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Alex Wilhelm

Alex Wilhelm

Posted: May 12, 2010 01:04 PM

Recently, a woman in Italy was fined hundreds of Euros for wearing a burqa in public. This is hardly an isolated incident; countries on two continents are contemplating legal restrictions on the garment. In Europe the burqa is fast becoming a proxy battle between Western governments and growing Islamic immigrant populations. The scrap over the burqa is a symbol of the cultural differences that exist between Muslim immigrants and the generally secular governments that run the countries they now reside in.

Reasons behind the laws are varied, with different voices joining together to move the bills forward. Many women's groups view the burqa as a tool for the subjugation of women and are therefore advocating for passage of these laws. Some government officials are looking to ban total facial covering in public as necessary precaution against terrorism. Needless to say, there are some fair arguments for the laws' creation.

Classic liberal thinking is ambiguous in this situation -- torn between empathy with women who are subjugated into the roles of servants and forced to wear such oppressive garments, and the recognition that some women do in fact wish to wear burqas for their own personal reasons. Where do you draw the line?

For the Italian woman mentioned above, the fine for her attire (a steep 500 Euro) is the least of her concerns. Her husband has decided that if she cannot wear the burqa outside, then she cannot go outside. The woman is now effectively under house arrest for committing no crime. She will not be able to go outside to take a morning walk or an evening stroll. Her sentence is life in prison.

Anyone who has read the Koran or the Hadith understands the foundational basis for strict clothing rules for women. If you believe the books, you cannot avoid the passages. This man, and by default his wife, is basing his actions on those passages, and is therefore exercising his religious freedom. We must respect this. When given freedom, not everyone makes the choices we wish they would; lumps come with the territory. While we might wish to bemoan her decision to abide by the wishes of her spouse, it is her choice to do so. However, if his wife wishes to leave the house, she must be able. He may not coerce or threaten her in any way to stay indoors. She may follow his request to inside, but he may not force cooperation.

At the risk of estranging my humanist and feminist friends and readers, I have to stand against the banning of the burqa not just out of respect for liberty, but also for the second reason: it could hurt women more than help them. As we have seen in the case of the Italian woman, banning the burqa as an ancient hulking relic of sexism can backfire and take away what modicum of freedom that these women had enjoyed previously. I find it extremely uncomfortable to say this, as I am sure there are many women who live their lives in sorrow, forced to live as a walking tent or as the only inmate of a house-shaped prison. The cultural values of even modern Islam hardly fit well into a Western sensibility of gender equality.

To remind yourself of just what we are discussing here, look at this woman and see if you can do so without a wave of pity at her plight.

Of course, it's more understandable if a law must be passed for public safety reasons. It is far more justifiable to limit freedoms with respect to facial covering and other identity obfuscation on government property. No one should be willing to sacrifice the normal public safety for a strict religious belief. When you board a plane, no matter what your views, you pass through a metal detector or do not board the plane. No exceptions are allowed due to your religious views when you are part of a group. Your faith does not give you the right to outrank anyone else.

That is not to say that we cannot react to the burqa, even if we have to stand against its banning. There are ways of small personal protest that can be employed. Individuals are allowed to express their views in the ways they see fit. While those might have some impact, the secular tool against cultural abhorrences such as the burqa will be what is always has been, education. No normal woman wants to be discriminated against, and given time and proper schooling they can and will change their situation. We should be there to help them. If not, shame on us.

Sexism is a pernicious cultural sin. We cannot let it exist without protest.

 

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