Ban the burqa, ban the bonnet?

Why do we decry head-covering as a violation of women's rights only when Muslim women do it? asks Middle East professor CATHERINE WARRICK

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For the last few years Westerners from Paris to Pasadena have been agitated by the visible presence of hijab-wearing Muslim women. Consensus seems to be developing about what the problem is, and how to solve it: These women are victims of oppression, and democratic governments must liberate them.

Devout feminist that I am, I beg to differ with this reasoning. Where do any of us get off telling other people what their beliefs mean to them?

I've met any number of women who wear some form of hijab, and lots of women who, though Muslim, do not. Those who veil do so for many reasons: habit, social pressure, political symbolism, religious devotion. Treating them all as helpless victims of oppression is breathtakingly paternalistic and demeaning to women.

So, in the first place, we don't know what any given hijab-wearing woman believes until we ask her. But more importantly, even if she believes that women are subordinate to men, well, she has every right to believe this, and to act upon it -- not to discriminate against others, but certainly in shaping her own life. She doesn't lose this right because I or the general public or the president of France find her beliefs objectionable.

But in the end, the debate about hijab, niqab, the burqa -- all of this is just the current manifestation of public discomfort with Islam and with Muslims. Discrimination on the basis of religious belief or ethnicity would be illiberal and undemocratic, so instead we call it a concern for women's rights.

I'm all for women's rights, so I shall ignore my suspicion that perhaps some newcomers to the feminist fold are, shall we say, selective in their recognition of women's oppression. There's also some unwarranted self-congratulation in the ringing declarations that Western society has achieved full gender equality, but let's set that aside as well.

So now that Western countries have raised anew the banner of women's liberation, let's get on with the project. If we're really interested in saving women from the oppression of religious garb and gender segregation, we must save not only the Muslims, but also nuns, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, and a good number of Christian fundamentalists, and at least some Mormons, and of course the Amish. From headgear to unequal divorce rights to exclusively male spiritual and household leadership, women's oppression isn't unique to Islamic faith.

So why is no one out to save the Amish women? Because they're quaint; they have bonnets and buggies. They're also Christian, though they're regarded as primarily a cultural rather than a religious group. And they're certainly no threat to Western society.

It's not just that there are no Amish extremists bombing nightclubs -- the Amish demand about wider society is that they be allowed to withdraw from it, not integrate into it and help to shape it.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is often the product of an unfair conflation of mainstream Muslims with violent extremists, but it's also about integration. As Muslim populations in France, Britain, the United States and elsewhere grow, and as the children and grandchildren of immigrants build permanent lives in the countries of their birth, Muslims do as earlier immigrants did, and join the public sphere. They participate in politics and culture, they're visible in the streets, they build houses of worship and community centers. And, unfortunately also like earlier immigrants, they face resistance. It's a bit ironic that this resistance comes not from Muslims' rejection of life in a pluralistic democracy, but because of their participation in it.

When Westerners speak of Muslims, they often say "If they're going to come here, they should expect to live by our rules." But increasingly, they don't "come here," they're from here. These are citizens, members of our societies, with as much right as anyone to freedom of expression, religious faith and association.

We can and should have a vigorous debate about the public good and the character of our societies. But where public opinion butts up against fundamental and constitutional rights, opinion must yield. Otherwise we risk gutting democracy in a misguided attempt to impose popular viewpoints.

If you're prepared to ban the burqa, will you also ban the bonnet? Or should we just let people decide for themselves how to dress?


Catherine Warrick , an associate professor, teaches Middle East politics at Villanova University ( catherine.warrick@villanova.edu ).


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