In declaring that the burka, the all-enveloping garment that covers a woman from head to toe, was an unwelcome symbol of subservience, President Sarkozy has reignited the vexed issue of religion, culture and personal liberty with implications far beyond his own country. While many in France, home to more than five million Muslims, have applauded his stance, conservative Muslims in Europe and the Middle East have deplored his remarks. The burka, they insist, is a “symbol of freedom” and a Western state has no business dictating how Muslims should dress. But does it?
The issue is as divisive as it is emotive. Libertarians and European liberals have generally argued that religion is a private matter and that its symbols, customs and observance should not be trammeled by law unless its practice is offensive, socially disruptive or contravenes other laws. They maintain that, unless coercion can be proved, a woman should be free to dress how she wishes. In Britain, such tolerance, based on the principles of J.S. Mill, has encouraged diversity in a policy of multiculturalism. Unlike France, where a laicism derived from the French Revolution has demanded the exclusion of religion from state institutions, Britain has not tried to ban the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, or other religious symbols from schools.
The burka, however, is different. Not only does it divide European liberals; it also is controversial within Islam. As many scholars have pointed out, there is no Koranic foundation in the demand that a woman should hide her face. The Koran only enjoins modesty in appearance and clothing, and subsequent injunctions that a woman should cover her hair with a scarf or her face with a veil are derived solely from the Hadith, the body of sayings attributed to the Prophet. The burka appears to be purely tribal in its origin, and this cultural tradition has been given dubious religious sanction by conservative societies.
Among European liberals the burka is seen as a symbol of female subservience. And the freedom to opt for such deplorable status runs counter to other liberties regarded as more important in the hierarchy of freedoms: openness, transparency, equality and opportunity. Within Western society, the covering of the face negates all such fundamental rights. The mistrust, alienation and brake on communication engendered by a face veil were the basis of Jack Straw##s principled but contentious denunciation of the niqab. Such objections apply even more forcefully to the burka.
There are also, in Western society, practical objections to any garment that hinders movement, impairs trust or conceals identity. A woman in a burka cannot properly drive a car, clear a security check, teach pupils, practise medicine, enter a jewellery shop or carry out a host of mundane activities. As Mr Sarkozy said, it is unacceptable for women to be “prisoners behind netting”.
Tolerance of the practice is also a licence for intolerance. Too often extremists try to exploit this bogus symbol of Islamic piety to create Muslim ghettos where they assert their own personal power. Too often the issue is a deliberate provocation to challenge the values and mores of Western society. An absolute ban on the burka is unnecessary and unenforceable. But civic education and religious debate – here, in France and in the Muslim world – are the best way to consign to the dark ages this symbol of darkness.
The Times, editorial