Wednesday, 24 February 2010

I support the French Burkha Ban

France is all set to ban the wearing of niqabs (veils that fully cover a woman’s face) in public places like schools, hospitals and public transport. The burkha, the all-enveloping covering that is worn over garments, will also face a similar ban. Women who cover their faces in public places will face a Euro 750 fine once this law comes into force. Since 2004, the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols in French schools has been prohibited. This ban hit not only head scarfs, but even Sikh turbans.

Apparently, President Sarkozy is in favour of a complete ban (that is, not only in public places).

Following France’s example, Italy is also considering a similar ban.

There can be arguments in favour of this ban and against it. Those against the ban would say that a woman should have the freedom to decide what clothes to wear and this would include a veil or a burkha. If women can wear mini-skirts in public, then why not a veil? Those in favour of the ban would argue that many of those who wear a veil do so on account of cultural compulsions and indoctrination since childhood, if not outright force. There is merit in both arguments.

When a woman who has been brought up in the west decides on her own to wear a niqab or a burkha, say at the age of thirty, she is essentially making a political statement. And what is that statement? That she abides by political Islam. Political Islam which dictates not only her communion with God, but also what people ought to wear in public, what laws should apply to everyone etc.

Earlier, I was against such a ban. Now I am having second thoughts and think that on the whole, the advantages of the ban outweigh the disadvantages. At times, it is necessary to make laws which override personal liberties. For example, we have laws which ban public drunkenness or public nudity. The Islamic community in the West is going through a tough time. There is extreme alienation from the mainstream. Many members of this community are in thrall to preachers who espouse extreme views. Until recently, the general mainstream approach was to tolerate such preachers in the name of cultural diversity. The unwillingness to assimilate was also accepted, though it was driven mainly by community elders who had migrated to the West for economic reasons and wanted to retain the values they had brought over from home. Their children however suffered and grew up to cause others to suffer.

One only needs to look to Turkey and the result of Kemal Pasha’s reforms to realise that measures such as this proposed ban can work. Turkey has a large middle class of modern Muslims who are very comfortable with the rest of the world. Turkish women are as progressive and have as much freedom as in say, Greece. However, one can also look to Turkey to see how such reforms can lead to a backlash if they are not accompanied by other measures to make those behind the veils a part of the wider community.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Operation Moshtarak: What’s the Real Objective?

Operation Moshtarak has been underway since Saturday, 13 February. Persian or Dari for ‘Together’, Moshtarak involves more than 15,000 Afghan and coalition soldiers and is meant to clear out insurgents from the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The first major offensive against the Taliban after the recent surge of 30,000 US troops, Moshtarak has the Afghan National Army outnumber coalition troops and play a pivotal role for the first time in such a large-scale operation. However, Moshtarak raises a number of questions.

For one, this operation has been given an enormous amount of advance publicity. For the last six odd weeks, the coalition leadership has talked of little else. Though there has been some speculation over whether the 1700 odd Taliban fighters in would stay and fight or flee, considering the fact that US soldiers are meant to leave Afghanistan by August 2011, the question seems to me to be a no-brainer. As expected, the Taliban have scattered mines and other IEDs all over the place and fled, leaving a small number behind to delay coalition advance. Progress has been slow so far on account of snipers and IEDs, but it doesn’t appear as if the Taliban are desperately trying to hold Marjah.

The US marines now have with them a new weapon, the Assault Breacher Vehicle, in their arsenal to deal with the threat of IEDs.

Why was the name Moshtarak chosen I wonder? Moshtarak is a Dari or Persian word. In Afghanistan, the Tajiks speak Dari (which is an archiac form of Persian). The Harazas too speak a Persian dialect. Tajiks and Hazaras form 45% or so of Afghanistan’s population. The Pashtuns speak Pushtu. Around 40% of Afghans are Pashtuns.

The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns whilst the Northern Alliance, which has been a western ally ever since the Taliban appeared on the scene, is composed of Tajiks, Hazaras and the Uzbeks (who speak Turkic and form 9% of the population). The Afghan National Army is dominated by the Tajiks. The challenge faced by the Coalition is to win over th Pashtun populace who are not very happy that the Afghan army is dominated by the Tajiks, their traditional rivals. Giving a Dari or Persian name for an operation does not seem to me to be a sensible idea given the circumstances. If it is meant to impress the Tajiks, it is a sad case of preaching to the converted.

Coalition leaders say that their priority is to clear Marjah of the Taliban and institute reconstruction and social welfare activities. To me, it appears as if the idea is to be shown as doing something in a way that keeps casualties low, until it is time to leave Afghanistan as per the dealine set by Obama when he anounced the recent troop surge. I don’t think this is a bad objective, considering how things have shaped out so far. In any event, this is the best any civilised democracy can do in a place like Afghanistan.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Paternity Leave

When maternity leave is controversial and evokes mixed reactions, paternity leave can be only even more so. In the UK, the Labour Party has proposed a law which allows fathers to take up to six months off, with three months paid at £123.06 a week, provided the mother returns to work when the father is on paternity leave. Currently, the UK allows fathers to take two weeks' paternity leave after the baby’s birth and receive Statutory Paternity Pay of £123.06 a week. Of course, it is very possible that this could be just an election pledge and might not be implemented after the elections, even if the Labour Party returns to power.

If this law is implemented, it will make British businesses very unhappy. Even though the Statutory Paternity Pay is not very high (£123.06 a week), this law will encourage many fathers to stay at home for six months and send their wives back to work. If implemented, it will definitely reduce the number of women who are forced to stop working after having a baby. However, unlike maternity leave which does not depend on whether the father is working or not, this extended paternity leave is available only if the mother returns to work, In other words, this benefit will not be available to men whose wives don’t work.

I have blogged about maternity leave in the past. The fundamental objective behind benefits such as maternity leave and paternity leave is to have all taxpayers share the cost of bringing up children. In a welfare state such as the UK, maternity benefits are much more generous than in countries like say, the United States. In the UK, Statutory Maternity Leave is for 52 weeks and Statutory Maternity Pay is for up to 39 weeks (9 months) of the maternity leave. In the UK, few politicians openly oppose maternity benefits, though I’ve heard many a single person and married men without kids, crib about them. However, paternity leave is unlikely to be half as welcome as maternity leave. Further, if this Labour Party proposal is implemented, businesses are unlikely to top it up as they do in the case of maternity leave. For example, even though Statutory Maternity Pay is only 90 per cent of average gross weekly earnings for the first six weeks and £123.06 per week for the remaining 33 weeks, it is very common for employers in the UK to give full pay for 3 months and in some cases for up to six months. I doubt if this will happen in the case of paternity leave.

Of course, for this proposal to be implemented, Labour needs to win the May 2010 elections. As of now, they are the underdogs and I don’t give them more than a 30% chance of success in the elections scheduled scheduled for May 2010.