Of berets, baguettes and burqa bans

07.15.11

First published on The Vine, July 15, 2010.

Following on from the bold steps taken by the Swiss electorate last year to ban those hideous eyesores that are Islamic minarets, the French lower house yesterday voted overwhelmingly to ban that other paragon of Islamic-ness: the burqa. Of course, not that it was phrased so bluntly – the law makes reference only to “concealing one’s face in public” – but nonetheless, the law was quite unequivocally aimed at those who, for whatever reasons, wore the burqa. Them, and the presumably tiny subset of the population for whom balaclavas are acceptable fashion choices.

Balaclava Palaver

So, how big was the issue in France? Well, depends what you look at. In terms of public sentiment, huge. In terms of practical effect, close to non-existent. There are approximately five million Muslims in France, a country of over 60 million. Two million of these are women. Two thousand of those wear the burqa. So, the French legislature sequestered itself away for a little while and came back with a law that in a roundabout way made it illegal for these women to abide by their religious code. Given that these were probably not the most emancipated of women in the first place, I do wonder if this will lead to the extension of liberté to these women or simply make them unable to leave the privacy of their own home.

Now, I’m going to be the first to admit, this is a vexed issued. A very vexed issue. But it continues in the grand tradition of Western nations everywhere tailoring laws to incredibly specific subsets of their populations in order to assuage some broader perceived social unease. The minarets in Switzerland (of which there were, in total, two), the “boat people” in Australia (which account for a remarkably tiny proportion of our illegal immigration), the burqa in France, these are all, for want of a better, less mind-blowingly pretentious word, synecdoches; that is, these minor and practically insignificant issues function as symbols of a more generalised angst in the population about the presence of outsiders in a now unfamiliar system. Which is why they’re so capable of being leveraged by political forces, and often in such opportunistic fashion. Because, say what you will about their necessity, the bitter debates that these symbolic struggles tend to kick up do have the handy side effect of diverting people from the real issues to hand. Namely, in France’s case, sky-rocketing debt, persistent unemployment, plummeting productivity and the potential financial collapse of the entire European Economic Community. But really, that is as nothing when there’s a handful of already subjugated women with covered faces to be dealt with.

With all that said, I’m no fan of the burqa, and neither are most of the Muslim organisations in France. As they point out, the Koran makes no reference to the need for women to fully veil their faces. But these debates still play in to some pretty fundamental questions regarding how we see the interplay between the person and the state, and also the person and the community in which they are embedded. For instance, to what extent does the idea of a secular society guarantee freedom of religious behaviour? We don’t let Rastafarians smoke pot or Mormons marry more than one person, so is it justifiable to ban the burqa on similar grounds? Do religions deserve any special consideration at all? And, religion or not, at what point does the distaste of many overwhelm the choices of the few? Even more specifically, is the wearing of the burqa actually a free choice, worthy of being defended, or is it an oppressive symbol of male domination that by definition could not be freely chosen? If Sex and the City 2 is to be believed, the answer to all of these is OMG FASHION!!!!

But these debates are not as distinct and abstract as we might think. Right now, South Australia is saddling up to a proposed law to ban the wearing of the burqa in public buildings and government offices, while back in May Federal Senator Cory Bernardi called for its wholesale outlawing on “security” grounds. Being based essentially on a single mugging by a burqa clad person, that opinion piece perhaps suffered from an excess of extrapolation, but it nonetheless suggests that the sentiment is teetering on the edge of the political mainstream, and might only need a closely run election to burst into the open.

Normally at this point in time I’d finish with a vague declaration of principle, some sort of sarcastic remark about Tony Abbott and an unrelated YouTube video of a cat trying to get at some birthday cake, but this time, I dunno. It’s not that simple. And perhaps it’s not even that important. But I guess I just hope that when this debate does eventually happen, as it almost assuredly will, that it doesn’t become the cesspool of unwarranted xenophobia that it has every chance of becoming. And that it doesn’t begin to – a la asylum seekers – overwhelm every other matter of substance to which this country needs to cast its attention. And so we live in hope.

Oh, alright, you can have the video: