After following suit of several European countries, France's parliament in an almost unanimous vote have installed legislation banning the face covering cloth. Initially, it would seem that the new legislation compromises the rights of Muslims. However, upon closer examination, one realizes that while attempting to defend the cultural identity of the West, we could be compromising the civil liberities provided by democracy.
The recent decision of the French parliament to implement legislation banning complete covering of the face in public places has sparked much debate over practices related to religious preference. The nature of the legislation is almost exclusively related to the burqa, cloth used by muslim women to cover their face. The law, which was introduced by Justice Minister Michelle Aliot-Marie is said to be inspired by the spirit of eliminating customs which are contrary to the values of the public. The language of the law itself is completely general as the illegality lies in the act of completely covering the face rather than making direct reference to a piece of clothing. It is very specific to the nature in which the covering of the face would denote a violation of the law offering circumstantial exception as medical cases or specific rituals. The most important characteristic of the legislation's language is how it goes out of its way to negate any suggestion that it is anti-Muslim. The law may have been born out of the burqa but it is emphasized that the law's essence is a general princile that applies to all citizens.
Over the course of the next six months, the time the French have alotted it's citizens to assimilate before it is enforced, there will be much debate over the true intentions of the proposed legislation. Technically, the law still needs to go forth to the Senate for debate and ratification where, if the parliamentary result is any indication, should pass by a landslide. But if the legislation passes the Senate, it then must be brought in front of the France's Consitutional Council for analysis and critique. This final stage will, by far, be the toughest stage of the legislation's quest to become law as it could be deemed unconstitutional. France is not the only European country to attempt to implement such legislation. There is a nationwide ban in Belgium as well as a regional ban in Barcelona, Spain with discussion for the ban in Holland and Germany. In Great Britain, Tory MP Philip Hollobone has recently tabled a private members' Face Covering Regulations Bill which would make it illegal for anyone to cover their face in public. Syria has just invoked a ban preventing all university students and faculty from wearing the burqa. There is an instant in Novara, a traditionally conservative town in northern Italy, where a muslim woman wearing the facial veil was stopped by a police officer and threatened with a hefty fine due if she continued to conceal her face. The town had recently introduced a by-law banning clothing which impedes the ability for immediate identification of a person in public. However, the legislation to ban the concealing of one's face has not been limited to exclusively to European countries. Such bans aslo exist in Muslim countries like Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia as well as several others.
The reason for the overwhelming opinion to ban the face covering cloth is rooted in the widespread belief that the burqa or niqab as a symbol of the degradation and suboordination of women within society. Viewed as a symbol for fundamentalist oppression against the muslim women, the burqa ban is gaining tremendous momentum in both muslim and non-muslim countries. The face covering masks and full length body costumes which conceal the indentity of women portray women as "walking ghosts." There have been claims in both France and Syria that the wearing of the veil is contradictory to the moral and ethical compass concerning womens' rights.
Even with so many other countries following suit citing reasons ranging from the civil liberties of women to issues surrounding security, there is a minority opinion opposing the ban which stem from the right to personal preference. The practice of wearing burqas is not a genuine muslim tradition. There is no reference to the burqa within Sunnah traditon and no mention of it in the Quran. According to theologian Rev. Kamir Salil Kamir, "It is not an Islamic norm. None of the Koranic scholars dare say so, but there are so many who claim that it is a religious norm."
So where does the practice stem from and why has it created such a widespread fervor and moreover uniform approval for the ban? In actuality, the ban only affects a small Islamic sect. While the practice is not uncommon amongst Wahhabi or Qtubi muslims, the Salafis are primarily responsible for carrying out the practice. This group represents a small minority of the entire Muslim population. Of the 5 million practicing Muslims in France(the largest Muslim population in Europe), about 1,900 women are believed to wear the garment. The word Salafi stems from the Arabic root Salaf which means predecessors or early generations. Salafi is a term used to describe Muslims who view the first three generations of Muslims who were companions of the prophet Muhammed and the proceeding three generations known as the pious generations. The Salafis lean toward a fundamentalist even reformist approach to faith attempting to model their behavior as closely as possible to that of these six generations. They formally reject any Islamic teaching that is viewed as being modest or progressive.
So where does the burqa come into the provincial view of Islamic faith in spite of having no authentic religious reference? High clerics in some muslim countries such as Egypt have publicly commented on how it is strictly a matter of custom and has no connection to Islam. There is a social dynamic connected to the Salafi muslims which calls for them to live their lives under as humble a guise as possible as the prophet Muhammed would have. This coupled with the open represssion against women by men lends to custom's acceptance in areas where the Salafi form of Islam is the heavily practiced like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and the Arabian peninsula. This group represents a small minority of the entire Muslim population. The two other sects of the Islamic faith Wahhabist and Qutubi, although not as prevalent, are also proponents of the Burqa in spite of having fundamentally different interpretations on Islamic faith. The common attitude toward the garment of all three sects despite these differences almost automatically enforce that the custom is rooted in social practice rather than a religious one.
One of the most interesting and confusing facets of the legislation's constitutional validity concerning the ban is the reaction it has received from those most impacted by it; Islamic women. One of the major contentions by several countries to include France as to why the Burqa has no place in its culture is due to the suggestive nature of the cloth portraying women as suboordinates and weaker than their male counterparts. To wear the face covering veil would contradict all that French view as being crucial to the country's view on the importance of gender equality. It is no secret that women are viewed as being the much lesser of the two sexes and take on a submissive role in Islamic culture. Of all the focus to not implicate any particular religious group and concerted effort not to single out Islam in the way the legislation's language, there are details of the bill that one can't help but make inferences leading to the contrary. The penalty, for example, for a woman to be caught wearing a face covering cloth any time after the six month grace period in under the proposed French law is a fine 150 euros and a mandate to attend a cultural education course. However, the penalty for anyone who is caught forcing another individual to wear the face covering cloth will be subject to a 30,000 euro fine and a year in prison. The prison sentence is doubled if the victim being forced to wear the veil is a minor. The difference in penalties for each offense indicates that the French government has taken into consideration the trend for women to be oppressed within Islamic culture and that oppression manifests through social norms such as those forcing women to cover their faces. The government has made the assumption by drafting the legislation from a perspective which appeals to the sensibility of a progressive society that can find common ground with most Islamic countries (check out the Arab League of Nations sponsored 2007 Riyadh Declaration) would be welcome by women of Islamic faith. After all, one of the goals of the law to be is to facilitate more equality between men and women. Thus, the resulting legislation should presumably invite vindication for women directly affected by the legislation. Ironically, nothing could be further from the truth. There is a growing number of women with both direct and indirect involvement who see the law as yet another means of taking the empowerment of women's civil liberties from women themselves. There are cases of both female MP's as well as recently elected female Afghan lawmakers who believe that banning the use of the burqa in essence prevents those from conciously deciding whether or not to assert their civil rights. Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhail is in full disagreement with the law having said, "Democratic countries should not become dictatorships and Muslim women should not be deprived from all kinds of opportunities. It should be their choice." This does raise significant questions as to the true intention of the legislation. Not having the opportunity to refuse or accept the custom does compromise any chance for women affected by the custom to stand up to the social expectation thrust on them by men. It's as if the law nullifies the freedoms of the people it is set out to protect. Simultaneously, there also seems to be an underlying sense of xenophobia that disguised as a declaration of national social discourse. Much in the same way that the burqa hides the identity of a Muslim women, the true nature of the legislation being so widely called for may also be masked.
One concern regarding the proposed law that isn't receiving much attention is the potential terrorist based backlash that countries who pass the legislation. These acts are most likely to come from extremist factions who, no intelligible way, accurately represent the Muslim community as a whole. The legislation in France has yet to go to the Senate for debate and already there have been reports of threats from extremist groups promising revenge if the bill is made law. Furthermore, these threats are coming in during a time where, because of the economic downturn, countries in Europe and elswhere are making having to incur significant spending cuts in areas such as terrorist counterintelligence. The current or future vulnerability of government resources designated to monitor such activities could enhance these groups to strike. Although it is by far not the best, bad timing might good reason to refrain from adopting legislation which unnecessarily exacerbates an already untenable relationship.
Is the custom so contemptuous that it deserves to spurn an internationally unified campaign for its abolishment? Yes, there are complaints that the covered faces of this select group of religously devout individuals look like walking ghosts. The practice is not viewed as being progressive or indicative of a Western based democratic ideology. But an integral part of the democratic ideal is personal and spiritual freedom to practice rituals rooted in our civil liberties. These civil liberities which vindicate the success of the democratic model for government are fragile and need to be protected with earnest. What seems to be so dangerous about this legislation is that it is completely contradictory to the civil rights of those affected. It takes away their choice. And isn't that what freedom is really? There is overwhelming opposition of the ban of face covering cloth in the U.S. by both the government and its citizens. The U.S. has reiterated their dissappointment over the legislation proposed in France. Similarly, while there has been a members' bill submitted in the Great Britain, there is little chance that the Coalition will even bother to hear debate on the bill. MP Damian Green has labeled the measure "rather un-British" and that such a bill would contradict the notion of a “tolerant and mutually respectful society”. Tolerance and respect do seem to be what is missing from this type of legislation and with system civil liberties being so delicate, such legislation could prove as the beginning of a trend that completely re-alters that system for the worse.
As always, you're opinions and views are most welcome.