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.