Banning Burqas: Well-Intentioned Racism
In case you hadn’t heard, France is well on their way to banning the Burqa from all public places, and Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands may not be far behind. A nice idea, if it wasn’t so unjust.
The plan in these countries is to keep their female citizens from having to wear a full veil Burqa anywhere outdoors. Because, as the Justice Minister of Spain says, it’s “hardly compatible with human dignity.” And what happens if you’re caught wearing one? The woman is fined 150 Euros (almost $200) – which makes a ton of sense if this law is designed to protect women. That would be like fining a slave 200 bucks for being seen in public with whip marks on his back. How can you give someone a ticket for being oppressed? Now, if a man is found guilty of forcing his wife to wear a Burqa, he can spend up to a year in jail, which would be great if it wasn’t almost impossible to prove. Unless you get an eyewitness to a Burqa argument between husband and wife, you’re basically talking about a “he said-she said” where the she is already dominated and perhaps physically threatened by the “he”, and has little incentive to speak out against him. Good luck with that.
And all of this assumes that a Burqa is in fact an artifact of personal oppression. Look, it sounds bad to me. It sounds, honestly, somewhat inhuman. But it’s not my culture. I was on the subway a week ago in the middle of New York’s most recent heatwave, known more commonly as “July”, and two women walked on wearing a more liberal, party version of the Burqa known as the Al-Amira. It was so hot that day that I instantly felt terribly sorry for them, and hated the man that followed them in. He walked aboard, wearing his own stifling headdress and they all took a seat. Then something strange happened – the women took off their veils. They apparently wanted to get the full benefit of the MTA air conditioning, so they pulled it off and each popped open a cold drink. Their male companion left his covering on, but also enjoyed, I think, a diet 7-UP. Why were these women allowed to do this? I have no idea. And neither do you. And neither does any legislative body in France or Belgium of the Netherlands. THIS ISN’T OUR CULTURE. We don’t get it. We Westerners don’t understand the rules, we don’t understand the tradition, and we don’t understand how it feels to be a part of that tradition. So why are we trying to dictate what it should and shouldn’t do? Burqas seem entirely inappropriate to Western society, but it’s not our decision to make.
To me, there’s a line. And that line is physical pain or damage. If a societal practice causes serious physical pain, then it’s our duty to stop it. Until then, I believe it’s hands off. I see Orthodox Jewish women on the train every day in wool skirt and jacket suits, thick stockings, and heavy synthetic wigs as dictated by their culture. I’m sure that’s extremely uncomfortable and good bit dehumanizing to put on every morning, should that be illegal? What about their male counterparts, who are expected to grow their hair and beards as long as possible, add long peyas sideburns, hats and thick suits? I’m quite certain by the B.O. meter that these guys are usually setting off that this tradition results in oppressive body heat. And, during sabbath when they’re forced to only walk and not use electric comforts like fans and air conditioning, that this heat can likely become physically dangerous. But no one would ever think to make the Jewish traditions illegal, so why Burqas? The argument, I imagine, is that women are forced by their husbands to wear Burqas, and that’s not right. Hey, I completely agree – but I’m pretty sure many Orthodox men and women feel forced by their culture – parents, siblings, spouses – to follow similar rules. And plenty of other people in plenty of other strict as well. Why is that OK? Plenty of women across the world, and indeed here in the US, are still openly told by their husbands that they can’t get a job and must remain a housewife. That’s sexist, unfair, and humiliating, where are the laws against that? But Islam is different. Islam has a connotation of evil nowadays, of backward fundamentalism, so we feel like it needs to be reformed. Which is certainly a nice intention, but when you’re declaring the customs of one particular group illegal while ignoring similar ones from other cultures – that sounds like racism to me.
The tricky thing about having a democratic society is that it occasionally forces you to allow things that you instinctively despise. Would it be easier to make the Klu Klux Klan illegal? Yep, but they’re a protest group and we practice freedom of speech. Same with skinheads, neo-Nazis, and people who still find Two and a Half Men funny. They’re idiots, but in America – and France, Belgium, and Spain – you’re allowed to be an idiot. To legislate against just one culture, especially a culture that’s been associated with so much fear and difficulty, well that’s not what progressive nations are supposed to be about. And frankly, it’s exactly the sort of thing that would happen in the very cultures we’re so desperately trying to change. Just because it seems ugly does not mean it should also be illegal.