Friday, March 10, 2006

The Burqa

Looking through Al Jazeera today, I came across the article Dismay about possible Dutch burqa ban.

The article starts out by stating that Dutch politicians are considering the ban because the burqa is a security threat. There seems to be justification for such a law in cases such as passport control. However, according to the article, the Dutch government is planning a total ban on wearing the burqa.

The Al Jazeera article is interesting because it provides a pro-burqa perspective. A photo of burqa-clad women walking in a group of fluttering light blue behind a US soldier in full body armor seems manipulative to me, but from another perspective it probably sums up the situation that Muslims face in the world today.

One day when I was living in East Africa I bought a day pass to a luxury hotel to use the pool. An Arab family was also there. The men and boys in the family swam in bathing suits, along with girls up to about age 10 wearing long sleeved t-shirts and long pants, while five older girls and women, completely covered in black burqas, sat on chairs nearby. Next to the burqas were three women from South Africa who were buck naked, stretched out on their backs on deck chairs, drinking a lot of beer and smoking. When they were done with a cigarette they would toss it over their heads onto the concrete, even though people were walking around barefoot. As the day went by, I realized that these two groups of women at either end of the propriety scale were at ease together. They didn't talk to each other, but they were friendly.

I still remember the first time I saw a burqa in Canada: I felt like I'd been smacked in the face. It was a shock, even frightening, to see a woman who wasn't allowed to show herself. It seemed a personal threat to my own freedom.

Why didn't I react like the boorish South Africans? Why don't the Dutch?

In the Dutch context, you have to consider the murders of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn. The Dutch filmmaker van Gogh said some absolutely disgusting things about Jews and the Holocaust. He was irreverant and rude about all religions. But it was his criticism of the Islamic treatment of women that got him murdered in 2004. Fortuyn was a Dutch intellectual and politician who openly challenged the intolerance of the Islamic community in Holland. He was assassinated in 2002 for this position, resulting in an upsurge in national concern about the issue.

Then there's the widespread Islamic violence in reaction to Danish cartoons. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten solicited the cartoons in 2005 to start a dialogue about self-censorship in the Danish press. The result has been self-censorship all over the world, in fear of violent reprisal. Take a look a the cartoons and decide for yourself whether they're offensive.

In 2004, Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad published The Bookseller of Kabul, a best-selling expose of life under the burqa. After reading this brilliant book, no-one is going to fall for the line that burqas are harmless expressions of respect that do not curtail a woman's freedom.

And yet, despicable as they are, we can't ban the burqa. We can restrict immigration, we can do more to integrate immigrants, we can wage a PR war, but we can't forbid someone from wearing the clothing they choose, except for situations such as security.

Update, December 2006: A Canadian Arab named Tarek Fatah has a web site called Say No to the Burka in which he largely quotes articles by Muslim women against the burqa. I learned a lot from this site, including that in Turkey it is illegal for women to cover their heads in government offices and schools.


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