No burqas in the land of bikinis - French President
In his recent address to France's two houses of parliament French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that the head-to-toe Muslim body coverings were in disaccord with French values; his country cannot have women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity; the burqa is not welcome and should be banned.
By these and other comments Sarkozy backed a group of French legislators who expressed concern that more and more Muslim women were wearing the garments that cover the face and body from head to toe an issue which has of late fuelled passionate debate in France and endorsed a cross-party initiative by some 60 legislators for a parliamentary commission to find ways to stop the spread of burqas.
In a country like France, which has yet to reconcile secular values with religious freedom, and where secularism has been stretched to and expressed through aberrations and absurdities of the bikini-nudity type, debate on social and sartorial practices of the immigrant "religionists" which the native "secularists" consider anathema to ethnic assimilation, is nothing new. A controversy that raged for a decade about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class culminated in a law in 2004 which banned pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion in public schools Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, and so on.
"Who doesn't see that our integration model isn't working any more?" Sarkozy asked, and said, "Instead of producing equality, it produces inequality. Instead of producing cohesion, it creates resentment."
If Sarkozy's speech is thus any indication, his proposed ban on burqas has more to do with development and the plight of the immigrant population. In that case, he is obviously barking up the wrong tree inasmuch as in exacerbating the state's failure on the social and economic fronts, particularly in the context of social exclusion, burqas might not have had any role.
For one thing, though France is home to Western Europe's largest population of Muslims, estimated at about 5 million, going by Muslim groups and government officials, only a tiny minority wear burqas and niqabs (terms often interchangeably used) which either cloak the entire body or cover everything but the eyes, and though estimated to be at least in the hundreds, burqas are far less prevalent than simpler Muslim headscarves.
For another, as the women in burqas are a tiny minority who cannot influence the nature of the French economy and society, Sarkozy's related comments that the issue of burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women's dignity; the burqa is not a religious sign, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women; it is a symbol of subservience that suppresses women's identities and turns them into "prisoners behind a screen," are a digression.
Sarkozy's comments, however, raise issues which neither he nor France can address effectively. When he says burqa is not a religious issue and not a religious sign, one is tempted to ask what constitutes religion. Since his context is a founded religion, the answer is that religion is not merely a text but a text in its spatial and temporal contexts. It is possible that the text has long outlived the contexts and needs modification or even discarding; or the contexts are made to persist in one form or another, so that the text remains relevant.
This is true not only of founded religions but also of religions without founders such as Hinduism whose versions are so wide and varied as to make the beliefs and practices attributed to them ludicrous, and stupefy their practitioners, leave alone the onlookers.
That explains the recent emergence in many countries, what has been termed "alternative spirituality" or "new religious movements", where often the believers embrace "the new" without leaving "the old". While the Sarkozys of the world might have overcome the dilemma because the biblical shepherd-sheep imagery has become increasingly (and acceptably) redundant to many, and since the contexts have changed those who want to retain the text are willing to go for new editions, the same cannot be said about the Khomeinis and bin Ladens.
That explains why in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran it is mandatory for women to adhere to a certain prescribed manner of dress, from the burqa in the former to the hijab in the latter, though given an opportunity even in these countries bikinis will have greater demand than burqas, and people irrespective of gender will certainly turn out to be connoisseurs of human body, which many of them may already be, albeit surreptitiously.
Sarkozy may be right in his claim that burqa is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement, a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women; and it is imposed on Muslim women by religious obscurantisms. But there is hardly anything he can do to alter the situation as most of the Muslim women live outside France, and a ban on burqas in France, as a matter of defiance, will only trigger greater demand for it elsewhere, say in the U.S. where President, Barrack Obama has shown sudden love for Muslims, and recently even chastised the European countries for their newfangled secularism devoid of accommodation and space for the religions, cultures, values, and traditions of other countries.
In this context, it is also important to keep in mind that many of the social practices have no explanation other than in terms of the nature of dominance and discriminations, privileges and disabilities of a given society at a given time. The practice of wearing burqa may also be in this category, though this and similar practices are often attributed to religion. Others include the dress restrictions prevalent till early nineteenth century in parts of south India when all women had to go without an upper garment before their superiors, but the lower caste women, had to go bare breasted before every one, the "breast-cloth movement" of early nineteenth century by sections of the then lower strata of society asserting their right to dress decently (contrast this with the supposed insistence on wearing burqa which was prevalent even then), the denial of access to the lower strata of society to public spaces, especially temples, the agitations against it, the continuing insistence in virtually all Hindu temples in India that men should not cover their top when they enter the temples, different types of clothing by Muslim women in different parts of India, with the use of burqa limited to some places, and so on.
It is not unusual to see Muslim women folding up their burqas when they reach or leave educational institutions or offices, which clearly shows that they use them under coercion. It is also not unusual to see educated Muslim men and women, who are not great practitioners of religion when in India, adhering to religious traditions, with their women in burqas, when they are in places of Muslim orthodoxy like Bradford in Britain.
So, the issue of burqa is enmeshed in very complex individual and social concatenations. So long as there is coercion by family members, and the community, and Muslim women lack the courage to counter it, or wear burqa as a force of habit or by sheer imitation behaviour, the assertion that use of burqa should be treated as a matter of individual freedom and choice, as some pseudo-feminists have argued is naive. A case in point is the well-known Malayalam writer Kamala Das, who died on 31 May 2009, aged 75. As her writings show, she was not a great believer. In 1999, after the death of her husband, she embraced Islam and changed her name to Kamala Suraiyya, apparently as a protest against Hinduism and its perverted and pernicious version Hindutva. From her conversion till her death she was seen only in burqa. It was not coercion, imitation, ignorance, or belief, but symbolism which made her burqa-clad.
While it is unlikely that Sarkozy's wish will become a reality, as apart from lack of consensus, the ban can rebound on him and his country; he has certainly flagged the issue for debate among the Muslims themselves. And a debate by them on this and many other related issues which are detrimental to the advancement of Muslims in a rapidly globalising world followed by substantive changes in their beliefs, practices and life-styles, and the place which they accord to women in Muslim society, are in their own interest; more so if they realise that though they account for about one-fourth of the world population in terms of education and other indicators of development they are way behind other religious communities.
Prof P Radhakrishnan
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