In a bold and unprecedented verdict against the burka,
the full Muslim veil, French president Nicholas
Sarkozy recently confronted the roaring tide of
political correctness that so restricts freedom of
thought and speech nowadays.
He stated that the burka was not welcome in France,
that it contravened France's secularism and that it
was more a symbol of subjugation rather than a true
expression of the Muslim faith.
"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are
prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social
life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that
the French republic has of women's dignity," he said.
In thus declaring it a prison for Muslim women, he
rightly summed up many of the negative repercussions
of the burka for all women involved. Needless to say,
it reduces Muslim women to becoming invisible and
anonymous. Such limiting attire renders Muslim women
unable to perform many of the daily tasks that most
people take for granted.
Repressive as the garb is, many Canadians consider the
burka a non-issue, claiming that it does not affect
Canadian culture as a very small percentage of Muslim
women actually observe the full veil. But is this
debate really about numbers or are Canadian values of
fairness and equality in jeopardy if most remain
silent on the oppressive nature of the burka, thinking
it has no bearing on their lives?
Indeed this debate is not just about numbers. It is
more about principles. Do we allow each and every
citizen the right to participate fully in Canadian
society or do we tolerate inequalities among certain
subcultures within Canada? Does the burka restrict
what a woman can do? Is it often an imposition on her,
even if she says she chooses to wear it?
These are difficult questions with no easy answers.
The burka, some say, has been adopted by a few women
out of free will, but one must question these choices.
In the absence of competing discourse on the burka, a
choice cannot be deemed free and therefore genuine.
When there is social censure, a choice cannot truly be
considered a choice. Muslim women are under tremendous
pressure to conform to a rigid brand of Islam that
allows no dissent. Many are told they are sinners for
refusing the hijab or burka. In time they succumb to
such admonition. Their capitulation to such pressures
is often regarded as choice.
Furthermore, discourse defending the practice focuses
too narrowly on the "choice" of some women to don the
burka, even if such choices are to be accepted as
genuine. Little regard is given to the prospect that a
ban would open up myriad choices for many others who
face oppression as a result of coercion. On the
balance therefore, a move to outlaw this demeaning
garb is hardly something to be shunned.
The burka stigmatizes women by ostensibly treating
them as a source of temptation for men. Yet, insofar
as this is true, veiling does nothing to remove that
temptation. If anything, the burka could heighten it.
To most red-blooded males --Muslim or otherwise --a
suggestion of flesh is perhaps more enticing than the
flesh itself. In any case, protecting women from
prying eyes may not be the real reason for insistence
on the burka. Perhaps more likely is a general desire
by some Muslim men to keep "their" women in a passive
and anonymous cocoon.
Such sexist notions have no place in Canada where
women are respected as equal citizens. And women,
regardless of the religiosity they choose for
themselves, ought to be respected for who they are.
Muslim women who assert they wear the hijab or burka
to be respected must think again. Should they not be
respected regardless, simply because they are women?
French President Sarkozy's comments are to be
appreciated for their sincerity and clarity in
defending the rights of Muslim women. Fair-minded
Canadians too must be cognizant of the repressive
nature of the burka and move toward outlawing it in
this country. No longer must inequalities be tolerated
in the name of multiculturalism.
Farzana Hassan is author of Prophecy and the
Fundamentalist Quest. She is a member of the
Muslim Canadian Congress.