Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 5 June/July 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

That’s me in the burqa, losin’ my religion

I am a First Amendment lawyer and a staunch church-state separatist. I surpass even my most progressive friends and colleagues in my unflinching and unwavering support of freedom of speech and expression, including religious expression.

I am pretty much the only person I know who hates hate-crime legislation as little more than bald-faced thought-crime legislation. I am not infrequently verbally vilified for asserting the claim that morality has no place in the law.

I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France, and I would support a public burqa ban in the U.S. In fact, I would support a global public burqa ban. (I will pause briefly for what I am sure are many gasps of incredulity.)

I am working in Paris, France, for a year as an international human rights fellow at Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), an international human rights organization which advocates unequivocally for women’s rights as universal human rights without compromise. NPNS condemns cultural relativism and obscurantism and wholeheartedly supports the anticipated public burqa ban in France. One of the reasons I wished to work there is because I wanted to support this effort.

We have been marching, speaking, blogging and publishing up a storm. We marched in front of the National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) in burqas. We marched in front of the Socialist Party headquarters in burqas. We marched in front of the UMP Party headquarters in burqas. Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who was threatened with 40 lashes of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, embraced the effort while visiting France as a guest of NPNS. I have been doing my utmost to spread the word throughout the English-speaking world and especially within the U.S. Unfortunately, most Americans, including President Obama, are woefully misguided on this issue. The U.S. should pay greater attention to the European debate on this subject, instead of dismissing it out of hand.

NPNS rose out of a ferocious grassroots response to the unfathomable violence being perpetrated against the women and girls of the quartiers and cités in the banlieues (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France’s major cities, which are comprised mostly of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities). NPNS continues to be led by the women of the quartiers from sub-Saharan and North African Muslim immigrant backgrounds. They are not anti-Islam. They claim their religion, and they claim the right to interpret their religion for themselves. They wholly reject the burqa as a barbaric patriarchal cultural tradition that has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.

To me, the issue of whether or not the burqa/niqab is mandated by Islam is irrelevant. To me, in this instance, Islam is irrelevant. We don’t make laws based on Islamic doctrine or scripture or apocrypha or tradition or custom. We make laws based on secular principles and concerns and objectives. Likewise, Ni Putes Ni Soumises fights on behalf of secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational elements of a truly egalitarian public space, in which all citizens participate as equals.

The burqa ban should be a non-issue. Of course there should be a ban on identity-obscuring face coverings in public. I don’t even think of it as a ban. It’s a requirement to reveal one’s identity in the public space.
I am speaking of the burqa/niqab ban and not addressing the hijab or the chador, which do not hide the face. I am not addressing issues of national identity or immigration. I have entirely different takes on those very important issues. I am addressing simply the requirement to reveal one’s identity in the public space.

The argument against the burqa ban always takes a very decided path:

1. A lot of people will be exempt from the ban, so why not Muslim women?
The worker drilling into a sidewalk is wearing a mask and has been exempt from the ban on face coverings, so everyone else should also be able to walk around in public with face coverings?

A doctor wearing a mask while performing surgery (or a masked EMT/paramedic or other similarly masked medical professional) is not obscuring his or her identity.

A skier decked out in skiing regalia and flying past you on the slopes at a resort while wearing a face mask is not obscuring his or her identity. (By the way, I grew up in Minnesota, so I understand this point well — the cold winters, not the skiing.)

2. You just have a problem with banning things.

If this is a serious issue for you, then you have bigger fish to fry. I see the burqa ban not so much as a ban, but as a requirement to reveal one’s identity in the public space.

3. The burqa ban is a limitation on the free exercise of religious faith.

A legitimate government can and must be able to tell citizens what is and is not permissible behavior in public, even if those laws incidentally encroach upon expressions of religious faith.

Unlimited freedom of religious expression would result in anarchy. Every law in existence limits someone’s freedom of expression. Snake handling? Child marriages? Hunting bald eagles? Female genital mutilation? Eating peyote? Polygamy? Public nudity? Compulsory childhood education? Military draft? Vaccinations? Photo IDs? Taxes?

If a law is being enacted for a wholly secular purpose, and it happens to imfringe on someone’s religious expression — too bad, so sad. We don’t live in a theocracy. We don’t make laws which pay any heed whatsoever to religious doctrine. Thank gods.

The burqa ban is analogous to drivers licenses and childhood vaccinations. If you don’t want to follow the rules, fine, but then you don’t get to play. No one is forcing you to play. But if you want to play the game (i.e., participate in society), you have to follow the rules.

The government turning a knowing blind eye away from egregious civil rights violations perpetrated under cover of religious liberty is a violation of human rights.

4. The fast-increasing use of face coverings in public is not an an issue of public welfare, safety, security or protecting democracy.

If I had to write down a recipe for lawlessness, I would start by having everyone walk around with black tarps over their heads. There’s a reason why burglars and bank robbers and suicide bombers wear masks. Try walking into any federal building with a sheet over your head and let me know how that works out for you.

I have a right to know with whom I am interacting in public. The public space belongs to all people. Revealing one’s identity is pretty much the most rudimentary step toward participation in society. A high level of trust is one of the defining attributes of a highly functioning, socially cohesive society. How much trust do you think is engendered by the citizenry walking around with black tarps over their heads?

If you remain unconvinced on the point about security, how about as an issue of protecting democracy? You first have to claim your humanity before you can claim your human rights. You first have to claim your citizenship before you can claim your civil rights. This is not possible without claiming one’s identity. Identity is power. Why do you think misogynists impose the burqa on women? To render them powerless.

5. But, it’s just a handful of women, you say.

Doesn’t that seem like a good time to nip the problem in the bud? Before it becomes an even more serious issue? When has it ever been OK to violate the human rights of “just a few persons”?

6. These women will be sequestered in their homes, because their husbands and families will not allow them to venture outside without burqas, thereby rendering them prisoners without contact with the wider society or access to public services.

The second portion of the French bill includes a severe penalty for for–cing a woman to wear a burqa or any garment by reason of her gender, which addresses this argument. I find this a thinly veiled threat (pun intended). It’s the same sort of fearmongering and paternalism that takes place every time women’s rights take a step forward. “Men will force women to take The Pill.” “Men will treat women like dirty whores, if they can’t get them pregnant.” “Men will force women to have abortions if you legalize abortion.”

In France, when the law against ostentatious religious symbols in public schools was enacted, the same horror stories were anticipated: that families would demand that their daughters wear the hijab and pull them out of school. By and large, it never happened.

7. Unnecessary limitations on the freedom of expression and religion of Muslim women incense you.

Were you there when massive waves of protests were overwhelming our major cities to protect the right of Native Americans to hunt bald eagles? Were you there when the write-in campaigns were flooding Congress to protect the right of Native Americans to use peyote? Oh, you weren’t there. Because that never happened. Because no one cared. (A few Native Americans eating peyote or handling — not hunting — bald eagle feathers is far less of a public safety issue than face coverings.)

Do civil libertarians really want to take up the cause of Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab in Western nations? Do we want to be invested in their ability to “express their religious faith,” even when we understand that, for the vast majority of Muslim women, the “choice” to don the burqa is anything but free.

Even Western nations have deeply rooted notions of women as sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities.

8. Maybe you’re afraid of Muslims and don’t want to alienate them with this legislation.

That’s Islamophobia — coddling Muslims lest they blow something up. Why don’t we treat the Muslim community like intelligent, sophisticated adults who can appreciate the merits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy?

I am aware of the fascist, anti-immigrant religious right, but their tantrums are not a good reason to abandon women to misogyny and sex slavery.

Since I’m encouraging soul searching, I want to assure you that I, too, have engaged in some of my own. I have scoured and examined my motives. I have interrogated my superego, my id and my inner child. I’ll admit it: I hate the burqa and the niqab. I hate everything it represents: the oppression of women, the demonization of female sexuality.

But in and of itself, that would not be reason enough to restrict a woman’s choice to wear it as an expression of her religious faith. I do understand that the waters of coercion and consent are muddy indeed. (I’ll save my argument that the liberation of women is a compelling government interest in and of itself for another day.)

Having turned my (nonexistent) soul inside out, looking for ulterior motives, I am comfortable with my stance on the burqa/niqab ban. It is a straightforward issue of public safety and security, coupled with democratic representation.

Don’t let the discourse be hijacked by the cultural relativists and the obscurantists. That this seemingly benign issue gets so much media and political play is a direct result of our continued and ugly perception of women’s bodies as communal property.

Sarah Braasch is a former FFRF legal intern.

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