Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Should France Ban Burkas?

Yesterday, French President Sarkozy made a speech in which he spoke out strongly against the wearing of the burka by Muslim women in France. Subsequent to that, The French National Assembly has appointed a fact-finding mission, consisting of 32 lawmakers, to look at ways of restricting the use of burkas in France.

I strongly believe that it would be very wrong for France (or any other government) to ban, discourage or restrict any form of ethnic or religious clothing (or practice), if they do it with the following niat:
  1. out of intolerance or hate for Islam, or the religions of any minority groups, or
  2. to force minorities to adopt the majority culture, thereby assimilating them.
If my religion requires the wearing of the burka, my religious community must be free to encourage & promote it without undue interference from government, as long as we respect just laws & human rights. The secular nature of a country must never, never be used an an excuse for the denial of anyone's religious & cultural rights.

However, we cannot deny that some women are still oppressed, both by their families & communities. Sometimes, this oppression is even justified in the name of religion, culture and tradition. An example would be the old Hindu/Indian practice of suttee, where a widow would be burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband. If France were to face a suttee problem today & ban it, I'm sure all of us would praise France, because we all (hopefully) realize that killing people violates their human rights.

Granted, suttee is a very extreme & old example, but there are many other examples of the oppression of women still existing today, such as forced marriages, "honour killings", female genital mutilation, "domestic" violence, exclusion from national & public life, subservience at home, unequal treatment, etc. We face similar injustices in Malaysia too.

So, In my opinion, the French burka issue must be decided based on 2 questions:
  1. What is the motive & objective of the French government? Do they have a hidden agenda behind this condemnation of the burka?
  2. What do Muslim women in France really want? Does the burka in any way oppress them & are they in any way being coerced into wearing it?
In order to find the answers, there needs to be respectful, open & honest dialogue, within communities & between them, with no prejudice & stigma attached to minority cultures & religions. At the same time, religious communities should take the initiative to engage with governments to discuss issues vital to national harmony. Most importantly, the views & wishes of Muslim women (who are directly affected by this ruling) must be heard & respected.

The end result must be the freedom to rightfully practice ones religion & culture, and the upholding of human rights. Each of us has the right to choose what we believe in, wear & do; therefore, if I want, of my own free will, to wear a burka, no government should ever unreasonably stop me.

Malaysian Heart

P.S. Graphics of various Islamic headscarf styles taken from here, where you will also find short descriptions of each style.

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