Saturday, 27 June 2009

To Burqa or not To Burqa

east meets west
France's parliamentary inquiry into a burqa* ban has started a debate on this veil, which has crossed the channel into Britain. Sarkozy said:
The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity.
His comments do reflect the assumption most people would have. Yet does Sarkozy have a point and should we in the UK be having this debate on banning?

The burqa is not specifically mentioned in the Quran, the principle of female and male modesty are. Different scholars adopted different interpretations of the original texts and how much of the male or female body should be covered. There for the religious precedent is for modesty not the form it takes.

In a book I read** the female character describes wearing a burqa as protective, a world within a world. I was always struck by that description. I don't presume it's as simple as protection, it's far more complex including that for some women it's a choice, a sign of devotion. The problem is distinguishing between it being the choice of a woman or of a man.

In a western country wearing one will always be inescapably a political issue, it has too much stigma attached. Nor could a western culture embrace the association it has for excluding women from society. So where do you draw a line? Do you draw a line?

There are situations and environments were wearing one is being asked to be treated as an exception, showing your identity or banks for example, a cohesive society can't work like that, compromise can't be one way. Being able to enforce the rules in place already seems a fair balance. As I don't welcome setting the precedent for our government having the power to dictate on clothing.

Yet the public calls for a ban in this country aren't really about the burqa, as it's just a symptom, a prefect symbol of exclusion from British society in all it's forms. Behind this a much more important debate to have, what drivers it. The increasing fear people have over Britishness being eroded, one manifestation we've seen is the growing vote for the BNP.

Multiculturalism will never work if fears are ignored, it will just become a collection of cultures clashing and will continue to until the loudest voice is heard. A burqa debate could be a spring board to having that bigger one about immigration and culture, as nationalism grows when people feel vulnerable. It is far better that debate isn't just made by people who use it to divide.

* I use burqa as a board term covering all variations of face covering veils for ease.
** A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

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