The debate about Muslim women wearing the burqa took on a new dimension today with this video, NiqaBitch Secoue Paris, of two young women in high heels, shorts and niqab. They succeeded in satirizing and subverting both extremes of the argument in an elegant and stylish way that seems quintessentially French.
France, with its tradition of secularism, recently enacted a ban on wearing the burqa and niqab in public, subject to a fine of €150 and/or attending a course in citizenship. It comes into force next Spring. A law passed in 2004 also bans the wearing of the hijab, or headscarf, in schools. Not explicitly, but considered as an overt religious symbol.
Let’s begin with the religious discrimination implied by the hijab ban. What about French nuns, or the headscarf worn as fashion?
That’s Mother Teresa on the left, and if the scarf isn’t an overt religious symbol I don’t know what is. The woman on the right just looks good in hers. So what makes a hijab so much more threatening than these two examples? Presumably a schoolteacher, wearing either of these types of headscarf in a school, would not face a similar ban.
The obvious explanation for this discrimination is that hijabs are associated with Muslim women, and Muslims are considered a threat. Therefore they do not deserve equal protection under the law.
The burqa, a full face and body covering with a mesh over the face, and the niqab, a full face covering with an opening for the eyes, are somewhat different. In western cultures we expect to see the face. Nevertheless, an expectation is not a right, except where identification is necessary, and in those cases the law should be impartial.
Then there’s the question of whether Muslim women are forced to wear this type of clothing. Some undoubtedly are, but there are laws to deal with those situations. It is ridiculous to remedy one oppression (enforced Islamic dress) by replacing it with another (a ban on Islamic dress).
What NiqaBitches have done is to expose the absurdity of the extreme Islamic and extreme secular positions by combining elements of both in a surreal display. Their generally favourable reception – photos, friendly police – suggests that they’ve hit the mark. Or, to take a darker view, the shorts, high heels and long legs, reassured Parisians that these weren’t really Muslims. Actually, one of the women is. Had they worn the full burqa, the reception might well have been more hostile.
The burqa and niqab ban, by any standard, discriminates against Muslims. As an atheist, I have no torch to carry for religion in general, but I do recognise that freedom of religion also carries with it the freedom not to believe. So I feel impelled to speak out for Muslims against the rising tide of Islamophobia in Europe and America.
Europe is once again beginning to have a 1930s feel to it. It would be as well to remember Martin Niemoller, who only came to his senses when it was too late.
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.