After many months of debate, the burqa was unanimously banned by the French lower house of parliament.
This ban has come six years after the religious symbols ban in France that excluded all religious symbols from French state schools. That law banned the Jewish skullcap, Christian crucifixes and the Sikh Turban, alongside a range of other religious symbols.
French president Nicholas Sarkozy was reported to have said that, “The burqa is not welcome in France”.
Up to ten percent of France’s population is Muslim making it the second largest religion practised in France after Christianity. These Muslims are largely descended from immigrants from the Maghreb region of northern Africa, and also immigrants from West Africa, where France once had colonies.
France has always been a fiercely secular country, after the French revolution in the seventeen hundreds, that firmly cemented a national identity, and fully kicked the church out from interfering with the state.
Despite France’s large ethnic Muslim community, a ‘French Muslim’ identity has not been forged unlike the British Asian identity that is extremely prominent both in music and culture, with bands like Panjabi MC and programmes such as Goodness Gracious Me.
Race relations have always been difficult in France, where as recently as 2005, riots took place owing to a number of factors caused by racism, xenophobia and high unemployment rates amongst inner-city ethnic youth.
“It’s not a religious symbol… In our country we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity of freedom”. To some extent, I agree with Sarkozy.
The burqa is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but in recent times the xenophobia of Western Europe and indeed the West as a whole towards symbols of Islam and Islam itself have come under fire.
The Cartoon Controversy
The Danish Cartoons. The minaret ban. Did you know that there were more minarets on the poster (which were coincidentally shaped as missiles firing upwards), of the anti-minaret campaign leading up to the referendum in 2009, than there were in the whole of Switzerland?
A minaret is as much a part of a mosque as a spire is to a church and as a dome is a part of a synagogue. I can’t help but think if a ban had been brought in on Jewish places of worship, immediately the world would deem it anti-Semitic, but in the recent climate of the ‘War on Terror’, anything goes.
Sure, the same can be said for the Danish cartoons, but there’s freedom of speech, and then going out on purpose to offend a minority group who are already oppressed.
There’s freedom of speech, and then there’s being an idiot. You wouldn’t draw a picture of Abraham portrayed as a terrorist and then publish it; that’s highly offensive to Judaism, which, like Islam, both as monotheistic Abrahamic religions, forbids the drawing of ‘idols’.
Not only was the Danish Cartoon Controversy misguided and prejudiced, it was a publicity stunt.
This is the sort of mindset that the burqa ban is stepping into, and as recently as the 20th of July, Spain is looking to ban the burqa as it is a “symbol of extremism”.
For every person who opposes the veil in whatever form, take a look at some traditional Christian art; what is Mary wearing around her head in each picture? It’s a Middle Eastern tradition, and even today Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair for the same reasons Muslim women do, except the Jewish women wear a wig.
I do not wear the burqa. None of my family currently wear the burqa, although when my grandmother lived in Pakistan, she wore it, as did all of my aunts. I don’t wear it, and don’t think it’s necessary, but by all means those who wear the burqa should, and must be, safeguarded against xenophobia.
But the burqa is not anywhere in the Islamic faith; it’s just an interpretation of the surah on modesty, and how a Muslim sister should dress in the the presence of others. Some interpret this as, indeed, wearing a burqa. Others have different interpretations.
In Surah 24: 31(Ayah) it says women should protect their “…adornments except what must ordinarily appear thereof that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty”.
Why? It’s explained in Ayah 59 that reads:
“O Prophet! Tell Thy wives And daughters, and the Believing women, that They should cast their Outer garments over Their Persons (when outside): That they should be known (As such) and not Molested.”
Given, this can just be modesty. Plain modesty. Asma Hassan and Irshad Manji, both Muslim writers, have both said they think that ‘modesty comes within’. It can be argued that the most extreme interpretations of it came in light of the Bedouin era of modern day Saudi Arabia, where women had little to no power.
It was well known that the pagan women of Mecca would bare their breasts publicly without shame (not to mention the amount of rape and sexual depravity that took place in pre-Islamic Bedouin society); indeed the burqa could be interpreted as an immediate physical differentiation to show they were Muslim.
For the record, none of the prophet Muhammad’s wives wore the hijab, and the full facial covering was only brought in during the Abbasid Caliphate, around one-hundred-and-twenty years after the death of Muhammad. This means that when Islam was revealed to the world, the burqa was non-existent.
In many Muslim societies, in traditional South East Asia and the Asian subcontinent, or in Bedouin lands, a face veil for women is either rare or non-existent; paradoxically, modern fundamentalism is introducing it.
The same goes for the hijab, e.g. in post colonial Egypt, it was in the wake of liberation from the UK that more women began wearing the hijab. The same also goes for Iran when the Islamic Revolution happened and women marched in their thousands against the wearing of he hijab (which is now compulsory).
While they are symbols of Islam, they are not compulsory, it is purely a cultural thing, the Qur’an says; lowering one’s gaze, being modest and not drawing attention to one’s self.
Some Muslim women I’ve spoken to find it ironic that while Western democracy allows women to walk around in revealing clothes, that in a continent where pornography is easily accessible, and women are used to sell everything from cars to food, and women can be clearly ‘exploited’ using sex appeal, that it is somebody who wants to keep their modesty that is coming under fire.
In some ways, the burqa may be interpreted as a symbol of radical feminism, e.g. “I will not be objectified as a women and I feel so strongly about it that I will wear something that covers me from head to toe so you cannot do this”. The same goes for female Western clothing, such as mini skirts and boob tubes.
After hundreds of years of enforced patriarchy, and women being categorised into either ‘the whore’ or ‘the virgin’ category, after the Bible’s undeniable massive influence on Britain; clothes aren’t so much what they are, but what they represent.
Political Point Scoring
Jack Straw came under scrutiny for his comments, such as asking women to remove their burqas or niqabs when talking to him, and that he was “worried about the implications of separateness”. Blair, the then-Prime Minister called it “a mark of separation” and Brown came out in full support of both men who criticised the veil.
Fingers may be pointed towards France for its xenophobia against Muslims, which coincidentally comes at a time when many are opposing a huge mosque, to built in the centre of Marseille, a city which hasn’t had a proper mosque in hundreds of years, if ever.
Syria, however, has also banned the full face covering of veils in universities, a sign that the Middle-Eastern country is becoming more conservative, and widely enforcing its stern secularism, much like France.
The difference is that in France, huge far-right political groups such as National Front, who did well in the regional elections in March this year reaping 12% of the vote, cash in on people’s prejudice against Muslims and ethnic minority groups as a whole in France.
France and Belgium have banned it. Denmark wants to ban it. Spain is looking into it as we speak. The UK said it won’t, but far-right parties want it gone. It’s a gloomy outlook for something as simple as a piece of cloth that covers someone’s body and face.
To read more from Yasmin then read her blog http://punkistani.tumblr.com/
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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