France’s Burqa and Burqini Ban: Illiberal and counter-productive.
France has toyed with the idea of banning the burqa at various times in the last ten or fifteen years. Now a few towns in France have banned the burqini. The burqini is essentially a spandex body suit, with a hijab or hair covering. The idea of bans has always been both appealing to me, and troubling. The weight of my feelings about the idea of a burqa ban in France slanted always toward unease and opposition, though not always intense unease. I’m a fairly sharp critic of Islam, but I often find myself defending Muslims from illiberal polices proposed by conservatives in the US, who seem to not want intense competition in the conservative, woman-hating theocracy game. Understandable given the historical context. Christianity’s collision with modernity has left it largely-though not completely- toothless. It just doesn’t manufacture zealots like it used to. Well, not violent ones anyway. Islam globally doesn’t seem to have this problem, and even in Western Europe Islam can reliably produce radicalized people, willing to get into trucks to drive over people, find firearms to shoot people, or deliver bombs, or be bombs to blow up their neighbors. But that is all on one side. The burqa ban doesn’t really, can’t really address concerns about terrorism. Muslim women just aren’t often sources of radicalized violence. Any ban of the burqa, or its sibling the burqini can’t really be justified by the idea that such bans would have even a mild effect on radical violence.
So why has the idea of a burqa ban even kind of appealed to me? Because even if you factor out terrorism, Islam is, from the perspective of a secular humanist, a multifaceted problem. It tends to be conservative in nature, taking a dim view of classical liberal ideas (by liberal I am referring to the ideas of John Stuart Mill, and the civil libertarians- not to be confused with the confusing modern libertarians). The luminaries of Islam seem to look at freedom of speech, of the press, with a bit of skepticism, if not outright derision. The idea of a separation between Church and State seems anathema to many Muslims. Fortunately for the West, Christianity grew up in the shadow of state power, and that guarded that power jealously. As such the framers of Christian doctrine had to thread the needle vary carefully. Christian leaders certainly wanted temporal power, and influence, but they also wanted to avoid being annihilated, and so the bible is replete with face saving ways for the Church and the people it influenced to exist within a State. Islam doesn’t seem to share this evolution. It evolved not in the shadow of another power, but was the power that grew. That is probably an oversimplification readers can correct in the comments section.
In western Europe, perhaps more than the US, Islam tends to toward a conservative view of its scriptures. Women are less than men, must be chaperoned, must be covered. Communities are insular. It is that insularity, coupled with religious conservatism that has always made me question whether or not Muslim women in Western Europe really have much of a choice in the matter of what they wear. If you can be shunned, beaten or in cases that aren’t rare enough, even be killed, and have few avenues of redress if you are bullied or tyrannized by family and community how much choice can you really be said to have in the matter of what you wear? This treatment of women, has very real costs for women in Islamic communities. Being chaperoned means they cannot speak freely with doctors, police, or other care givers. Face covering deprives people dealing with Muslim women of a very key piece of human communication, as well as making it sometimes difficult to know even to whom you are speaking. But really my major concern, above all the troubles the burqa might create in western societies, is the idea that women wearing them may not really want to wear them but feel they have no recourse. The choice to wear a burqa, or even the less restrictive burqini may not really exist. This is largely why I sometimes find myself not as strenuously objecting, while still objecting, to calls for bans. In these moments I wonder if a ban were passed would it not provide Muslim women a breathing space to exercise their own autonomy.
Thinking honestly about a subject means entertaining doubts though, and so I continue to have this debate with myself every time calls to ban burqas come up. To this mix I can now add the burqini which has actually been banned from beaches in some French towns. While I think all these woman hating clothes are awful I can’t support a ban on them because such a policy would necessarily violate a person’s right to practice their religion, while unfairly singling Muslims out. One can’t imagine that the ankle length denim skirts worn by women in hardline Pentecostal communities represents an overabundance of choice for the women who wear them. Yet, we are largely silent on the matter of those women. It is hard to imagine a way any ban on Muslim dress can foment meaningful changes in the conservative attitudes about women that seem rife in Islam. Such bans, will only increase insularity, prevent Muslim women from interacting with a broader community, and increase opposition to secular governance, and secular values. It would probably also represent a source of radicalizing propaganda. On top of this bans would necessarily penalize the people I would most like to help, Muslim women. Banning the burqa, and burqini would mean that Muslim women would go out less, enjoy less.