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The Great Burqa Debate

July 14, 2010

Finally, French legislators have passed the bill banning the female veil in public, which covers the whole face and body. If passed by the Senate in September it will become a law. The breaking of this law will result in a fine and if men force their wives to wear full veils they will face up to one year in prison and a fine. As expected the proposed law has sparked ‘the great burqa debate’ among Muslim and non-Muslims circles all over again. Many Muslims, especially those living in France term it a violation of their basic civil rights.

It is interesting to know that French law prohibits census on the basis of religious faith so an accurate number of Muslims is not known. However, despite tougher immigration laws the Muslim population is reported to be increasing . One of the main tasks of French authorities is to successfully assimilate tminority immigrants in to French society. The use of full body and face covering by Muslim women was considered a failure on the part of Muslim immigrants to absorb in the pluralistic French society. Minimal or no assimilation on the part of immigrants whether religious or economic, increases the chance of ideological clash which can lead to a dysfunctional society.

Let’s set aside our sensitivities for a while and look at the matter from the French point of view. The French government stands on the principle of secularism. French laws of 1905 require the separation of church and state which means no religious group is funded by or supported by the state. This law holds special significance given the volatile history of France where the clash between puritanical and liberal groups was common and caused a deep divide within society. The French government, according to its constitution, can make any law to uphold and maintain secularism.

French primary and secondary public schools and civil servants are expected to operate in an environment of neutral of religion and politics. But according to laws set in 1905 the public is allowed freedom of religion. Some people argue that this law primarily deals with school buildings, curriculum and teachers instead of students. But it could be argued that students also form an integral part of society and if the majority of students in school aren’t comfortable regarding the Muslim veil then as a democratic nation they have the right to voice their concern and take steps towards bringing a change. It was this ideology that spurred a ban on Muslims headscarves among other religious and political symbols – such as Jewish kippah, Sikh turban and large crucifixes in public schools in 2003.

The recent ban on the face covering veil should be worrying only if it triggers a series of bans. As long as Muslims are allowed to maintain mosques and practice and preach religion and women are allowed to use headscarf with faces open, their case, if they take it to the Europeans Court of Human Rights, would not have strong grounds. That is because according to French interpretation an individual is free to practice religion as long as he/she doesn’t deviate from the secular values of the state.

Is it tricky? Actually, no. It is easier to understand if we bring the situation to our country. Let’s take an example of violations of basic civil rights in Pakistan. Ahmadis by law are not allowed to practice or preach their faith publicly. They can’t call themselves Muslims or call their places of worship mosques. The state seized their basic right of freedom of religion. The comparison of this situation with the burqa ban makes the French appear totally justified in attempting to preserve their constitutional tradition – because in a democratic setup decisions are made according to the will of majority.

The ban on the veil also reminds me of an incident in the Peshawar High Court where Chief Justice, Tariq Pervaiz, ordered female lawyers not to wear veil in the courtroom. He reasoned that female lawyers could neither be identified nor perform their duties properly. This remark by the chief justice did not go down well in many circles. In an Islamic countries including Pakistan criticism of such a remark is understandable. The constitution ensures the Islamic way of life for Muslims and the law doesn’t prohibit a woman from taking a veil. If we study the case of French burqa ban in the perspective of our country it would be easier for us to understand the intricacies and workings of French Constitution.

Written for: The Express Tribune

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2010 5:25 pm

    You know, there are only, or mainly, American people who make a fuss about that . You must understand people in France, unlike in the States, don’t give a great importance to religionds . In fact in a common French mind, religions are often suspicious . And it’s opposed to social French background to exhibit one’s religion. Even Catholic public activities are considered with irony, or hostility, by half of the population .
    This comes from the first French Revolution. As the Church has always acted as an essential ally of the rich and the powerful, French Revolutinaries had to fight it strongly . In France all religions are tolerated, but in a private sphere. It would be a scandal if a religion could interfer with any State or Local administration . For many a Frenchman, watching the new US president using the bible is an image of a delayed population, not freed of sort of primitive superstition .
    French mind has been educated in separation between religion and State. I think for a French free mind, seeing a women humiliated in the name of what is considered as a primitive belief is annoying . And in public space it’s seen like an agressive militantism. By the way, in the rest of Europe except maybe the UK since people there are more submitted to American way, people don’t care about this French law , because they are not so concerned by religions, or they wonder if it would be better for their country too .

  2. July 15, 2010 12:44 am

    Very nicely written post buddy..
    Kudos to you for this great piece of writing !!

  3. July 15, 2010 7:53 am

    But Pakistan is not a secular country. In Pakistan, Ahmadis do have their own religious places, their graveyards, they can wear what they want… You have to keep in mind that Pakistani constitution is based in such a way that it won’t contradict with Islamic Shariah. The roots of this Shariah comes from Hanafi and Shia forms of Islam, and both of them consider Ahmadies or Qadyanies as a threat to their religion, so it makes lot of sense that they have influenced Pakistan government to ban open activities of those sects.

    It doesn’t seem right to compare a religious bound country to a country which portray itself a secular.

    • July 15, 2010 3:51 pm

      I based my argument on the following points:

      1) Pakistan has been involved in the basic human rights violation. Ours is a strange country where discrimnation takes place on everyday basis within the same province just because of different languages. So naturally it is odd for Pakistan to stand up and talk on behave of the Muslims of France for their violation of rights.

      2) When Pakistan can use constitution to serve the will of majority so can France do. Secular means separation of state and religion. It doesn’t mean if the state is secular it will allow the clash of cultures. Face veil is not Islamic, it is more of a cultural practice. The steps to curb the use of veil goes back to 1994 in France.

      3) The recent ban by France could be blamed on the increasing Islamophobia but we should look at ourselves. Aren’t we suffering from Judophobia or Ahmadiphobia for that matter? How would we feel if we live among the group of Jewish people dressed in their traditional kippah, Torah in hand and sporting payot? Its natural to perceive someone by his/her attire. The (extreme) orthodox way of living is somehow always confused with radicalism.

      4) As I mentioned it would be truly concerning if France steps ahead and stop people (or Muslims) from practicing their religion.

      5) I quoted the case of Ahmadis in the context of constitution. Call it an Amhadiphobia or whatever that our people suffers from – it is the similar phobia the French are going through – so that people could understand how an ordinary French perceives an orthodox Muslim. As you said Ahmadis can maintain their graveyards and mosques… right, but can they call their mosque a ‘mosque’. Why is that we Muslims always feel so vulnerable… so threatened? No religion/sect is a threat or can misguide if and I repeat if your own ‘imaan’ (faith) is strong!

  4. July 15, 2010 11:11 am

    Finally french story come to the conclusion whaich was delaying to be recorded finally…. that’s somehow a good stop, atleast they have decided something either good or bad but all got the awareness of last order…

  5. July 15, 2010 6:50 pm

    The official initial claim against the veil in France came from the school. State managed free school for everybody is one main foundation of the Republic, one of its prides and one of its pillars . School is associated to the Republic, opposed to previous regimes and opposed to the Church . That’s why every religious signs have been prohibited in the schools, and in any official building. When some Muslims girls started to come to school with a burqa, it created a problem . The Catholic Church, of course supported the Muslims in order to fight secularism . So burqas were quickly forbidden at school. Then ,later, the problem was expanded to public administrations, and now, in the streets, or public space. Now there is some confusion, also with the anti-Arabs feeling of a minority of French, and it became a confused mess. But we don’t need an interference from delayed countries, were religion is always used together with political oppression, and big money at the end of the day, as it was in France before the “République laîque”. Strangers from America or Muslims countries don’t hit the point . This has to do with the war revolution has declared to the Church .

  6. July 16, 2010 8:01 am

    Ayesha :
    I based my argument on the following points:
    1) Pakistan has been involved in the basic human rights violation. Ours is a strange country where discrimnation takes place on everyday basis within the same province just because of different languages. So naturally it is odd for Pakistan to stand up and talk on behave of the Muslims of France for their violation of rights.
    2) When Pakistan can use constitution to serve the will of majority so can France do. Secular means separation of state and religion. It doesn’t mean if the state is secular it will allow the clash of cultures. Face veil is not Islamic, it is more of a cultural practice. The steps to curb the use of veil goes back to 1994 in France.
    3) The recent ban by France could be blamed on the increasing Islamophobia but we should look at ourselves. Aren’t we suffering from Judophobia or Ahmadiphobia for that matter? How would we feel if we live among the group of Jewish people dressed in their traditional kippah, Torah in hand and sporting payot? Its natural to perceive someone by his/her attire. The (extreme) orthodox way of living is somehow always confused with radicalism.
    4) As I mentioned it would be truly concerning if France steps ahead and stop people (or Muslims) from practicing their religion.
    5) I quoted the case of Ahmadis in the context of constitution. Call it an Amhadiphobia or whatever that our people suffers from – it is the similar phobia the French are going through – so that people could understand how an ordinary French perceives an orthodox Muslim. As you said Ahmadis can maintain their graveyards and mosques… right, but can they call their mosque a ‘mosque’. Why is that we Muslims always feel so vulnerable… so threatened? No religion/sect is a threat or can misguide if and I repeat if your own ‘imaan’ (faith) is strong!

    1. Muslims should stand up for rights of fellow Muslims, either it be in their own country or elsewhere.

    2. A secular constitution does not prohibit its people from practising their religious believes. That would be more communist form of government controlling individual life of people. You have to see the reason they have argued to impose such a ban, as it would liberate Muslim women from oppression inflicted by their fathers, brothers or husbands.
    2.1 I wonder if you agree that?
    2.2 Do you really think in a country like France, women can actually be forced to do something against her wishes?
    2.3 Face veil is not just a cultural practise, but is something commending by the Islamic religion.
    3. I have experience of living in a multi-cultural society, and a person with Kippah and Torah in hand has never bothered me as long as it was not imposed on me against my wishes.

    As far as the issue of calling religious places as Mosques, it may be a misleading name for most of the main stream Muslims, so it can be justified on such grounds as well 😉

    • July 16, 2010 11:31 am

      1. Muslims should stand up for rights of fellow Muslims, either it be in their own country or elsewhere.

      In theory it sounds great but since there is no concept of Ummah in today’s world so this is considered meddling in other countries affairs in political terms. Christians often meddle in our affairs too when they demand the good treatment of Christian minorities in Pakistan or when they try to help the victims of (so-called) blasphemy laws.

      2.3 Face veil is not just a cultural practise, but is something commending by the Islamic religion.

      Face veil isn’t religious per se. Quran doesn’t speak of covering your face. If it was religious then women would have been asked to cover their faces during the performance of Hajj and Umrah which isn’t the case.

      The rest of your points are like’ you’ll defend your point of view while I’ll mine’ so I’ll drop the issue there and then. I already explained in my blog and previous comment what I wanted to say.

      Thank you for your patience and input though! 🙂

  7. July 16, 2010 1:05 pm

    Ayesha :
    1. Muslims should stand up for rights of fellow Muslims, either it be in their own country or elsewhere.
    In theory it sounds great but since there is no concept of Ummah in today’s world so this is considered meddling in other countries affairs in political terms. Christians often meddle in our affairs too when they demand the good treatment of Christian minorities in Pakistan or when they try to help the victims of (so-called) blasphemy laws.
    2.3 Face veil is not just a cultural practise, but is something commending by the Islamic religion.
    Face veil isn’t religious per se. Quran doesn’t speak of covering your face. If it was religious then women would have been asked to cover their faces during the performance of Hajj and Umrah which isn’t the case.
    The rest of your points are like’ you’ll defend your point of view while I’ll mine’ so I’ll drop the issue there and then. I already explained in my blog and previous comment what I wanted to say.
    Thank you for your patience and input though!

    Even I wouldn’t want to drag a discussion on such a wide subject. Just wanted to jot down my last input regarding Quran, as Quran itself doesn’t speak of lot of things we as a Muslims deem necessary. It doesn’t tell you how to pray or even pray 5 times a day, the word “Salah/Salat” in Arabic has numerous meanings, same goes for other hotly debated issues, such as Burqa, Niqab, Pardah, scarf etc.

    I do follow your blog regularly and do find some of posts very interesting. I hope my comments have not offended you or your readers by any means.

  8. Ugly Shoelace permalink
    July 16, 2010 3:52 pm

    Well-written =)

  9. nasir jan permalink
    August 2, 2010 12:10 pm

    Pakistanis HAVE NO RIGHT TO COMPLAIN – the constitution of Pakistan was ammended by the a clown in uniform called Zia UL Haq. Under the law, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims and may not refer to their places of worship as “mosques”. Orthodox Muslims applying for a passport must sign a statement deriding Ahmad as an “imposter”. This is the law of their land and people abide by it. It follows that they should abide by the law of FRANCE and stop pretending to care about fairness or human rights until they start practicing it themselves. Can you imagine if the west asks people of Paki origin should sign EU PASSPORTS confirming they are not suicide bombers and that Osama is not a good muslim!

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