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Should the West Ban the Burqa?

Early in June, Iran denounced European “intolerance” vis-à-vis the burqa. But is this true?

Many Muslims have come to the West in search of freedom and modernity; others have not. Controversy is inevitable. Islamist leaders believe that the West must “tolerate” the practice of gender apartheid as a “religious” right.

Western leaders have condemned the Islamic veil as a sign of hostility to Western ways and as a refusal to integrate. Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and secularists have condemned the veil as a violation of women’s human rights and claim that it is not a religious requirement.

Many Muslim and ex-Muslim experts on Islam insist that the Qu’ran does not command women to cover their faces, bodies or hair. Women are merely told to dress modestly. They further point out that for part or all of the 20th century, many women in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Afghanistan, stopped wearing the veil and wore western dress. Islamists claim that the veil is a religious requirement; that bikinis are worse than burqas; that veiled Muslim women are sacred and as such, should not be exposed to corrupting Western, secular mores.

All Europe is wrestling with the issue of whether to ban the Islamic veil.

On May 19, the French cabinet finally voted to ban the burqa. If parliament approves the bill this summer, female violators will be fined 150 euros; men who force their wives to cover their faces will be fined 15,000 euros and will face jail time. France did this despite a 2009 threat by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to “do all in our power and take revenge at the first opportunity against France.”

In May, 2010, a burqa-clad woman in Novara, Italy, was fined 500 euros; the city had previously banned burqas and niqabs. In April, 2010, the lower house of Parliament in Belgium approved a ban on burqas and niqabs. In April, in Madrid, a girl wearing hijab was sent home from school. Throughout Germany, women are not allowed to drive while wearing a burqa. As of January 2010, 53% of Swedes polled wanted a ban on burqas and niqab in public. In May, 2010, in France and Switzerland, women physically attacked women who were wearing a burqa or a headscarf.

Where does America stand on the Islamic veil? In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama had this to say: "The U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it." Muslim feminists have  condemned the president, arguing that the West must fight for a woman’s right not to wear the veil as well.

In 2002, a Florida woman, Sultaana Freeman, sued the state for refusing to allow her to wear niqab for her driver's license photo. She lost on appeal. In May, 2004, after the Justice Department joined the suit, the Oklahoma school system agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and to change its dress code in a settlement with the lawyers of a sixth-grade Muslim girl who was suspended for wearing a hijab to school. The code now allows exceptions for religious reasons. 

In 2006, in Michigan, a Muslim woman, Ginnah Muhammed refused to take off her niqab while she testified. The judge dismissed her case.

On January 1, 2010 a ban on "any head covering that obscures a student's face" went into effect at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Science "for reasons of safety and security." Under pressure from CAIR, however, the school later amended the ban to allow religious exemptions. Also in 2010, A Muslim woman sued a Michigan judge for making her remove a hijab during a court proceeding.

In my view, the burqa and niqab function as isolation and sensory deprivation chambers. Such garments do not allow the wearer to interact freely with others. Wearing the burqa (and niqab) may also lead to health hazards. Lifetime burqa wearers may suffer eye damage and may be prone to a host of diseases which are related to sunlight deprivation, e.g. osteoporosis, heart disease, hypertension, and depression

Religious headgear and garments that do not cover the five senses are obviously permissible. Thus, a nun’s habit and wimple; a Hasidic Jewish woman’s wig and headscarf; a Muslim woman’s headscarf (as well as various male Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Sikh, Hasidic, and Hindu attire), all allow the wearer to breathe, hear, see, smell, and speak. 

Those who wear such attire are easy to recognize and identify. They can move freely, see clearly, and are easy to identify. This is not true of the niqab or burqa wearer.

For such reasons, I suggest that we begin a national conversation about whether Americans should ban the burqa.

Phyllis Chesler, is an author and emerita professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies. She once lived in Kabul, Afghanistan. She may be reached through her website www.phyllis-chesler.com.

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Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, the author of thousands of articles and of fifteen books, including "Women and Madness," and "An American Bride in Kabul." She archives her articles and may be reached through her website: www.phyllis-chesler.com