Should the Burqa be Banned?

Should the Burqa be Banned?

The issue of the burqa (or the niqab) is one that I”ve struggled with because it forces us to choose between competing goods. It cuts to fundamental questions of the limits of tolerance and free speech. Mona Eltahawy is a courageous advocate for women”s equality and I enjoy her columns a great deal, but I find her most recent piece for the New York Times somewhat perplexity. She advocates a burqa ban because the burqa violates women”s rights. I agree with almost everything she says regarding the burqa, that it, in effect, “erases women from society.” Agreed. As an American-Muslim, it both bothers and offends me to see women in major American cities with only their eyes showing. The niqab is an affront to the values I grew up with, but, then again, so are so many other things. I do not enjoy the right to not be offended.

Eltahawy also references Soad Saleh, an Islamic law professor who says that the burqa has “nothing to do with Islam” and is, rather, a cultural tradition. Again, I fully agree.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy said recently, “The burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.” Again, I agree with the first sentence but I”m not sure how the second sentence follows from the first. You cannot justify a ban on something simply by saying that it is a sign of the submission of women. There have to be legal and/or constitutional grounds for implementing such a ban, and, in this case, such grounds do not appear to exist. You could presumably institute or execute laws that prevent men from forcing their wives to do things against their will, but if the burqa is something some women choose to do voluntarily then such injunctions would not be germane.

What is interesting, and rather puzzling, about Eltahawy”s article is that it does not attempt to make any real argument for banning the burqa, even though is presumably the intent of her piece. The idea that we can or should ban things we don”t agree with is dangerous because it can easily be applied – as it often is – in reverse situations. For example, there have been attempts in Muslim-majority countries to silence minority opinions on the exact same grounds – that a form of expression must be banned because it is an affront to a certain set of norms and values that the majority holds dear.

On such grounds, anything that hints of criticism of Islam in Muslim-majority countries, even those that are supposedly secular, can be made punishable by law. Scholars and commentators have been charged with apostasy and, in some extreme cases, forced into exile for supposedly undermining the Islamic faith (see for instance the case of Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd). The reasoning here operates in parallel to Eltahawy”s: Voluntary expressions of speech or faith must be restricted because they come into conflict with societal perceptions of what is “right.” It sets a dangerous precedent, then, to go down this path, whether in the name of one set of ideals or another – even if we are convinced, as may very well be, that the one set of ideals is better than the other.

That said, I am more than willing to be convinced that there are indeed reasonable legal and constitutional grounds for banning the niqab, but I have trouble seeing how those might take precedence over the higher principle and constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech and expression.

The Source