Yes, That’s Me in the Burqa

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I am an incipient First Amendment lawyer and a staunch church-state separatist. I surpass even my most progressive friends and colleagues in my unflinching and unwavering support of the freedom of speech and expression, including religious expression. I am pretty much the only person I know who hates hate crime legislation as little more than bald-faced thought crime legislation. I am not infrequently verbally vilified for asserting the claim that morality has no place in the law.

And, I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. And, I would support a public burqa ban in the United States. In fact, I would support a global public burqa ban.

(I will pause briefly for what I am sure are the many gasps of incredulity.)

I am working in Paris, France for a year as an international human rights fellow at Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) is a well-known international human rights organization, which advocates unequivocally for women’s rights as universal human rights without compromise. They condemn both cultural relativism and obscurantism. They wholeheartedly support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. One of the reasons why I wished to work there is because I wanted to support this effort.

We have been marching and rallying and demonstrating and speaking and speechifying and writing and posting and blogging and publishing up a storm. We marched in front of the National Assembly (their lower house of Parliament) in burqas. We marched in front of the Socialist Party headquarters in burqas. We marched in front of the UMP Party headquarters in burqas. Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who was threatened with 40 lashes of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, has embraced the effort while she is visiting France as the guest of NPNS. I have been doing my utmost to spread the word throughout the English-speaking world and especially within the US. Unfortunately, the greater part of the US, including Obama, is woefully misguided on this issue. The US should pay greater attention to the European debate on this subject, instead of dismissing it offhand.

The US needs to hear the message of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. NPNS rose up out of a ferocious grassroots response to the unfathomable violence being perpetrated against the women and girls of the quartiers and cités in the banlieues (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France’s major cities, which are comprised predominantly of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities). Ni Putes Ni Soumises continues to be led by the women of the quartiers from sub-Saharan and North African Muslim immigrant backgrounds. They are not anti-Islam. They claim their religion, and they claim the right to interpret their religion for themselves. They wholly reject the burqa as a barbaric patriarchal cultural tradition that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.

To me, the issue of whether or not the burqa/niqab is mandated by Islam is irrelevant. In fact, in this instance, as far as I am concerned, Islam is irrelevant. We don’t make laws based upon whether or not they coincide with Islamic doctrine or scripture or apocrypha or tradition or custom or what have you. We make laws based upon secular principles and concerns and objectives. Likewise, Ni Putes Ni Soumises fights on behalf of secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational elements of a truly egalitarian public space, in which all citizens may participate as equals.

The burqa ban should be a non-issue. To me, it’s such a simple issue that it’s stupid simple. It’s ridiculously simple. Of course there should be a ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public. Of course. I don’t even think of it as a ban. It’s a requirement to reveal one’s identity in the public space.

But, before I get ahead of myself, I’m setting some ground rules. I am speaking of the burqa/niqab ban. I am not addressing the hijab or the chador (which do not hide the face). I am not addressing issues of national identity or immigration. I have entirely different takes on those very important issues, but I am not addressing those issues here. I am addressing simply a proposed ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public. I am addressing a proposed ban on public self-effacement, a requirement to reveal one’s identity in the public space.

The argument against the burqa ban always takes a very decided path, which I will follow quite plainly here, addressing each concern as I go.

1. A lot of people will be exempt from the ban, so why not Muslim women?

The argument that the person drilling into the sidewalk is wearing a mask, and has been exempted from the ban on face coverings, so everyone else should also be able to walk around in public with identity obscuring face coverings is asinine.

The person in a bright orange vest surrounded by orange traffic cones and yellow caution tape standing next to a dump truck emblazoned with the local municipality’s name and operating heavy machinery in the midst of his or her similarly attired co-workers, one of whom is the foreperson who is ready to present his or her official documents of authority for engaging in such activity – an activity that had been publicized in advance in the local press, no doubt, is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Can we move beyond this point already?

A doctor wearing a mask while performing surgery (or a masked EMT/paramedic or some other similarly masked medical professional) is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Are you with me yet?

A skier fully decked out in skiing regalia and flying past you on the slopes at a ski resort while wearing a face mask as protection against the biting wind is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Is this clear already? And, by the way, I grew up in Minnesota, so I understand this point well. The cold winters. Not the skiing.

What’s next? Oh, yeah.

2. You just have a problem with banning things.

I’m not sure which nation you happen to reside in or which planet you happen to reside on, but if this is a serious issue for you – “the banning of things” – then you have bigger fish to fry than the burqa. Additionally, I see the burqa ban not so much as a ban, but as a requirement to reveal one’s identity in the public space.

3. You see the burqa ban as a limitation on the free exercise of religious faith.

A legitimate government CAN and MAY and MUST be able to tell its citizens what is and is not permissible behavior in public, EVEN IF these laws incidentally encroach upon expressions of religious faith.

The freedom of religious expression is not unlimited. This would result in anarchy. Each and every single law in existence encroaches upon someone’s ability to express his or her religious faith. Snake handling? Girl child marriages? Hunting bald eagles? Female genital mutilation? Smoking peyote? Polygamy? Public nudity? Compulsory childhood education? Military draft? Vaccinations? Photo ID’s? Taxes? I could go on ad nauseum.

Nowadays, religion is just as likely as not to be defined as an all-encompassing tautology of spiritual mysticism. Whatever that means. It’s hard for legislators to come up with laws that don’t violate someone’s expression of their all-encompassing tautology of spiritual mysticism.

If a law is being enacted for a wholly secular purpose, and it happens to impinge upon someone’s religious expression – too bad, so sad. We don’t live in a theocracy. We don’t make laws, which pay any heed whatsoever to religious doctrine. Thank gods.

The burqa ban is analogous to drivers’ licenses and childhood vaccinations. If you don’t want to follow the rules, fine, but then you don’t get to play. No one is forcing you to play. But, if you want to play the game (i.e. participate in society), you have to follow the rules.

A ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public is not a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The government turning a knowing blind eye away from egregious human and civil rights violations being perpetrated under cover of religious liberty is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Batter up.

4. You don’t see the issue of the rapidly increasing use of identity obscuring face

coverings in the public space as an issue of public welfare or safety or security or protecting our democracy.

First of all, you’re wrong. If I had to write down a recipe for lawlessness, I think I would start by having everyone walk around with black tarps over their heads. There’s a reason why burglars and bank robbers and suicide bombers wear masks. If you still fail to grasp this point, I suggest you try an experiment. Try walking into any federal building with a sheet over your head and let me know how that works out for you.

I have a right to know with whom I am interacting in the public space. The public space does not only belong to those citizens who wish to wear the burqa or niqab. The public space belongs to all citizens. It belongs to all persons. Revelation of one’s identity is pretty much the most rudimentary step towards participation in society.

A high level of trust is one of the defining attributes of a highly functioning, socially cohesive society. How much trust do you think is engendered by the citizenry walking around with black tarps over their heads?

If you remain unconvinced on the point about security, how about as an issue of protecting our democracy?

It is beyond ludicrous to think that any society can maintain a liberal constitutional democracy with its electorate walking around in public with their identities wholly obscured. You first have to claim your humanity before you can claim your human rights. You first have to claim your citizenship before you can claim your civil rights. This is not possible without claiming one’s identity. Identity is power. Why do you think misogynists impose the burqa upon women? To render them powerless.

5. But, it’s just a handful of women, you say.

So, doesn’t that seem like a good time to nip the problem in the bud? Before it becomes an even more serious issue? And, when has it ever been ok to violate the human rights of just a few persons?

6. But, these women will be sequestered in their homes, because their

husbands and families will not allow them to venture outside without burqas, thereby rendering these women prisoners without contact with the wider society, nor access to public services.

I find this particular argument to be something of a thinly veiled threat. It reeks of the same sort of fear mongering and paternalism that takes place every time women’s rights take a step forward. Men will force women to take the pill. Men will treat women like dirty whores, if they can’t get them pregnant. Men will force women to have abortions. And, now, when I speak of our need in the US for over the counter abortifacients, I hear the same horror stories: men will force women to take them. Truth be told, in France, when the law against ostentatious religious symbols in public schools was enacted, the same horror stories were recited: the families that demand that their daughters wear hijab will simply pull them out of school. By and large – never happened. But, the French legislators are proposing a burqa ban, which meets the needs of the fear mongering paternalists: the second portion of the French bill includes a severe penalty for forcing a woman to wear a burqa or any garment whatsoever by reason of her gender.

7. But, you’re still just incensed, absolutely incensed, about the ostensibly (to you)

unnecessary limitations on the freedom of expression and religion of Muslim women.

Where were you when the massive waves of protests were overwhelming our major cities to protect the right of Native Americans to hunt bald eagles? Where were you when the write in campaigns were flooding the offices of our legislators in Congress to protect the right of Native Americans to smoke peyote?

Oh, that’s right. You weren’t there. Because that never happened. Because no one cared.

Oh, and as a side note, it seems pretty obvious to me that a handful of Native Americans smoking peyote or handling (not hunting) bald eagle feathers is far less of a public safety issue than identity obscuring face coverings.

But, for some reason, you’ve decided that you need to take up the cause of the Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab in Western nations. You are tremendously invested in their ability to express their religious faith, even though you understand that, for the vast majority of Muslim women, the “choice” to don the burqa or no is anything but free.

I would strongly encourage you to search deep within your freedom loving soul to examine the true nature of this stance.

I just find it interesting that no one has any issue with the whole litany of laws, be they federal, state or local, that encroach upon religious expression, but everyone has an ardent opinion on a simple public ban of identity obscuring face coverings, a ban which should be a non-issue.

Why is that?

Could it be because it violates our deeply rooted notions of women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities?

I’m just asking.

Or, maybe you’re afraid of Muslims.

That’s Islamophobia — treating Muslims as if their hypersensitive feelings have to be endlessly coddled lest they blow something up.

Why don’t we treat the Muslim community like intelligent, sophisticated adults who can appreciate the merits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy?

And, just for the record, I’m tired of the suggestions that I’m being played for a fool by the fascist, anti-immigrant Religious Right, as if their tantrums were a good reason to abandon women to misogyny and sex slavery.

Since I’m encouraging soul searching, I want to assure you, dear reader, that I, too, have engaged in some soul searching of my own. I have scoured and examined my motives. I have interrogated my super-ego, my id and my inner child.

I’ll admit it: I hate the burqa and the niqab. I hate everything it represents. The oppression of women. The demonization of female sexuality.

But, this, in and of itself, would not be reason enough to restrict a woman’s choice to wear it as an expression of her religious faith. And, I do understand that issues of coercion and consent are muddy waters indeed. (I’ll save my argument that the liberation of women is a compelling government interest in and of itself for another day.)

But, having turned my (nonexistent) soul inside out, looking for ulterior motives, I am comfortable with my stance on the burqa/niqab ban. The burqa ban is a straightforward issue of public safety and security coupled with democratic representation. The fact that this seemingly benign issue gets so much media and political play is a direct result of our continued and ugly perception of women’s bodies as communal property.

And, I mean, think about it for more than one second. Move past the knee jerk reaction.

All of the same arguments could be made both for and against regulations requiring parents to vaccinate their children before enrolling them in public schools. If it is against your religious beliefs to vaccinate your children, fine. Don’t vaccinate your kids. No one is forcing you to vaccinate your children. But, then, congratulations! You just won the grand prize of being able to home school your kids, because you don’t get to send your unvaccinated kids to public schools. If you don’t want to follow the rules, no problem, no one is forcing you to play. Someone could argue that this is an undue burden upon the parents that will disproportionately fall upon the mothers, confining the women to roles as housewives. Someone could argue that this is an unfair constraint upon the children, punishing the kids for their parents’ ignorance, further isolating them from the wider society. It is unfortunate, that is true, but these women and these kids are not the only parts of the equation. The other kids, the vaccinated kids, or kids who simply cannot be vaccinated (for health reasons, etc.), should not have to suffer for the sake of someone else’s religious beliefs. The argument that some kids cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, so those whose parents harbor religious concerns about vaccination should be exempted as well, is plainly stupid. The goal is to minimize the number of unvaccinated children in the community, so as to increase the potency of the community’s herd immunity.

Same scenario removed from the context of women’s bodies and female sexuality. Are you shocked by how differently you feel about the subject? You should be.

I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France.

I am reclaiming this discourse, which has been hijacked by the cultural relativists and the obscurantists. I will not be booed out of the theater. I will be heard. Let the name-calling commence.

I am not afraid of you.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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