Thursday, January 28, 2010

Burqas: When Human Rights and Religion Collide

How do you feel about the proposed ban on full veils (burqas) for women in France?

I confess I have mixed feelings. Sex and religion are the two most controversial topics in the world, and when they mix, it's always an explosive topic. When you throw in the oppression of a minority (which seems to get mixed up with religion anyway), it's like dropping a match into the mix.

Years ago, my youngest son had a school teacher who wore Muslim garb and kept her head covered. Not a veil, but still she was covered from head to foot all the time. I found it sad. She was an African American, so was very likely a convert from a Christian upbringing, and I respect the fact that many African Americans are turning away from Christianity since it is so strongly associated with slavery in America. Yet, I found it sad that this woman, who represented two of the most oppressed minorities in America, would voluntarily wear clothing that represents the oppression of women.

On the one hand, I subscribe to the ideal set forth in our Constitution, that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. I've written about separation of church and state many times. France has similar laws, but theirs have provisions for public safety, and those provisions are being used to justify the proposed ban on burqas.

On the other hand ... The burqa came from a culture that oppresses and degrades women, where women are treated as property. It is supposed to allow for modesty, and the claim is that modern women wear it voluntarily. But I don't buy that argument.

I believe the truth is that most women who wear a burqa are under the control of a strict man (at best), or possibly in an abusive relationship. These women are not modest, they're property.

And on top of the religious and sexual aspects of the burqa, there is the issue of public safety. We humans are extremely good at detecting threatening or abnormal behavior simply by looking at one another. The burqa can easily become a terrorist tool, where women, or even men, load themselves with bombs, then mask their faces so that nobody can see that they're nervous (or that the person is really a man).

I don't see any clear answer to this one. If the world were a simpler place, with less violence, the freedom to wear a burqa would be no problem. But the reality is far more complex.

Here's one more link in closing, an imam in Paris who agrees with the ban.

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