Yesterday, the British Parliament debated the ban of a garment, something that the British Parliament had not discussed since Victorian times. This time it was not the length of skirts or sleeves that the honorable parliamentarians addressed, but rather the well known (but rarely seen in western cities) burqa; banned in France, threatened in the rest of Europe, and now also under threat in the UK.
As other attempts, however, yesterday’s debate failed in imposing a burqa ban in the UK, and as the minister confirmed, Great Britain will not follow France.
The burqa is not an Islamic fashion per-se, but rather a tradition not opposed by Islamic teaching, which is probably the best way to present it. Covering the face, and in particular the mouth, has a geographical and environmental genealogy (such as the protection of skin and eyes from the dust and sand of, for instance, the Afghan desert). If such a garment is anything in Islam, it is a scholarly theological diatribe, with some sheikhs ready to wrap a baby in it, and others stating that it is not Islamic dress per-se. This discussion in western countries has many origins: from ideological traditions, as in the case of the French ban, where the state must impose laïcité; to Australia, where burqas seem to amuse children, create multicultural headaches, and facilitate intolerant bigotry. On the other side of the spectrum, any criticism of the supposedly spiritual garment provokes indignation, post-colonial theorizing, and often accusations of ‘Islamophobia‘.
The debate about the burqa is well known, with all its contradictions, which I will not debate here, since I have done so in other parts of my blog (see The Atomic Burqa, Burqu’ing freedom, and Muslims as ‘cultural objects’). What I wish to discuss here is the contradictions of our liberal societies and also the fact that the topic is never discussed from an individual perspective and as an individual right.
We can start from a simple observation: how many of those whom discuss the burqa have spoken to a woman wearing it? Probably very few, and I expect none of those sitting in parliament in the UK or Australia, let alone France. How many of those whom discuss the burqa have ever worn one? Probably even fewer. In conclusion, we can easily estimate that the majority of those involved in the discussion (and this includes the majority of Muslims involved in the discussion) have never worn it or in some cases never even spoken to a woman wearing it. Personally I had this opportunity, yet I have never worn one myself. For whomever may be curious, it is not difficult to find experiences in wearing a burqa, like for instance this quite amusing one.
To be clear, even among my informants some reported that the burqa is uncomfortable, often hot, and may sometimes make even the most simple things, like eating, drinking and using a public toilet, somewhat tricky. Yet we ought notice that a burqa, as uncomfortable as it might be to some, has fewer health risks than other widely accepted female garments of torture. However, I will not discuss here the fact that in both cases the female decision to ‘torture herself’ can be interpreted though many accusatory feminist theories, which have all one single conclusion: the condemnation of 50% of humanity as genetic oppressors.
Instead, I wish to look at the discussion from an individual perspective, which means asking in what way such garments make these women feel happier or better about themselves. Since here we discuss Muslim dress, I will limit myself to the experience of those women I spoke to. A selection of the reasons I’ve collected for wearing a burqa include: “it is part of my style”, “I would feel naked without it”, “I feel protected”, “Allah will reward my sacrifice”, “it gives me freedom while reassuring my relatives”, as well as “I feel I am not a sexual object”, just to mention some. In these cases, the women had an individual right to dress as they wished and for the reasons they wanted. As you can see, the reason may be very different from one person to another, but in general (other than in cases in which it may be forcibly imposed) the women wearing it felt their compromise was worth it.
This leaves me with the question of when politicians, the general public and chronically grouchy people call for the ban of the burqa (or better burqu as it should be), what are they calling for? There is only one answer to it, beyond the many ideological ones that may follow afterwards. What they are calling for is the suppression of an individual right in an attempt to suppress an abstract symbol. In fact, while the different actors can project their preferred meaning to the symbol (such as “holy”, “pious”, “oppressive, “backwards”, “anti-western”, “Islamic”, etc.), here the suppression of an individual right is a real measurable fact. The suppression of an individual right when such right does not infringe upon the rights of any other individual can be defined only in one way: illiberal.
Our ‘liberal’ democratic parliaments should never engage in the direct suppression of individual freedoms, in particular when such freedom has no consequences for others, as much research has shown in the case of the burqa.
Now there is another aspect of this story: the continuous demonization of those whom, even harshly, criticize the garment. Increasingly, these critics are demonized by Muslim community representatives, academics as well as by some advocates for minorities as Islamophobic, Muslim haters and a long list of other accusatory epithets.
Again, the attempt to understand the tension between the different positions does not take into consideration the ‘individual’ but instead creates Manichaean battle camps, in which a real clash of civilizers takes place.
Although the material of another post, much the problem about the burqa debate (as other similar debates involving Muslim traditions) derives from the idea–and it is an idea–that today we live in a multicultural society, or for others, such as David Cameron or Angela Merkel, a failed multicultural society.
In reality, what we have is an empty contemporary discourse of difference in which both camps, the pro-burqa and the anti-burqa (to maintain the Manichean jargon) show the same negative meta-discourse: an extreme illiberal approach to individual agency.