About 2000 Muslim women in France wear the full body burqa, and the French Parliament is slated to vote on its ban Tuesday. The idea of a burqa ban is popular in France (in polls, about 80% of French citizens tend to express a desire for it).
In any case, in the run-up to the French vote, Salon interviewed an Egyptian born Muslim feminist, Mona Eltahawy, about the proposed ban, and I thought that she offered (to my mind) a compelling rationale for burqa prohibition:
What I hope it will do is that it will create a situation where a woman can say to a man, look, you know that I have to go out and work so that we can continue to live here, and I can’t go out with my face covered, even though you want me to, because that’s what the law says. I hope the law gives women this kind of out. I have no idea if that’s actually going to happen or not.
In other words, Mona Eltahawy is suggesting that the burqa ban will give a woman who doesn’t want to wear one some countervailing power against her husband’s demand. The argument becomes an economic one, and it forces a man to actually have to make a choice concerning his own comfort (does the man want to live without his wife’s income)? Thus what might, at first, appear to restrict liberty, may in fact make life choices for both fundamentalist Muslim men and women more stark and honest.
I wish there were halfway houses for the women stuck in these noxious households (as we have halfway houses for women who are physically abused by their husbands). They really need a place to flee, if they choose, from these fanatic men. But short of this, I think I agree with Mona Eltahawy that the burqa ban would be a good thing: it would give women living under repressive household regimes a bit of leverage against their tyrannous and misogynist spouses, and drive those spouses who would like their wives to earn income into some inconvenience of their own.
And religious liberty and conscience, while extremely important, is not sacrosanct. You cannot, for example, violate drug laws in the name of your religion, or harm children.
Here’s a bit more from Mona Eltahawy:
I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you — and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman’s right to choose to wear a burqa because it’s her natural right. But I often tell them that what they’re doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman’s right to do anything. We’re talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them.
I agree. But is there something here, as an Enlightenment positive liberal, that I should be considering?
And what does it mean to hold one’s face as private to all but your husband? Participatory democracy is theatrical: it is a confrontation of faces, personae, voices. Thus wouldn’t that make wearing a burqa in public akin to wearing manacles (chains) or prison attire in public? This, I think, is the feeling of revulsion that greets so many of us at the presence of someone in a burqa. We are encountering a person who is a slave. We recognize it as a grotesque step backward for the rights and independence of women. When we see someone in a burqa, we are encountering a person who is announcing that she is not a full and living participant in the democratic community, but is, instead, constrained to another.
It’s not the dress of a free human being, is it?