Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Banning the burqa is scapegoating

The issue of women wearing the full-body burqa, which is up for the debate in the French parliament this week, has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opinions. It’s not too surprising, given that the question of covering up or not raises religious, cultural and sexual issues.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party has proposed a ban on the burqa. Significantly, white men in suits, headed up by UMP faction leader Jean-François Copé and Communist Party MP André Gerin, are leading the charge.

Gerin calls women wearing burqas “French-style Talibans”. Deputies are calling for a total ban and suggest not only a £750 fine, but also that women who wear burqas should not receive child support payments and be refused citizenship.

Wearing the veil is said to offend French traditions of freedom and democracy, restricts women’s rights and sexual equality, offers a disguise for would-be terrorists, does not fit in with European culture, is a sign that immigrants are unwilling to integrate into their host countries, etc, etc.

So under the guise of progressive, feminist, liberal and security arguments, a tiny number of women are being singled out and persecuted. According to Muslim Women’s Network UK the number of women wearing the full veil in France stands at around 367 out of a population of over 62 million. Other sources put the figure at around 9,000, but it still amounts to victimising a religious minority simply because a few women choose to cover their bodies.

Even if they are pressurised by their husbands or religious leaders, this is not a matter in which the state, the police or legal bodies has the right to interfere. There is also evidence that many young girls in countries like the Britain and France wear veils through their own choice rather than parental pressure.

The enthusiasm for telling women what is good for them and what they should wear is not confined to the right-wingers and Stalinists in France. In Belgium a legal ban is awaiting Senate approval. The issue of veiling is just as hotly contested in neighbouring Spain and Italy. Nine municipalities in Catalonia, including the capital Barcelona, have banned the wearing of the burqa in public places. Catalonia’s parliament, however, rejected a regional ban last week.  

The gung-ho attitude of Catalonian councils – including socialist-led ones – seems very peculiar, given the fact that there are no Muslims or burqa wearers at all in many of the villages concerned! It cannot be a coincidence that burqa bashing is taking place during election year in Catalonia, Spain, a country experiencing the worst recession in Europe, with unemployment standing near 20%.

Of course we have our own would-be off-with the veilers here in Britain. UKIP leader Lord Pearson has said that wearing the burqa is “incompatible with Britain’s values of freedom and democracy”. Tory Phillip Hollobone, MP for Kettering, (where only two women actually wear burqas!) has introduced a private member’s bill to ban the burqa and the niqab in the Britain, on the grounds that it goes against “the British way of life”.

Some Muslim feminists like Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claim such practices “violate the fundamentals of good societies everywhere”. As to who sets out these “fundamentals” is, of course, another question. 

As always, discriminating against a small minority on grounds of dress or religion is simply a smokescreen for really major issues for which the political class have no answers. Targeting minorities for what they wear is an inflammatory way of whipping up racist sentiments under the cover of self-righteous “Western” values.  As unemployment rises and the austerity budget bites, the old tactic of finding scapegoats is rearing its ugly head.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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