Burqa in Europe
By Micah Halpern
Friday August 20, 2010
The burning question in European democracies is this: Is it appropriate for a European democracy to prohibit the wearing of the burqa, the Islamic headdress worn by women that covers almost their entire face (most leave slits for the eyes, some cover the eyes with a mesh veil). Debates over the wearing, or non-wearing, of the burqa are spreading like wild fire throughout the continent.
More important than the passion these debates generate is the context in which they are held. The first country to pass a law forbidding the burqa was Belgium. France recently passed its own law. In a poll conducted in England asking 2,000 people what they thought about passing a similar law, 67% were in favor. The Spanish Parliament took up and then rejected the debate.
Surprising as it may seem, the reason for banning the burqa is not religious. This is not a case of religious discrimination. It is, on the contrary, a call for freedom. The mandate to cover a woman's face in public flies in the face of the women's movement. It takes away a woman's freedom and equality. It is also - and importantly, a call based on issues of safety and security. It is impossible to identify someone whose face is covered - it is a security risk.
Democracies do not come without limits. Regardless of one's belief, one person does not have the freedom to subjugate another. That is the thesis behind the enactment of laws forbidding the burqa in European countries.
Theocracies and non-Western democracies have even more limits. And yet, there are also Muslim countries that have outlawed the burqa. Turkey and Egypt are two examples. Both back up their ban with cogent historical and religious evidence that the burqa is a pagan influence on Islam. More than that, they warn that it is the Taliban who brought the burqa back into popular Islamic culture and for that reason alone the wearing of the burqa should be rejected by mainstream Islam.
These arguments are right, and they are wrong.
Another word used in Islamic culture that denotes a head covering is hijab, which means curtain. Hijab also refers to the Islamic concept of modesty and privacy, giving it a far deeper theological meaning than burqa. It refers to the separation between the world of man and the heavenly world.
The Koran makes reference to the headscarf using the term khimar, which today, is translated as a body cover. There is a long history of body covering and head covering in Islam. Most of those traditions are a response to and a rejection of pagan tribes and tradition in Arabia.
A rose is a rose is a rose. A burqa is a niqab, is a hijab. And the head covering is being outlawed in more and more European countries. There is sure to be a backlash. The first people to suffer the results of this backlash will not be the European parliamentarians and countries, it will not be Islamic leaders.
It is the women who will suffer. Women stuck between their need to fulfill their religious doctrine and living in a modern European state. Figuratively, maybe even literally, it is the women who will be the ones to burn.