It seems the debate over banning the burqa has only just begun, with the outspoken Christopher Hitchens weighing in. His main point is that oppressive religious rules should never be considered a reasonable basis for ignoring common law. It’s a powerful argument and, as with anything Hitch opines about, elicits a wide selection of responses, from the purely stupid and abusive (seriously, why bother being on his mailing list if that’s all you’re going to do!) to the balanced and finely measured. And lots in between.
The subject has people thinking and asking question about how we would feel if the ban directly affected us. How would I feel if the government told me I couldn’t wear navy blue? (well, apart from having little left in my wardrobe) Or told me I had to? There seems to be something deeply fundamental driving people to object to this particular ban – people really don’t like the idea of governments dictating such a fine – and let’s face it, entirely superficial – element to their lives. Even if none of them had ever been near a burqa.
I see not only the debate, but this sudden empathy as a good thing. People are now thinking about how the burqa is a tool of the oppression of women, and that we’re oppressing them whether we ban the burqa or not. That recognition alone is more than these women have received from the West, ever! Not only that, but there is now that dawning realisation that these woman don’t have the freedom to choose to wear it or not. It doesn’t matter that some might choose to wear it. It only matters that if they chose not to wear it, they’d likely be beaten by their husbands, and in extreme cases (there’s history to back this up) even kill them.
Another interesting point that’s come out in the debate is the fact that wearing the burqa is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one. Even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, women are not expected to cover their faces. There is no mention in the Koran of any requirement to cover women’s faces and bodies – only that they dress modestly.
So I’m wondering if, somewhere in this debate about whether we should force women to uncover their faces, or force them to go on submitting to the dictates of an ancient tradition, whether we are in fact stripping away all that the burqa would hide. Even though these women’s faces are hidden from us, the tragic reality of their lives is being revealed. I’m hoping it might lead us to the next step – helping them become free.