Editorials and Opinions

Cultural differences should not be overlooked with burqa

By Hattie Gawande
Published: November 2010

A French ban on the burqa and similar face and body coverings was cleared by the French Constitutional Council last week.
The ban will come into effect this spring, effectively prohibiting Islamic face coverings in public.
When the law is implemented, a fine of 150 euros (190 U.S. dollars) will be imposed on violators of the ban.
This new law has, of course, sparked international controversy.
From a man claiming to be Osama bin Laden to Amnesty International, many have demanded that France not go through with the ban.
Bloggers have had a field day with the news, shouting that the ban is a violation of human rights, Islamophobia, persecution.
How can a government that professes to be democratic pass a law prohibiting an article of clothing of such importance to many of the six million Muslims that live in France?
Conversely, France and its supporters claim that the burqa itself is a violation of human rights.
The French government has called it “a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil. They believe that making a woman wear a burqa is demeaning and dehumanizing, and they, rather paternalistically, believe that it is their duty to put a stop to it.
French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy said himself that “if there is even one woman in France, just one, who enters a hospital or city hall imprisoned in a burqa, she must be set free.
In response to the protests of many women that say they wear a burqa voluntarily, they compare the article of clothing to slavery: the “happy slave never criticized the practice, and neither do Muslim women.
It was my own instinct to cry “Islamophobia! along with Amnesty International and many others.
After all, I, as an American, champion the freedom to express my beliefs as I see fit.
However, there was one huge flaw in my reasoning, and that is this: France is not like the U.S. in its beliefs and values, which I think has to do with the history of how each developed their freedom of religion.
The U.S., since its revolution, has given its citizens the right to express their religious beliefs however they want, whenever they want, wherever they want’€in other words, they interpret the word “freedom literally.
The French government, once dominated by the Catholic Church, is now aggressively secularist to avoid a repeat of the past, when all were required to be Catholic.
They don’t want religion having anything to do with affairs of the state, as it did 200 years ago.
Citizens can now believe whatever they want and express their beliefs however they want behind closed doors, but in public they are only one thing: French.
The burqa, which is considered an “overt religious symbol, is a threat to that secularist belief.
France sees the “imprisonment of women in burqas as similar to the imprisonment of the French by the Catholic Church during the revolution, so they feel that their burqa ban is justified.
The U.S. doesn’t have the same history as France, so it doesn’t have the same fears and beliefs.
We were never ruled by the Church, so we don’t fear an overly religious public, instead we fear the opposite: the restriction of our freedom to express our beliefs outside our homes. Because of this, we believe that the French burqa ban is wrong.
This issue is not as simple as right and wrong. A lot of it has to do with context.
History and social norms both play a role in the U.S.’s and France’s opinions on the burqa ban.
For France, with its history and considerable Muslim population, this ban can be justified.
For America, with our belief in the freedom of expression and not-so-considerable Muslim population, this ban would be inappropriate.

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