Belgium to ban burqa

A bill is making its way through the hoops in Belgium that would ban the covering of one’s face with clothing in public, effectively banning some of Islam’s most prolific tools of oppression.

The draft law would make it illegal to wear clothing that covers all or part of the face, which would also include the facial veil known as the niqab. Defying the rule could lead to nominal fines of $20 to $35 or possible imprisonment for up to seven days. Proponents say they’re targeting the burqa not because of its religious symbolism or even because it is widely seen in the West as a sign of male oppression, but rather for safety reasons: they say that people who hide their faces represent a security risk. In that light, the law also seeks to target potentially violent demonstrators who cover their faces, backers say.

I don’t believe that for a second. Everyone knows the purpose of the burqa is to oppress women – and reasonable people reject its use on that basis.

This reminds me of blue laws. In their original form, these laws are meant to enforce what the religious think people should be doing. That is, they are immoral impositions of morality. In the U.S., they are usually unconstitutional since they endorse a religion, but court rulings have tended to cite the modern secular reasons the laws are maintained. (Incidentally, the secularization of Christmas is why it legally remains a federal holiday.) Recently in Maine, there was an attempt to allow car dealerships to be open on Sundays, something they currently cannot do. There was a backlash from that industry that pointed to higher costs and effectively forced openings on Sunday due to higher competition. It’s that sort of reasoning that makes what were once blue laws into just regular, secular laws.

Belgian lawmakers are utilizing this sort of reasoning in their rationale for banning the burqa. They’re claiming security since the religious basis has less clout. The difference, however, between what happened with Maine car dealerships and what is happening in Belgium is that the dealership owners really did have secular reasoning; it wasn’t just a thinly veiled lie.

Of course, not everyone is lying.

But the bill’s chief sponsor, Daniel Bacquelaine of the liberal Reformist Movement party, admits that cultural considerations have also come into play. “In an open society, we need common values and we need equal rights and duties,” he says. Bacquelaine estimates the burqa is worn by only a few hundred of Belgium’s 630,000-strong Muslim population, but the numbers have been rising in the past decade. “It has become a political weapon,” he says. “There is nothing in Islam or the Koran about the burqa. It has become an instrument of intimidation, and is a sign of submission of women. And a civilized society cannot accept the imprisonment of women.”

The French march on the burqa

The French just seem to hate the burqa. A parliament report has recommended a ban of the burqa in certain circumstances.

In the end, the commission called on parliament to adopt a resolution stating that the all-encompassing veil was “contrary to the values of the republic” and proclaiming that “all of France is saying ‘no’ to the full veil”.

The National Assembly resolution would pave the way to legislation making it illegal for anyone to appear with their face covered at state-run institutions and in public transport, for reasons of security.

Women who turn up at the post office or any government building wearing the full veil would be denied services such as a work visa, residency papers or French citizenship, the report said.

It’s obvious this proposal has been inspired in part by fear of Islam, but it seems that there probably is some genuine concern for the equality of women.

I can sympathize with that concern; it’s obvious that the burqa is a tool used to tell women they are inferior. That’s it. Pat Condell goes off on this at some length. And I can sympathize with the need for national security. Where it is relevant, by all means ban the damn thing – at certain points within airports, in banks, etc. But where my sympathy for the French is entirely lost is with the rights and personal liberties of the individual. At no point should a government be allowed to intrude upon the right of any individual to dress in any sort of harmless manner. I hate the burqa as much as the next rational person, but I would hate to see it illegal for someone to freely practice her (or his) belief.

Sarkozy set the tone for the debate in June when he declared the burqa “not welcome” in France and described it as a symbol of women’s “subservience” that cannot be tolerated in a country that considers itself a human rights leader.

It is precisely that: a symbol. And should a woman be forced to wear this symbol by another person, that is a human rights violation. But if the woman chooses to wear an ugly mask, no government has the right to tell her otherwise.