Last year, the French government passed a law which banned the wearing of burqas in their country. Burqas, first of all, are full-body coverings worn by some women in Islamic traditions to cover their bodies in public and conserve their modesty. They generally comprise of a full-body covering, plus a head-covering (hijab) and a face-veil (niqab). Some Muslim women choose only to wear a hijab, others choose to wear no covering at all. But that's just it- if a woman is choosing what she wants to wear, should she be denied the right to cover herself completely?
It's easy to understand why the French see it as a good thing to ban burqas; many French people, with no hostility towards Islam, simply feel that the burqa is not compatible with the republic's key values of equality, freedom and fraternity. It would be difficult to argue that is is equal, as no man will wear one, and although some wearers would demand the freedom to choose in favour, others might say that they were never given the oppurtunity to say no.
The idea of choice is both a strength and a limitation to the ban. It is positive in some ways, as it may grant women who felt oppressed by being forced to wear the burqa the strength of the law behind them in their choice to shun it. This is a key argument of the French government- they assert that some Muslim women are not allowed to choose whether or not to wear the burqa. However, herein lies a huge limitation- they can hardly argue choice, if they are criminalising the women who want to wear one.
Although it may be conjecture, it is easy to imagine some of the more sinister consequences of the ban. Perhaps, in some more fundamentalist households, women will be losing freedom rather than gaining it. Rather than being able to go outside alone fully covered, it's possible that they will now be confined to their own homes, unable to run errands and, frankly, do what they wish. In liberal countries like France, it's almost impossible to account for every person, and to know what goes on behind closed doors.
Alongside this possible negative consequence, there are many others. When a woman is fined a significant amount of money for continuing to wear the garment, it is hardly about to foster good feeling towards the state. Therefore, the idea that banning the burqa will promote integration is perhaps not well-founded. Rather than promoting integration and an inherent feeling of being "French", it shows that the state is intolerant, even paranoid. What motivation does this give these women and their families to make an effort to contribute positively to society? The government's attitude could be doing more harm than good, turning French Muslims against the government- even towards a more radical agenda. Throughout history, when people are oppressed they have rarely remained on the fence; instead they begin to adhere to particularly liberal or particularly conservative political views. In this way, the radicalism which the French government seem so eager to get rid of could in fact grow in strength.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a liberal, atheist feminist- many of us at the Skepchick network are. I wouldn't choose to wear a full-body covering, I would even venture as far as to say that they could be considered oppressive; a way for men to control women. However, I would never, ever be inclined to deny a woman -or anyone- the right to choose what they wear, for whatever reason. The burqa itself isn't harmful, it is only what it symbolises that has the potential to be. When a woman wants to wear one, the negative connotations are irrelevant; it is no longer related to control and oppression. It's related to free speech and freedom of expression, which is a right every person should have, whether others agree with it or not.
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