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The Burka Debate

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Last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a parliamentary debate to decide whether to legislate a ban on the Islamic niqab, the face covering veil which is estimated to be worn by less than 2,000 members of France’s Islamic community. He called the garment “a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” and said he believed that it threatens the dignity of women. If such legislation is enforced women who are found guilty of defying the ban could face fines of up to 750 Euros.

Is criminalising the hijab likely to help promote the human rights of women in the Islamic community? In predominantly Muslim countries the laws pertaining to this issue vary, in Saudi Arabia and Iran women are legally required to wear the burka and face severe punishments from the religious police if they do not comply, in more secular Muslim countries such as Turkey and Tunisia the hijab is prohibited by law in government buildings, schools and universities. In more progressive countries such as Indonesia it is a woman’s personal decision to choose whether or not to wear the veil, an individual’s choice is not legislated by the government. Many educated independent women who are devout Muslims opt to wear the veil, will taking away the autonomy and self-determination of these women actually help to liberate those who are forced to wear the hijab under duress?

Many believe that the wider issue is that of coercion and domestic violence, which is not addressed by legislation which is designed to cosmetically assimilate the Muslim population of Europe. These problems may be better addressed by dealing with the issues through Islamic religious and community leaders rather than taking a hard-line approach that may alienate many Muslim communities and create no constructive change. In Afghanistan the Gender Equality Project promoted by the United Nations has been helping to raise awareness of women’s issues by working with mullahs to make people in their community aware of their rights and entitlements in accordance with Islamic law. Implementing changes with sensitivity to the culture and customs of the Islamic populace is more likely to have an enduring effect than enforcing legislation which restricts their civil rights. Proponents of the ban cite security reasons as an additional factor in prohibiting the hijab but international human rights advocates stress that security checks can be carried out in private without compromising the safety of the general public. The proposed French laws which may be implemented with the aim of reducing domestic violence and oppression could in fact have the opposite effect, making some women effectively prisoners in their own homes.

European governments will have to further examine the impact that restrictions of religious expression will have on this community and formulate solutions that will maintain respect for faith and cultural diversity whilst ensuring that women are free to make choices that are not influenced by abuse, coercion or the legislative undermining of their right to self-determination.

by Naomi Pattirane

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Source by Naomi Pattirane

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