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Bateel Skycraper


The Freedom to Dress

The Freedom to Dress

Issue 59 August 2009

Current introspection among some French politicians over banning the burqah seems like – as with so much in this contentious area of women’s clothing – a solution in need of a problem.


Even the politicians can’t agree what the problem is: when President Sarkozy first raised the issue he seemed to think it was a question of community and of integration, saying the full length veil “imprisoned” women. Then along came another politician, Jean-Francois Cope, the head of Sarkozy’s political party, who said a ban was necessary not for religious or community reasons, but because “veils pose a problem of security and public order”.

That remains the best argument in favour of restrictions on wearing the burqah – although it is notoriously weak, since the burqah as traditionally worn does not cover the wearer’s eyes, whereas motorcycle helmets do and, although some banks have polite notices to remove them before entering, no politician has yet suggested banning the public from wearing motorcycle helmets.

From the outside, it is easy to shrug at yet another badly thought through attempt to attract voters with the dog whistle of prejudice. (It’s hardly even a real problem: when a French TV crew went around Paris trying to find burqah wearers, they couldn’t even find one). But there is a bigger principle at stake here: liberty. The idea that, in a free society, the state could start to tell people what to wear, borders on the ridiculous.

France already has a ban on religious symbols in public institutions. But this prospective ban is a sea change. Be clear that this isn’t about wearing particular clothes in a work environment, or dressing appropriately as a condition of entry to some establishments (like restaurants): banning the wearing of the burqah in public would be to legislate what people, in their private lives, going about their own business, would be allowed to wear. The Sarkozys are a stylish couple – but are they now the arbiters of fashion in France?

It is not, to be frank, entirely clear what the difference is between one country forcing its citizens to remove the burqah and another (Afghanistan under the Taliban) forcing them to wear it.

In fact, the French authorities are trying to legislate a problem that has no legal solution. What the French debate is really about is the apparent drift among some minority groups towards distancing themselves from the majority culture. That has happened in Britain too – not just among more recent immigrants, but also among those sections of society where unemployment runs across generations. The rewards of society have not been evenly shared by everyone and this has led some communities to see themselves as different, as outsiders.

That is a damaging trend: damaging for social solidarity and damaging especially for those groups who are marginalised. But the problem will not be solved by legislation, because it is a social problem. The tiny, tiny percentage of French citizens who wear the burqah will be inconvenienced (and probably outraged) by being forced to remove it. Yet those who currently feel compelled to wear it will hardly be more free without it: the compulsion does not come from the garment, it comes from the social bonds that surround those women.

Even if you believe the idea that everyone who wears the burqah is forced to do so, it doesn’t follow that removing it makes a woman free. Any woman who feels compelled to wear the burqah for her family or her husband is going to be compelled to do many other things; her own desires will be oppressed in a thousand small ways. Stopping her wearing the burqah will not free her from those bonds.

Even in countries where people feel compelled to dress more conservatively, this compulsion is rarely legal. It is social. Women in those societies feel uncomfortable walking around dressed in certain ways, just as Soho clubbers would feel uncomfortable walking around a Sussex retirement village in their nightclub outfits. It is social compulsion that enforces a dress code.

The substantive issue is one of integration, of making all sections of society feel they have a stake in the country. To solve that, some French politicians have chosen one of the most divisive, but least useful, issues of modern France. And in seeking to ban the burqah, they are preparing to strike a blow at the very heart of what makes free societies free.

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1 Comment



6 Aug 09, 20:42

I have seen western educated Muslim women are in Burqa while their mothers never even covered their heads in Pakistan. I do not know whether it is due to western education or because they find themselves victim of racism. According to Lord Burtend Russell, western education makes a man stupid and selfish. The credit cruch in the world is due to the policies of blue eyed western educated elites. British schooling is also in a mess because of such western educated elites.

Burqa is not locking women, it is a buffer line between protecting chasity and exposing. Being naked and drunk is acceptabl but being covered and modest is inhuman.

French president wants Muslim women to be topless like his wife who posed topless in fashion shows. He has no right to ban the burqa because it is undemocratic and an unqualified attack on individual freedom. Burqa is not just a piece of cloth but a lot of ideological and cultural connotation to it. Women are just being exploited.
Iftikhar Ahmad

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