11 June, 2011

Je voudrais une petite mouette s'il vous plait

First France banned the face veil, and then Belgium, of course, followed suit. Much talk was made of protecting Muslim women from discrimination, of protecting France and Belgium's cultural heritage.

For many Muslims, although of course certainly not all, the hijab, the religious requirements of modesty, require an almost-complete covering of the body for women, including a covering of the face through the use of a burkha or nijab. The realisation of hijab is therefore an article of religious devotion for many Muslim women, a recognition of the strength of their faith and personal virtue. It has therefore become something of a battleground between practitioners of the faith and people who know best, who wish to protect home-grown values.

Appeals to tradition are ever the clarion call of narrow-minded tyranny, proclaiming the status quo as a moral good through mere virtue of existing and condemning critical self-evaluation as an insidious evil. It is absurd and wrong that xenophobia and religious oppression should be regarded as a necessary component of one's own nation, that the capacity for personal religious expression be limited under the false veneer of democracy, because democracy exists only insofar as the capacity for self expression exists. As those tools are winnowed so too does democracy become less meaningful. Irrespective of the general trend towards liberty from at least the 19th century onwards throughout most of the western world, fundamental political and legal rights can be and frequently are voted away by a populace engaged in vacuous moral panic. Although the population affected by the ban is small and powerless, although the right voted away is a comparatively small one, each instance in which this happens is the application of a small evil. The fervour in which it has been done, the widespread acceptance of it, is a sad and terrible commentary on the political climates of France and Belgium.

Moreover, the appeal to tradition falls afoul of the fact that typically most of a nation's internal intellectual mosaic must be ignored in order to pretend this view of a monolithic homogeny is accurate. While many French and Belgian people certainly are terrified of Islam and will happily cast it as the Other out of ignorance or cynical political exploitation, most of the republics of France have been borne of Enlightenment ideals, and Belgium is happily part of the same tapestry, sort of. But two of the central ideals developed from the age of reason have been religious tolerance and equality under the law. The modern realisation that women are independent and intelligent beings, sovereign members of our political landscape as responsible and deserving as men in legal and political rights, is one of the most noble and right echoes of those ideals. If a woman chooses to acknowledge her religion through her dress, if she chooses to realise her own understanding of modesty and regard it as a virtue, then there must be an intensely high burden of justification in preventing her from doing so. The mere fact that you personally are made uncomfortable by people who do not dress like you do or that there have not been many around is not such a justification.

The arguments in favour of banning the burkha are entertainingly contradictory and nonsensical. If we take it as a given - for it surely is - that at least some women are forced to wear the burkha against their wishes, that they are so utterly in the thrall of their husband and surrounding communities that their mode of dress is not a matter of their personal choice then the idea that a forced liberation is taking place by banning the wearing of a burkha is laughably naive and myopic: rather, one makes the likelihood of such women being allowed into the public sphere by such a dominating and bullying community that much less likely; it pushes the central issue out of the public eye, but does nothing to correct it or aid the women so afflicted. The issue there is much deeper than the mode of dress. Additionally it is rather absurd to rail against Muslim men making such a choice for a woman, to lament a culture steeped in misogyny, whilst advocating that instead the state should make such a choice for women, because for very many women it is, indeed, a choice. Both forms of control are predicated on the belief that being a Muslim and a woman are both defects in sovereignty. Both are obviously wrong and should be offensive in any modern democracy.

It is the most paltry and shameful rationalisation for taking away the ability for expression of Muslim women, adult people whose religion one happens not to disagree with, because of the belief that they lack the personal responsibility and education to make sound choices by mere virtue of their choice of dress, because they are women, because they are Muslim. To wish to remove the capacity for a person to express their religious devotion in the manner of their choosing, all with the shamefully patriarchal belief that it is for their own good. Such nobility, such a stringent defence of the rights of women to tell them how best they are to serve their own conscience. It is nothing more than religious bigotry with the force of a state behind it, supported by nothing more than a renouncing of the fact that women are legitimate citizens, individuals with the power of choice and with the right of self expression.

Je ne connais pas la réponse.

-The Rev. Schmitt., FCD.

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