Saturday 15 May 2010

The niqabs and burqas have to go

It makes common sense that people should not be able to walk amongst us with their faces entirely covered except their eyes. The only acceptable exception is when kids wear masks during Halloween and skiers wear ski masks to protect their faces from the cold wind.

One of the most frequent questions people around the world are asking is; how politicians in France can justify banning Muslim face veils in public places. They ask, “Isn’t this a blatant violation of the freedom of religion?”

Amnesty International condemned the Belgian law as “an attack on religious freedom.” That is pure nonsense. Although freedom of religion is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, and to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance, but wearing a niqab or burqas in public is not part of any religion whatsoever. It certainly isn’t part of the religion that Moslems follow. Nowhere in the Quor’an does it say that women must wear niqabs or burqas when they are in public. So why do they wear these items of clothing?

Because the men in their families tell them that they must do so. What are their motives? Well, for one thing, they don’t want other men to see their women-folk’s faces. I find that a bit odd when you consider that men in their homes other than their husbands, see the faces of these women in the homes all the time. Perhaps they don’t want the sun to shine on their women’s faces so that as they grow older, their faces won’t wrinkle as quickly as the faces of women whose faces are hit by the suns rays a good part of their lives. It is also quite possible that older women who have spent their lives covering their faces feel that the younger women should do the same. If the younger women don’t cover their faces, then the older women who did so all their lives will wonder if they made a mistake in doing so.

Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly, is one of the most outspoken champions of a complete ban on niqabs and burqas in all public spaces in France. An ambitious politician, Copé continued campaigning for a ban even after legal experts said it could be unconstitutional. He eventually won out when President Nicolas Sarkozy backed a full ban. The French cabinet plans to review the draft bill on May 19 and then send it to the National Assembly for debate. Is this seen as such an obvious case of discrimination that legislators will reject the idea outright?

Copé has published an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times — ‘Tearing Away the Veil’ — that clearly explains his position on a veil ban. The column, written for non-French readers, is stripped of some of the political rhetoric that obfuscates the issue here. I recommend it to readers still trying to figure out what France is doing and why.

He seems to have latched onto a popular issue. Most French say they want a ban on full veils, but not all of them say it should be completely outlawed.

Momentum is building in Europe for laws forbidding the wearing of garments that cover the face, like the Islamic burqa and niqab, in public. Just last week, the lower house of the Belgian Parliament overwhelmingly passed a ban on face coverings. And next week, the French Assembly will most likely approve a resolution that the Union for a Popular Movement, has introduced, condemning such garments as against France’s republican principles, a step toward a similar ban.

Many critics have asserted that by prohibiting the burqa, France would impinge upon individual liberties and stigmatize Muslims, thereby enraging extremists worldwide.
This criticism is unjust. I would like to explain why it is both a legitimate measure for public safety and a reaffirmation of France’s ideals of liberty and fraternity.

First, the freedom to dress the way one wants is not what’s at issue. The debate is not about a type of attire or the Islamic head scarf that covers the hair and forehead. The latter is obviously allowed in France and in other Westernized countries. The ban would apply to the full-body veil known as the burqa or niqab.

This is not an article of clothing — it is a mask, a mask worn at all times, making identification or participation in economic and social life for those persons covered with full-faced clothing virtually impossible.

Face coverings poses a serious safety problem at a time when security cameras play an important role in the protection of public order. An armed robbery recently committed in the Paris suburbs by criminals dressed in burqas provided unfortunate evidence of this fact. It would be highly risky to permit people whose faces are covered, to move about in a community on that premise alone. Suppose for instance, that a woman wearing an article of clothing that covers her face other than her eyes is involved in a car accident. Would she have to remove the veil when being questioned by the police? I would think so.

The visibility of the face in the public sphere has always been a public safety requirement. It was so obvious that until now it did not need to be enshrined in law. But the increase in women wearing the niqab, like that of the ski mask favored by criminals, has changed all that. We as a society must therefore adjust our laws, without waiting for the phenomenon to spread.

The permanent concealment of the face also raises the question of social interactions in our democracies. In the United States and Canada, there are very few limits on individual freedom, as exemplified by the guarantees of the First Amendment in the United States and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada. In France and Belgium, they too are passionately attached to liberty and the rights of others.

But we also reaffirm our citizens’ right to equality and right to fraternize with one another. These values are the two inseparable components of our constitutions. We as civilized nations are therefore constantly striving to achieve a delicate balance between the rights of the individual and what is in the best interests of the general public. Individual liberty is vital, but individuals, like communities, must accept compromises that are indispensable to living together, in the name of certain principles that are essential to the common good.

Let’s take one example: The fact that people are prohibited from strolling down Main Street of any community wearing only a thong does not constitute an attack on the fundamental rights of women. Likewise, wearing headgear that fully covers the face does not constitute a fundamental liberty of being free to choose what one wears in public. To the contrary, it is an insurmountable obstacle to the affirmation of a political community that unites citizens without regard to differences in sex, origin or religious faith. How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance — those universal signs of our common humanity — refuses to exist in the eyes of others?

Finally, in Western countries, the people in our societies recognize that individual liberties cannot exist without individual responsibilities. This acknowledgment is the basis of all our civil rights. We are free as long as we are responsible individuals who can be held accountable for our actions before our peers. But the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality and avoiding responsibility for the wellbeing of our community.

From this standpoint, banning the veil in the street is aimed at no particular religion and stigmatizes no particular community. Indeed, French Muslim leaders have noted that the Quor’an does not instruct women to cover their faces, while in Tunisia and Turkey, it is forbidden in public buildings; it is even prohibited during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims are the first to suffer from the confusions engendered by this practice, which is a blow against the dignity of all women.

Through a legal ban, French parliamentarians want to uphold a principle that should apply to all of its citizens and visitors alike: the visibility of the face in the public sphere, which is essential to its nation’s security and what is a condition for living together as a community. A few extremists are contesting this obvious fact by using their democratic liberties as an instrument against democracy. We have to tell them that they are pushing their concept of liberty in our faces too far and we won’t tolerate it.

I believe in that old adage; When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Those people who have come to Westernized nations from Islamic nations have to learn to live by our laws. If they are not happy with our laws, they have the option of going back to their own countries where they can cover themselves to their heart’s desire.

Why are they remaining in our countries then? Because they know that our countries offer them far more freedom and opportunity to advance than they had in their own countries. One would think that they would appreciate that and adjust themselves in some degree to our ways. Unfortunately, they would prefer to bring some of their own customs which conflict with our own customs and laws to our countries. Well, they are in for a big surprise. We are tolerant but not pushovers. My message to them is; “If you don’t like the way we do things in our country, then get out and go back where you came from.”

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