Playing politics with religion

Banning the burqa. It seems everyone, everywhere has a strong, and often loud opinion about it.

Outraged politicians and irate feminists around the world are mounting their soap boxes to decry the horrendous oppression of women behind these black veils of woe.

All without looking at the facts.

People who support a ban on the burqa are either ignorant, racist or pushing their own hidden agenda.

Speaking of which, let’s start with politicians.

Earlier this year, France’s lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill to ban the wearing of a burqa or niqab, both full-body veils, in public places. The ban proposes a 150 euro fine for the woman herself and a 30 000 euro fine and one year jail sentence if a man is found to be forcing the veil to be worn. President Nikolas Sarkozy has strongly supported the bill from the beginning claiming it’s a matter of French identity. Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told the BBC it was a victory for democracy and for French values.

All this talk of French values in this context is slightly confusing. The French are a proud people, to say the least, and national identity is a hot topic in Europe at the moment, but what has that got to do with Muslim veils?

Joan Wallach Scott of The Guardian says the ban has little to do with the emancipation of women.

“Outlawing what the French call “le voile intégral” is part of a campaign to purify and protect national identity, purging so-called foreign elements… from membership in the nation,” she writes.

Sarkozy is using nationalism and paranoia about rising numbers of immigrants to fuel his own agenda. But it’s not just the burqa bill that proves this. France’s recent purging of the Roma gypsies, a propose law that takes away the citizenship of foreign-born citizens if they are convicted of crime, as well as the new portfolio of the Minister for Immigration and National Identity. In addition, the burqa ban passed on the eve of Fête Nationale, the anniversary of France becoming a democratic republic.

The most alarming part of this blatant political xenophobia is that the world is watching. In Belgium, Spain, Italy, Britain and even here in Australia, the debate has been gaining intensity and momentum.  Banning the burqa is an easy political distraction. Most of Western Europe is grappling with the huge, real issues of coping with immigration, globalisation, diminishing concepts of national identity, and not to mention financial troubles and instability. Banning the burqa is an easy way to manipulate the paranoia surrounding Islam and disguise the fact that real issues are not being addressed.

Isolating a minority to win popularity seems like a cretaceous and low act so why is it working in this day and age? The answer is fear. Fear of an unknown and misunderstood culture. Fear that has arisen from the bigoted idea that the only thing under a burqa is plastic explosives. Taking away a Muslim woman’s right to wear a burqa is the most overt and corrosive way to sanitise their culture for Western values. It is estimated that of the five million odd Muslims living in France, a mere 2000 wear the burqa. It is a tiny number of people to warrant such a bill. But despite these numbers, the burqa remains one of the most recognisable aspects of this culture and banning it isolates the entire Muslim population. It shows intolerance, misunderstanding and prejudice.

Feminists, and some self-serving politicians, argue that it is a garment of female repression. Certainly there are women who are forced to wear the burqa by male relatives but they are far outnumbered by those who have chosen to of their own free will. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  A ban may seem like a convenient, popular way to exploit people’s ignorance and paranoia but it causes far more harm than good.

And to all those angry feminists, surely this is what we’ve been fighting for? The right to choose?

Any talk of banning the burqa is simply thinly-veiled racism.

References

Haussegger, V. (2010, May 21) The burqa is a war on women. The Age. Accessed September 2, 2010 from http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-burqa-is-a-war-on-women-20100520-vnp3.html

Silvestri, S. (2010, July 13) Fracne votes on the burqa. The Guardian. Accessed September 2, 2010 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jul/13/france-burqa-ban-veil

Wallch Scott, J. (2010, August 26) France ban Islamic veil. The Guardian. Accessed September 2, 2010 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/aug/26/france-ban-islamic-veil

BBC News Europe. (2010, July 13) French MPs vote to ban full Islamic veil in public. BBC Online. Accessed September 8, 2010 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10611398

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