In my newspaper today I read that Belgium has beaten France to become the first European nation to ban the burka and other face-covering garments in public places. The vote was carried 136 to nil, with two abstentions.
Amnesty International was quick to condemn the ban as a violation of human rights. The law has also outraged Muslims. Islamic scholar Michael Privot says Belgium "now joins Iran and Saudi Arabia in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain". If you think he's right, you should try going shopping in your underwear. But beyond such silliness, there are some real issues at stake here about religious freedom, prejudice and fear of the "other".
In general, liberal societies (of which Belgium is one) are based on the premise that citizens are free to make their own choices on matters that concern them, provided these don't interfere unduly with someone else's freedom. You can listen to whatever music you like, provided you keep the volume down so your neighbours don't have to share it. You can believe in whatever god you like, as long as he or she doesn't make you rob or kill your fellow citizens.
So, is wearing the burka in public a violation of other people's freedom, or is it a private religious choice which should be left alone?
Two reasons are giving for banning burka-wearing in public places.
1. A woman wearing a burka can't be identified. This means that if she commits a crime she won't be caught, and in any case it is a signal that she is not open for communication with others.
I remember Franz Fanon talking about how in the Algerian war of independence women were invaluable in transporting explosives and weapons because they could hide them under their all-covering garments and no-one would think to look. This is of course the thought that scares members of the public. However, you don't need to wear a burka to conceal a weapon. Modern suicide bombers, mostly male and unveiled, hide them under their jackets or in their back-packs. Will we also ban jackets and back-packs?
I'm struggling to see what other need we could have to identify these women. In a liberal society, I'm free to go where I like, and I don't need to identify myself to walk in public spaces. Nor do I need to interact with you if I don't want to. Why should Islamic women be any different? I think the point of the law is really that women wearing burkas make others feel uncomfortable. So whose problem is that?
2. The burka is a sign of women's subjection. Women don't wear it by choice, they wear it because they are compelled to, a clear violation of their liberty. This law frees women from that subjection.
There may be something in that. Certainly the burka is part of a patriarchal system and you can bet that a woman wearing a burka will also have a view of men as authority figures. Yet you don't have to search far on the internet to find articles in which women say they wear it because they want to - here's one that appeared on the first page of a google search, featuring a woman who is a convert to Islam.
Perhaps you're thinking, "yes, but they only say that because their menfolk tell them to." If so, let me challenge you to think a little more about your approach to liberation. No-one can be liberated against their will. Of course many women of all cultures are subject to violence and in Islamic families this may include being forced to wear a burka - if nothing else it would hide the bruises. We do need better laws and systems to protect women from abuse, and help them escape it, and Islamic women need this as much as anyone else. But banning the burka doesn't address that - it just assumes that all Islamic women are the same. Hardly a liberating approach.
I'm not a big fan of the burka, but I am a fan of liberty and personal choice. I'm also a huge fan of racial and religious harmony. This law clearly targets Islamic practice - no-one else covers their face in public unless they have a serious medical condition. It is born out of our fear of Islam, and feeds the view that all Islamic people are a threat. It also pushes these same people into a corner. They know they are being targeted. The cause of peace and harmony takes another step backwards, the conflict deepens.