Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Right to Cover-Up

There has been a lot of discussion on the proposed ban on the burqa -- the head-to-toe covering islamic garment for women -- by the French govt.

My only close encounter with a burqa was when as a child, I noticed that a friend's grandmother used to wear her burqa whenever she stepped out of the house. Inside the house, even with us present, she just wore a sari. I would have considered her old-fashioned, but it was her choice of what she wanted to wear when venturing out.

My personal beliefs are perhaps best expressed in this great Daily Show clip.

To summarize (and to paraphrase JS), the burqa should not be banned, much like it should not be compulsory.

Seriously, if I were a man who forces my wife to wear a burqa when she steps out, what do you think I will do when it is illegal? I will simply forbid her from ever stepping out! And if a girl really wants to wear a burqa, the state should not have the right to stop her, much like wearing goth makeup (or covering one's ankles) is not illegal.

What the state DOES need to do is to reach out to womenfolk and provide circumstances so that they are more comfortable in stepping out and reporting it if their men are forcing them to wear burqas, or miniskirts for that matter.

But you see, the above is a very complex action to perform, and will not get much press. So I guess we will only see knee-jerk and sensationalist all-or-nothing solutions from the govt.

What do you think?


  1. Animesh I am on the fence.

    I am a rabid believer in equality and personal freedom but also a world traveler. I also believe in respect for cultures different than my own. When I traveled in Eqypt (which is a somewhat liberal theocracy), I sometimes covered my head in a show of respect for their religion and culture. I dressed more conservatively as well. I believe that "When in Rome..."

    No, you shouldn't have to do EXACTLY as the Romans however I do believe that if you expect to live in another culture you should expect to make concessions. If not? Stay home. If you expect to drag all of your cultures dogma and convictions into a new culture that simply isn't realistic.

    I don't believe that organized religion has a place in the public school system. Seperation of church and state is a brilliant concept in my opinion. I think organized religion seperates us more than unites us and nearly EVERY religion is biased against women whether it be Judaism, Islam, or Christianity.

    Just because one believes in let's say -- the mutilation of your daughters genitals for cultural and religious reasons - you should no more be able to practice it for the simple reason that it violates the female childs body against her will. She doesn't have a choice and must live with (if she survives) the ramifacations and health issues for the rest of her natural life. She has no choice.

    If an adult female is intent on wearing the burqa, fine! But I always wonder if this is actually her decision or her husbands? And if your beliefs are that strong, you can always choose a private religious institution for your children.

    Leave religion in the church, synagogue or mosque and let kids be kids.

    Respectfully yours,
    Janilani :-)

  2. @Janilani
    Thanks for your comment, and indeed, I think we are on the same page.

    However, the question here is not about banning female genital mutilation (which is already illegal by virtue of being physical violence) or banning religious headgear in public schools (which is also already banned, and is same for all religions in France).

    The question here is whether the govt. should prohibit adult women from choosing what they want to wear. And that too focusing on how women are oppressed in _one_ religion.

    Isn't the govt.'s (and your) problem with burqas that they apparently take the freedom away from the women? If so, they why is the govt. right in forcing its own rules on what a women can wear?

    Why is this not different from an official law banning baggy pants in the USA, a behavior deemed undesirable by the lawmakers who proposed it?

    I liked what Obama said on this topic during his MTV interview - "we don't need to pass a law on this, but people need to pull up their pants". _That_ is the attitude we need from the powers that be.

    I too believe that when in Rome, surely we must do as the Romans do. However, in a democratic Rome, the Romans also would have had a dissenting voice for an upcoming legislation. And that is what I am doing. :-).


  3. Tucker11:52 PM

    At any rate, I liked some of the vadlo scientist cartoons!

  4. "Seriously, if I were a man who forces my wife to wear a burqa when she steps out, what do you think I will do when it is illegal? I will simply forbid her from ever stepping out!" AMEN!

  5. Daniel4:32 PM

    Hi Animesh

    I don't have a clear opinion on the subject but I think we just can't dismiss the idea as simply stupid or undemocratic.

    First of all France is a secular country, but secularity does means that the state is not involved in religion but not that it does not have to care about morality/ethic and so.

    In a more religious country that kind of things would be more of a religious leader debate, in France it goes naturally to the state which has to say what is right or wrong. The state is here in competition with religious forces to promote some moral values.

    Then we must realise that clothing is not just a matter of personnal freedom, it is a cultural thing. People don't have the right to go around naked in the streets. You can't go with just a speedo to the supermarked. Why? because it is offensive to other people. The burka, in a way is also offensive to many French people. So if we can forbid to be naked then we can fordid then to wear burka.

    On your point "if burka where forbidden women will just be locked in" It might be true in a few cases, but I don't think it is a real argument. Somehow it's like saying "don't make rape illegal, guys will kill the women in order not to be caught". Locking in your wife is also a crime.
    We heard the same arguments saying that young girls would be put out of school due to the law. Except for a very few cases it was not the case. The huge majority removed there scarves in school.

    Yet there's is still a problem: how do you legally define a burka? is it the fact of hiding the body/face ? The religion symbol?

  6. Daniel: Thanks for your comment.

    The speedo example does not hold since the reason the French govt. gives is NOT that the burqa is offensive/uncomfortable to them, but that it is oppressive to the _woman_ who is wearing it. I agree that the reality may be closer to the former, but the official reason is the latter.

    Let me take your "locking women is illegal" point a step further. Oppression is already illegal, so why doesn't the French govt. simply enforce that law, instead of making its supposed manifestations illegal? Hindu women have to wear various symbols of marriage (red power in hair, special necklace, etc.) while men do not need to. Isn't that also oppression? Shouldn't we also have laws disbarring any single-sex marriage symbols?

    The headgear law was still symmetrical, but the burqa law is clearly directed towards one community, and that too when simply enforcing the proper domestic-abuse laws should have been sufficient.

    I think the real reason is that there are people in Govt. who cannot understand why someone would look different in that way, and want to impose their understanding on all. No fair.

    And speaking of secular country, India is secular too, and for us that means that everyone has the right to practice their religion as they see fit, as long as it does not affect another person's freedom. If the other person complains to the police, we take action based upon the breach of law.

    Also, if France is a secular country, why do we only get Christian holidays?

    I'm sorry, but in my opinion some people in the govt. are trying to hide their xenophobia in the guise of secularism.

  7. Daniel1:39 AM

    well you got me: holidays are sacred you can't touch them wherever they come from.

    Well maybe there is some xenophobia, but there is also a more left winged view.

    the view is something like "we can't send soldiers in afghanistan to keep women from forced to wear burqa, and accept that they are forced to do that in france under our very eyes"

    How technically do that is another and tricky question. But at least we should not refuse the debate.

  8. Daniel: If the left wingers think thay they have sent soldiers in afghanistan to keep women from being forced to wear the burqa, then they should make sure that no one is _forced_ to wear it here either. Funny thing is, this law plans on _forcing_ the women not to wear the burqa :-).

    Not to mention that the reason troops were sent to Afghanistan was because the regime there was harboring terrorists. If they really are against those who force women to wear the burqa, then Saudi Arabia should be high on their list, where women cannot drive a car without a male chaperon being there!

    Debating is good, I agree to that. And indeed civilized, citation-based debate is the way to go. However, my current stance remains that this decision is an ill-thought-out knee-jerk reaction to something that the govt. does not like to "see" on the streets. Comments on this post from modern, non-burqa-wearing muslim women like Tania who works with women's health issues in the muslim world give me hope that my stance is the same as theirs.

    I would be extremely interested in the success rates of the govt. in preventing domestic abuse.

    P.S. Personally, I do not like the burqa, but what a women wears should be her choice, not anyone else's.
    P.P.S. I think the French govt. needs to know the difference between a country which is secular (and everyone has the right to practice their religion in their lives), and a country whose state religion is atheism, and _no one_ is allowed to display their faith.

  9. Daniel11:27 PM

    maybe there are some who believe/want that the state religion is human rights...

  10. @Daniel: Amen to that. I also think that the state's religion should be human rights.

    And in my opinion, one of those rights is to practice one's religion, and wear what one wants. So the women should neither be forced to wear the burqa by her husband, nor be stopped from wearing it (if she so chooses) by a policeman.

    I rest my case.