Whether or not it is a good strategy to ban burqas is something that I have heard hotly debated, even amongst fervent SJWs. On the one hand, burqas are used as a tool of oppression of women, and are inconsistent with secular, western values. On the other hand, legally forcing women to uncover their faces when they are uncomfortable in doing so seems harsh, a western cultural imposition on women from other countries, and has led to a further marginalization of Muslim women in Europe. It can feel like further picking on an already very disenfranchised group of people. I also find myself torn between these two points of view, both of which, in my opinion, have some merit. However, I noticed that my position on the matter also wavers based on how, or why, burqa bans are passed and enforced. Often we talk about the French ban on burqas, but it is important to note that other countries also have these laws, though they came about for very different reasons.
In 2010, France passed a law which prohibits people from covering their faces in public. While the law was couched in a lot of language meant to disguise the fact that it was specifically targeting Muslim women, the intent was quite plain. While women who wear a face veil face fines, men who force women to wear veils face jail time, and an “educational period” was introduced to explain to Muslim women that they will no longer be allowed to cover their faces in public. Then President Sarkozy made it quite plain that the purpose behind the law was specifically about Muslims, saying “France is a country where there is no place for the burqa, where there is no place for the subservience of women,”
This, of course, led to several consequences in France. It seemed to embolden people who already held prejudices against Muslims, and some violent attacks on women wearing veils did follow. While these kinds of attacks do also happen in countries which do not have a “burqa ban”, the fact that wearing a veil was illegal definitely stoked the flames of French Islamophobia. If this was supposedly an effort to help some of the most disenfranchised citizens in France, it didn’t seem to be working, and the laws were condemned by many, including Ammesty International. In this context, I find myself against the burqa ban.
However, I start to waver when I speak to Italians about this issue.
In the days of Sarkozy, Berlusconi wanted to win brownie points and throw his hat in the race for biggest bigot of the year. However, the fact of the matter is, covering your face in public has already been illegal in Italy since 1975. The law does not specifically refer to burqas or niqabs, because the law had absolutely nothing to do with Muslims, but rather was imposed to combat things like bank robberies, and a rash of homegrown national terrorism. Some articles referred to Berlusconi’s actions as an attempt to “revive a defunct old law from the 70s” but that is incorrect, Italians know perfectly well that it is illegal to cover one’s face in public, and it is so commonplace in the culture that many are amazed that the same laws do not already exist in other countries. While Berlusconi’s attempt to include language in the original law which specifically includes burqas and niqabs fizzled out and died, the heart of the question is still fundamentally different. It is no longer a question of “should we pass a law to target this specific group of people”, but rather “should we provide a religious exemption to our existing laws to accommodate Muslim women who wear burqas?”
Italian law remains ambiguous on this point (at least as of 2015), but when seen from this perspective, I find myself wavering to the other side. I’m generally against religious exemptions, I think that laws either make sense or they don’t. Native Americans want to smoke peyote? I don’t think that there should be a law prohibiting anyone from smoking peyote, so sure let them do it, but let everyone do it whether for religious purposes or not. Christian pharmacists don’t want to sell birth control? Well fuck you, if you want to be a pharmacist you have to be able to do your job, and that includes selling birth control, so either suck it up or find yourself another job, no religious exemption for you. So now, when it comes to burqas in Italy, I find myself torn: Should we not allow Muslim women to cover their faces, because we’re generally against religious exemptions, or should we scrap the 1975 law altogether, because it doesn’t make sense to have it anymore?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I wasn’t around in pre-1975 Italy, I have no idea what it was like, how much the law helped, or what kinds of repercussions would follow if the law were scrapped, if any. I don’t know if forcing Muslim women to obey the law in Italy would lead to a similar violent fervor as the one we saw in France, though I definitely think that not making such a big deal about it is less likely to foment anti-Muslim hatred. Approaching the situation from a perspective of “these are our laws, and everyone has to respect them if they want to move here, that includes you” is very different from one that says “What’s with all these burqas amirite? We’re banning them! Screw you and your customs!” This is not to excuse Berlusconi and the Italian right for making a valiant effort to foment anti-Muslim hatred in Italy, I am perfectly aware that they did so, but that does not mean that there is not a more mature way to handle the question in an Italian legal context.
So, despite it all, I am torn. Am I pro or anti the burqa ban? Context matters, always, but I cannot find a firm position on it, given the multifaceted nature of the issue. Your thoughts are always welcome.