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Muslim group calls for burka ban

October 21, 2009
A young woman poses in her niqab (Peter Mccabe/Canadian Press)

A young woman poses in her niqab (Peter Mccabe/Canadian Press)

The Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) has released a statement asking the Government of Canada to ban the wearing of the burka and niqab in public. The MCC says the garments – which cover the face and are worn by some Muslim women as a sign of modesty – marginalize women and have no basis in Islam.

The burka covers the entire body with a mesh screen covering the eyes, while the niqab covers virtually all of the face with a slit left open for the eyes.

According to Farzana Hassan, a spokesperson for the MCC:

To cover your face is to conceal your identity. If a government claims to uphold equality between men and women, there is no reason for them to support a practice that marginalizes women.

In general, Islamic modesty standards call for women to cover their bodies, with the exception of their hands and faces. This is interpreted by many Muslims to mean that women must wear headscarves, or hijabs. There is no religious requirement for Muslim women to cover their faces – and most don’t. But the fact that only a small minority of women wear the full veil hasn’t stopped governments in the Netherlands, Italy and France from considering a burka ban, just to name a few.

Earlier this year, French President Nicholas Sarkozy delivered a keynote parliamentary address in which he said of the burka:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issues of a women’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France.

Following his comments, the French National Assembly announced an inquiry into whether women in France should be allowed to wear the burka. French Muslim leaders responded by saying that raising the issue this way stigmatized Islam and the Muslims of France (keep in mind the French colonization of Algeria in the 1930s and the hard truths of racism in modern France).

So, should women be allowed to wear the burka and niqab in public? And does allowing them to do so conflict with the commitments of countries like Canada and France to promote gender equality? In my opinion, the answer is yes to the former and no to the latter.

While I don’t agree with the ideology behind the burka and niqab, I also don’t agree with the ideology behind high heels and shaving armpits (although, interestingly, I do both). If the purpose of the law is to demonstrate Canada’s commitment to gender equality by banning a symbol of misogyny, then why isn’t the government being asked to ban other practices that degrade women (wet t-shirt competitions and Burger King’s oral sex-infused ad for its “BK Super Seven Incher” immediately come to mind)?

In a country where women still earn an average of 70 cents for every dollar earned by men, banning the burka and niqab isn’t the best way – or even a good way – to improve the status of women and doesn’t remove the real barriers to women’s participation in Canadian society. Increasing the availability of educational opportunities and job training programs, for example, gives women the tools they need to protect and empower themselves, and is a more appropriate way for governments to promote women’s economic security.

Canada should let women choose freely what to wear. Like high heels and Spanx, women put on the burka and niqab for different reasons. While people view these garments – and what they symbolize – differently, to claim that all women who wear them are oppressed and require government intervention is unreasonable. Some women cover their faces against their will, but this is a symptom of a much bigger problem that extends far beyond a small number of Muslim Canadian households.

As The Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal adeptly put it while mocking Sarkozy’s attempt to stand up for women by banning the burka:

You gave me the little extra push I needed to empower myself – now I’m a free woman!

  1. October 22, 2009 9:32 am

    I have written a number of posts about this subject in the blog I co-write. (See this example.) While I can see your point of view, I believe that it would be a positive step if the burqa was prohibited in public places (even in the cases like France where it is obvious that the purpose of the ban is to discriminate against Muslims). The burqa symbolizes that, in public, women must be silent and, therefore, is a symbol of male power to restrict female action and a symbol of submission and inequality. In that regard, it is far worse than the examples of high heels, shaving armpits, wet t-shirt competitions, and degrading advertisements.

    • Cigdem permalink
      January 25, 2010 5:53 pm

      What would you have to say to those Muslim woman who truly agree with the reasons behind wearing it, and do it for their own beliefs? The Muslim women who wear the burka agree with the reasoning, in most cases. In countries like Canada, they can wear the hijab or burka however they like. There are no limits.

  2. Amelia DeMarco permalink
    October 26, 2009 11:47 am

    While I don’t agree with what the burka symbolizes, rather than focusing their attention on banning symbols of gender inequality (and I think part of the reason examples like wet t-shirt competitions and degrading advertisements – which also symbolize inequality – seem more benign is because they have been normalized in our culture, whereas the burka is easily identifiable as foreign), governments should focus their attentions on eliminating sources of inequality. I believe that increasing women’s access to education and skills training, for example, gives women tools to empower themselves, and would help more women in a much more significant way than banning the burka ever could.

    My concern is that laws banning symbols of inequality merely pay lip service to gender equality and don’t address the actual inequalities in our society – like the fact that women still earn considerably less than their male counterparts.

  3. January 23, 2010 7:47 am

    I agree with most of what is said here, and appreciate a hat-tip on the Canadian Muslim group, very interesting.

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