under 30 and wear the niqab to make an explicit political point to defy French society   and in some cases, rebel against their own families . . . according to the French Council of Muslim Worship, wearing the niqab is a personal, cultural choice."  --  One quarter of the women are converts to Islam, it appears....

1.

Europe

FRENCH MINISTER CALLS FOR BAN ON BURKA
By Ben Hall

Financial Times (London)
August 14, 2009

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9f37d5a0-88f9-11de-b50f-00144feabdc0.html

An outright ban of the wearing of the burka in France would help stem the spread of the “cancer” of radical Islam, according to the country’s Muslim minister for urban regeneration.

Fadela Amara, who is of Algerian descent, said the veil and headscarf combination covering everything but the eyes represented “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.”

In an interview with the Financial Times, Ms. Amara said she was “in favor of the burka not existing in my country.”

With sexual oppression and poverty, she said, Muslim women suffered “a third form of oppression -- extreme religiosity, the presence of fundamentalist groups who continue to propagate their discourse.”

France was a beacon for an enlightened Islam at ease with modernity, so it was necessary to fight the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam,” she said.

To get rid of the burka would help women to stand up to the extremists within their communities, she argued.

“The vast majority of Muslims are against the burka. It is obvious why. Those who have struggled for women’s rights back home in their own countries -- I’m thinking particularly of Algeria -- we know what it represents and what the obscurantist political project is that lies behind it, to confiscate the most fundamental liberties.”

The sight of women wearing the burka, still a small minority, has stirred up an intense political debate in France. The country’s parliament last month set up a committee to look into the wearing of the burka and similar headwear, such as the niqab, and to determine whether it is compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women.

Some politicians, including Ms Amara, a former women’s rights campaigner, want an outright ban on the garment. President Nicolas Sarkozy said in June that the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic,” although he stopped short of calling for its prohibition.

Ms. Amara said she understood those who argued an outright ban would be difficult to apply. But she did not agree that prohibition would simply trap burka-wearing women behind closed doors.

The same arguments against such a ban were made when France introduced legislation against the wearing of the veil [and religious items such as crosses or skullcaps] in schools and by public employees in 2004. But the decision had helped Muslim women to face up to male chauvinism in their communities, Ms. Amara said.

She also said she did not regard the burka as a religious symbol or as a piece of clothing but instead as an instrument of subordination used by Islamic fundamentalists.

Ms. Amara added: “The burka represents not a piece of fabric but the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principle of equality between men and women -- one of the founding principles of our republic.”

2.

SINCE WHEN IS MY HIJAB YOUR BUSINESS?
By Sabria Jawhar

The American Muslim
July 26, 2009

Original source: The American Muslim

The battle against religious extremism is getting stranger by the day. Seemingly running out of ideas, new catchphrases and the energy it takes to root out terrorists' cells, Western governments have discovered a novel way to attack the apparent root of all evil: the hijab.

I can’t think of a single item of clothing that has gotten government leaders so up in arms that they feel the urge to pass laws banning it from being worn in public places. Religious conservatives and Western lawmakers alike are responsible for turning the hijab into a potent political weapon.

The conservatives are exploiting the death of Marwa Al Sherbini, the Egyptian pharmacist murdered in a German courtroom, as the “headscarf martyr” because she died wearing the hijab. She had sued and won a judgment against a man who was convicted of attempting to remove Sherbini’s hijab and calling her a terrorist.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is now leading the charge to ban the burqa in France, equating it as a symbol of oppression against women. France already banned the hijab in public institutions in 2004. Even Sarkozy’s urban policies secretary, Fadela Amara, a Muslim who should know better, is on board to ban the burqa. “I am for the banning of this coffin which kills basic freedoms,” she said.

The hijab, the burqa, the niqab or whatever else a Muslim woman chooses to wear is not a political weapon to be used by governments and religious leaders to wage their battles of ideology. And I, for one, want my hijab back. Wearing it is my choice and nobody’s business but my own. As a Muslim woman I wonder why I must listen to a stranger, a man who probably never had a conversation with a hijabi, tell me what I should and should not wear.

There is a real, although not completely rational, fear among European conservatives of the so-called creeping Islamification. British tabloids raised a stink a few weeks ago that “85 Sharia courts” were operating in the United Kingdom, apparently forgetting that about 80 were simply arbitration panels to settle business and domestic disputes. But the message is clear that Islam was slowly taking over government.

To counter these fears, government leaders are targeting the hijab and burqa as the most obvious symbols of Islam. If law enforcement is seen as incapable of finding basement terrorists or existing laws can’t prevent the migration of Muslims to urban centers because it conflicts with democratic ideals, then banning the burqa and further suppression of the hijab will help placate a jittery public. I suppose the logic here is that if one can’t see symbols of Islam then the threat of violence by Al Qaeda doesn’t exist.

This Band-Aid approach to a complex issue is kind of like the U.S. government’s habit of passing stiff drug sentencing laws without addressing the root causes of drug abuse. It gives the appearance of action by putting people away for decades without solving a single thing.

Worse, Sarkozy’s misguided attempts to free Muslim women from oppression by making wearing the burqa illegal shines an unnecessary spotlight on these women. At the end of the day the burqa ban, if indeed passed by French lawmakers, will have little impact on the Muslim community. The burqa is rare in France. But Muslim women, who the West views as being victimized at every turn by a patriarchal society, will be further victimized by Western governments who apparently know better than Muslim women what they should wear and not wear.

These proposed laws generate negative attitudes towards the burqa and hijab. Women today already struggle for equity in society, whether it’s in the East or West, but now they will be subjected to further scrutiny for what they wear. I don’t envy the hijab-wearing black woman who inevitably will have three strikes against her while she attends a parent-teacher conference at her child’s school in a predominately white neighborhood.

For all of the West’s insistence that Muslims assimilate into their society, governments have a tendency to set minorities up for failure by throwing enough obstacles in their path that makes integration almost impossible.

I was in California this month and visited a Catholic Church in Los Angeles while wearing my hijab. The earth didn’t shake and the sky didn’t fall. I was treated warmly by the parishioners. During my visit throughout the state I attracted the usual stares from non-Muslims, but I also received a compliment or two for my hijab fashion sense. Not once did I feel threatened or treated in a hostile manner.

Yet I wonder whether that friendly climate will change if the U.S. or another Western nation restricted my choice to wear the hijab or banned my sisters from wearing the burqa. Regulating clothing suggests that there is something wrong with it and instantly places the wearer on the wrong side of society’s rules.

The rules change depending on the whims of lawmakers who feel the urge to demonize a segment of society. The West has a long history of demonizing minorities. The Jews, Poles, Irish, Italians, and Mexicans can attest to that. Even today there is a movement in the U.S. to deny U.S. citizenship to U.S.-born children of Mexican nationals despite a Constitutional amendment protecting them.

Yet California streets and cities bear Spanish names, supermarket shelves are stocked with Mexican foods and virtually every restaurant serves Mexican food. Clearly assimilation has taken place.

But for now demonization seems to be necessary to fight ideological battles. That demon today appears to be the Muslim woman.

3.

HEAD-TO-TOE ISLAMIC VEIL IN FRANCE
By Ben Piven

Herald de Paris
July 31, 2009

http://www.heralddeparis.com/head-to-toe-islamic-veil-rare-in-france/47534

Six years ago, I was looking for an apartment in the French capital. Searching for the 5-A buzzer, an American friend and I came across an angry old French man who asked why were were trespassing.

“Vous allez faire un kamikaze?” he asked, wondering whether we were about to blow up his building. “Avez-vous un tapis de priere?” he asked with a strong southern French accent, wrongly assuming that we were Moroccan Muslims who carry prayer rugs.

We responded that we were just American students, despite our relatively swarthy complexions, and then he proceeded with an extremist anti-Arab rant.

This was my first exposure to virulent French racism and cultural insensitivity. His tirade echoed the xenophobia of the far-right Front National party, which had received 17 percent of the vote in France’s 2002 presidential election.

Today, France is still wracked by intolerance and Islamophobia, despite a long tradition of democracy and dissent. As France struggles to integrate second-generation North Africans who are largely clustered in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities, the Islamic dress controversy continues to rage.

A report by French newspaper Le Monde revealed Wednesday [July 29, 2009] that just 367 women wear the full Islamic veil in France. The figure makes French President Nicholas Sarkozy seem heavy-handed in his recent declaration that the niqab was “not welcome.” This piece of hard evidence, supplied by data from two domestic intelligence agencies, makes it unlikely that the center-right Sarkozy would pursue an absolute ban. The hyperactive leader is known for his pragmatism, and he doesn’t want to appear too extremist.

The report comes amid a French legislative commission’s investigation on the use of the burka in public places. The panel seeks to address the burka’s popularity, and it will make a recommendation about the usefulness of a ban.

An editorial accompanying the statistic in left-leaning Le Monde criticized the need to “legislate for an exception” and further stigmatize French Islam. Declaring the burka to be a phénomène ultraminoritaire (very rare phenomenon), the editorial recognizes that the several hundred women who wear the niqab are not sufficiently integrated into French culture.

The French are fierce defenders of their secular republic and will defend women’s rights against fundamentalist religious customs such as the veil. But there are disagreements about whether it would be helpful to legislate religious expression in the public sphere.

“We cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” said the French president last month, frustrating many cultural commentators such as a blogger at “Moor Next Door“: "The trouble the French may want to worry about is not the burqa as it is worn in France today, but that such a ban, as the headscarf ban has done, will make the garment a greater symbol of Muslim identity and sign of cultural defiance. France has done a good job at finding ways of alienating racial and religious minorities. Indeed, among Western nations it is a leader in this field. This is a quality that does little to further the assimilationist cause the French so actively pursue.

The Le Monde report indeed suggests that most of the 367 women in question are under 30 and wear the niqab to make an explicit political point to defy French society -- and in some cases, rebel against their own families. The vast majority of French Muslims reject the full body veils, according to the French intelligence reports. Moreover, according to the French Council of Muslim Worship, wearing the niqab is a personal, cultural choice.

But, unlike the U.S., France values secularism even more than the right to free expression of religion. A burka ban would never pass muster in the U.S. But French politicians insist that they will not fight a second battle to separate church from the French state. The first church-state battle was with the Catholic church, from which the government legally separated in 1905.

In 2004, France received much criticism after banning the headscarf in public schools. The law was one of many factors that led to more than a month of civil unrest by minority youths across France in November 2005.

France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated around 5 million. But France does not keep official statistics on race or religion, so this figure could easily be much higher. Regardless, just one in every 90,000 French women wear the full-body veil. And apparently one-quarter of them are converts to Islam.

One French Muslim organization that has been discouraging women to wear the full veil is Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Founded by Fadela Amara, a liberal Muslim woman of North African origin, the group promotes a modern combination of Islam and feminism.

Amara, now a minister in Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s right-leaning government, has become far more popular among politicians than among folks in la banlieue (working-class suburbs). Amara told Le Parisien last year: "The burka is a prison, it’s a straitjacket . . . It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes and which is totally devoid of democracy."