Do Burkas Symbolize Freedom of Expression or Oppression?

June 24, 2009 06:30 PM
by Shannon Firth
Earlier this week French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the practice of Muslim women wearing burkas—long loose garments that hide the faces and bodies of the wearer.

The Debate Over Burkas in the West

During a meeting of the French parliament on Monday, President Sarkozy supported creating a committee that would consider a potential ban on burkas. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sarkozy said of the burka, “[It] is not a religious symbol. It’s a symbol of subservience,” and it is “not welcome” in France.

Yasmeen Khan, 24, a Muslim woman in India, told IANS, “I fail to understand why has he come up against the burqa while the dress that Christian nuns wear is almost the same.” Khan, who wears denim pants and t-shirts herself, says she respects the “personal choice” of other women, including her sister, to wear the burka.

In a speech on June 4 in Egypt, President Obama, who did not specifically mention France by name, said, “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal,” according to Le Figaro.
In comparing Sarkozy’s remarks with President Obama’s, Daily Telegraph writer James Delingpole sides with Sarkozy. Delingpole writes of the pressure that male elders put on younger girls to wear veils. He praises Sarkozy for “setting a moral example,” and protecting young girls’ freedoms.

Delingpole notes, “‘The freedom’ [Obama] is granting US Muslim women to wear the veil is in fact the most surefire way of guaranteeing their continued subservience.”

According to IANS, “Members of French government disagree on whether legislation against the burka would encourage the custom more than prevent it.”

Dalia Mogahed, the first veiled Muslim woman to work as an advisor in the White House, is co-author of the book “Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” Mogahed told interviewer Daljit Dhaliwal, “Since 9/11 … a vocal fringe has really monopolized the conversation about the West and the Muslim World.” 

She added, “When our perceptions are driven by an extremist fringe they tend to be inaccurate.”

Background: French secularism and veils

In 2004, legislation banning headscarves in schools resulted in the expulsion of several students. According to the BBC, the ban made it illegal to wear any “conspicuous religious symbol,” including large crosses or Jewish skullcaps.

At the time, one expelled student, 13-year-old Khouloud, told the French newspaper Le Monde, “My classmates liked me just the way I was. They didn’t ask me to show my hair before electing me class delegate last year.”

Initially there were over 600 disputes over the scarves, but Education Minister Francois Fillon said most were settled at the beginning of the school year.

One reason France, a Catholic country, is inclined toward secularism is because of the French Revolution. During the revolution, citizens resisted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over government and “an atmosphere of anti-clericalism emerged.”

However, for many French people headscarves are associated with a culture of oppression, “as well as the embodiment of a political worldview that rejects secularism and even, for some, embraces Islamic extremism,” writes the BBC.

France’s growing concern over an influx of Muslim immigrants has been a point of controversy for over 20 years. The BBC reported that 60 to 70 percent of voters favored the headscarf ban.

Opinion & Analysis: We’re not brainwashed

In 2004, Fatima Shah, a spokeswoman for the Australian Muslim Public Affairs committee, wrote that the burka is not a symbol of “patriarchic oppression.”

When a feminist claims that those wearing burkas are brainwashed, she demonstrates the same “contemptuous attitude” toward Muslim women that she projects onto Muslim men, says Shah.

Shah also wants others to know that women in the Western world wear burkas by choice. She says, “My father didn’t force me; my mother doesn’t wear it; and my husband didn’t order me to do it, because I’m not married yet.”

Related Topic: Michigan judges can ask Muslim women to remove veils in court

On June 17, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that judges may ask those testifying in court to remove niqabs, or Islamic facial veils, at their discretion. Judges are allowed to “exercise reasonable control” in the attire of those on the witness stand when it affects the judge’s ability to determine the witness’ identity and comportment in court.

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