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Re-Update: France and the niqab

Just in case anyone is interested in continuing to follow this story:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered legislation that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils that fully cover the face and body in public places, the government said Wednesday.

Belgium has recently gone down the same road. Of course, I’ve had my issues with Belgium before, where I felt they were poised to infringe upon free speech and censor their own history. There’s a debate brewing up in Australia as well, although I am not entirely convinced that the robber in this story wasn’t trying to make a political point. I’ve never heard of anyone in Canada using a burqa as a criminal disguise, but I’ve only been paying attention to this issue for a short while.

There’s another side to this issue that I want to discuss, but I’m not sure how qualified I am to do so – the issue of women’s rights. Many people cite the burqa as a symbol of male repression, disguised in religious trappings. Muslim men are not exhorted to cover their bodies from head to foot (although modest dress is recommended for both sexes). Surely the sight of a good-looking Muslim guy inspires just as much lust in the women of the world as vice versa. The glaring double-standard reeks of hypocrisy. However, the counter-argument is that many Muslim women who are not required to wear the burqa (or the hijab, or the niqab, or any of the other permutations) choose to do so. Taking away their right to dress as they see fit, say critics, is just as much an abrogation of women’s rights as requiring them to cover up.

My feeling on this issue, as articulated by Sam Harris, is that “choosing” to wear a burqa is like a person “choosing” to remain celibate or “choosing” to give money to the church: religious teachings are drummed into you from birth, and it’s not possible to make a truly informed and un-coerced “choice” when the weight of your entire family and community is on your back. Again, this reeks of paternalism “you aren’t capable of making a choice, so I’m going to make it for you.” I believe that’s what they told black people in the Jim Crow era.

I have mixed feelings about this. I suppose this is precisely what I recommended, but I’m uneasy about the government passing bills that outlaw religious practice – I just don’t think we should make laws that encourage it. This one is a very difficult line to draw and I’m really not sure what side I’m on. On the one hand, it sends a clear and unequivocal message to the Muslim world that the secular world will not sit idly by and capitulate to their ludicrous demands to allow women to be demonized and exploited. On the other hand, any time a law is passed that targets one particular group rather than setting a standard for all, my hackles get raised.

I’d love to hear some feedback from you on this.