In an interview with the Financial Times today the French Urban Regeneration Minister Fadela Amara urged the banning of the burka (a type of Muslim headdress which covers the entire face, leaving only a slit for the eyes), saying that it represented “the oppression of women”. These comments come at a time when a commission has been set up in France to look into whether the burka should be banned or not. Ms Amara (who is an Algerian) argues that the burka represents “the political manipulation of a religion that enslaves women and disputes the principal of equality between men and women”. In effect she is saying that the French government should forcibly remove this symbol.
However the burka is just that; a symbol. Covering up ones face does not, in itself, imply enslavement. The burka is the symptom of the real problem, removing it will solve nothing. If the French government wants to prevent the oppression of women it needs to go far further than banning a piece of clothing. While it may represent something, in reality it is just a piece of fabric. Simply banning the burka will do nothing to prevent women from being oppressed. Essentially President Sarkozy, in pushing for this ban, is making himself look like a hard line politician willing to do bold things to solve endemic problems. It is all elaborate shadow play; in reality he is doing nothing to solve the problem, he is simply removing one of the major symptoms of it, making it look like the problem has gone away when it hasn’t
I do not doubt the claim that, in many cases, women are forced to wear the burka and I do not dispute the claim that this is immoral. However there are women who wear the burka out of choice; to ban it would be an affront to their freedom, the very thing that is supposedly be protected by this proposal. It would be akin to banning the wearing of a Christian crucifix. While the burka is not an item of clothing specifically Muslim (it actually predated Islam quite considerably), it has become synonymous with extreme Islamist regime, most notoriously the Taliban in Afghanistan, who required women to wear the burka. There is some grounding for the wearing of a Burka in the Quran; it says that both men and women should dress modestly, but does not specifically mention the burka or any other variant on the headscarf typically worn by Muslim women. The Taliban’s forcing of women to wear the burka was of course absolutely immoral, however the question has to be asked; what is the difference between forcing women to wear the burka and forcing them not to?
The French government claims that this will make women more free. However this belies a complete misunderstanding of the concept of freedom; freedom is a mindset, just having the rights to do something does not mean that people will embrace the. By forcing them not to wear the burka, the French government are trying to force women to be free. Freedom is defined as being without compulsion, so forcing or compelling one to be free is inherently paradoxical. In a seemingly innocent act intended to be against the oppression of women, the French government is trying to square a circle, it will simply solve nothing.
However the problem with the French proposal runs deeper than the paradox of forcing freedom on people, or failing to get to the heart of the issue, if they ban the burka the French government will go against the single purpose of government; the protection of its citizen’s rights to life, liberty and property. All humans have a fundamental right to do what he or she desires so long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others, that is to say we all have the right to say, think, do, wear, eat, drink and write whatever we want. So long as we do not prevent others from doing what they want, the government has no right to stop us. Any attempt to forcibly impose a standard of decency completely goes again the principles of government. So whether it is banning so called ‘hate speech’ or preventing women from wearing the burka, the government is acting not as the representatives of the people, protecting their rights, but as a dictator imposing arbitrary standards on its citizens. The French proposal to ban the burka is symptomatic of what is fundamentally wrong with governments the world over; it is impeding, rather than protecting our basic rights.
So Ms Amara may be right that the burka represents “the oppression of women”, but so, paradoxically, does the proposal to ban it. If the French government wants to stop the oppression of women it needs to do just that; stop the oppression of women, directly and without compromise, rather than simply engaging on political shadow play to make it look hard line. It is the duty of the French government, and all governments around the world, to protect its citizen’s rights, rather than further oppressing them.