To Burqa or Not to Burqa

By Rabea Chaudhry, Photo Courtesy of AZRainman.

Earlier this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy lambasted the burqa while voicing his support of lawmakers who seek to study the growing trend of burqas in the country and prohibit the wearing of the garment in France. Sarkozy stated that "in our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity."

Still raw from the 2004 French hijab ban that prohibited the headscarf and other religious paraphernalia from being worn in public schools, some of France's five million Muslims are speaking out against the potential legislation. The French Council for Muslim Religion, for instance, warned that probing the burqa issue would only stigmatize Muslims further. Muslim leaders around the world have also voiced their opposition to Sarkozy's remarks, and cautioned against such a ban.

But as Sarkozy declared to the French Parliament, "the problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it is a problem of the dignity of women. It is a symbol of subservience, of submission. The burqa will not be welcome in our French republic." However, France is a secular nation and, as such, the French government has no right to espouse interpretations of any religion. As a French law on the separation of church and state reads, "the Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion." Why, then, does the French government presume the right to delve into theological discussions of Islam?

The French government's actions are reminiscent of the colonial mindset; Sarkozy's comments not only belittle the capacity and autonomy of Muslims around the world, they also seek to impose an interpretation of Islam onto the Muslims in his country. It's as if the French government is saying to it's five million Muslims: "You can stay here as long as you let us tell you what your religion is really about and where you are allowed to practice it." This type of dehumanization and reduction of the Muslim identity and intellect will not streamline the integration of Muslims into western societies; it will only further the stigmatization of the Muslim "other" as morally and cognitively inferior.

Although the burqa is too often used as a tool of oppression against Muslim women around the world, particularly in those societies where women are most at risk and vulnerable, the French government does not have the right or the appropriate authority to discuss what Islam really stands for. If Sarkozy had spoken about the burqa as a private citizen, and not a president, his words could have been taken on face value and not measured by their political implications.

However, the moment he turned Muslim religious interpretation and Muslim dress into a policy issue, he violated the fundamentals of his nation's secularism and the integrity and humanity of Muslims around the world. He took away Muslims' right to speak for themselves by presuming that he could speak on their behalf. And although a burqa ban would work in my best interest as a Muslim woman who sees nothing fair or just or beautiful in "religious" mandates that obligate women to experience life through burqas, a secular government's interpretation of any "Islamic" edict represents the high likelihood of even greater infringements of the right to practice Islam in the future.

That being said, just as Muslims have a personal and collective responsibility to oppose attempts by outside institutions to speak on our behalf without acknowledging our right to think and act for ourselves, they must also resist patriarchal institutions within their religious communities that continue to silence half of their population. France's discussions of a burqa ban stem from an internal need for Muslims to address outstanding, blatant inequities in religious interpretations. We Muslims must take an honest look in the mirror and begin to cleanse our collective beliefs of the toxins that plague our families, communities, and societies. We cannot continue to impose outdated and sexist ideals of female modesty and containment on our women.

Too often contemporary Muslim discourse reduces women to the status of second-class citizens who are not entitled to even the basics of mobility. The burqa quarantines a Muslim woman and is not only a physical barrier to women's access to society but also a mental one. The understanding of women's roles in society that logically results from the burqa does little to encourage the development and nurturing of Muslim women. Consequently, Muslim women are conditioned to accept a subservient status in physical and psychological religious spaces. They learn at an early age not to question female-only spaces in mosques that lack adequate ventilation, to cope with little to no access to the male scholars who dominate our religious institutions, and to overlook the growing void that has resulted from the Muslim community's consistent neglect of our women.