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Prisoners behind a screen?
by Marko Kananen
2009-07-11 09:49:33
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“The burqa will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic,” declared President Nicolas Sarkozy in his speech at the Versailles Palace. According to Sarkozy, the head-to-toe Islamic garment is not a symbol of religion but a sign of female submission and it is unacceptable that women are held “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”
Sarkozy’s speech has aroused a fierce debate all around the world. Supporters of the ban have praised Sarkozy for his brave and clear message and his willingness to defend women’s rights. According to a common argument, the vast majority of the women wearing the burqa are forced to do so, and that is why it is the duty of a state to protect these women. For example, Rama Yade, the French junior minister for human rights, said she was willing to support the ban if it was aimed at protecting women forced to wear the burqa.

How about those women who wear the burqa voluntarily? This is the core question posed by the opponents of Sarkozy’s suggestion. Although there are no official figures, it is plausible to assume that not all the women are forced to wear the burqa, and that some of them are indeed doing it out of their free will. For these women burqa is not a mean of oppression and therefore a ban would mean that the state is limiting – instead of promoting – their freedom.

The central question thus seems to be how to draw a line between promotion of freedom, on the one hand, and protection against oppression, on the other hand? Should we put more weight on protecting those women who are forced to wear the burqa by banning it once and for all, or should we protect the freedom of those who wear the burqa voluntarily, and take the risk that some women will be further on forced to wear it? 
In order to answer this question, we have to consider what we want to achieve by the ban. From Sarkozy’s speech it is possible to point out two general points. First of all, the aim of the ban is to prevent female oppression, i.e. to make sure that nobody is forced to wear the burqa against her will. Secondly, banning the burqa should improve the position of Muslim women, to help them to integrate to social life. These two goals I can accept without a doubt, but is banning the burqa the way to achieve them? 

Obviously, any form of oppresion against women can not be tolerated and the state has an obligation to fight against it. Through the ban we can, indeed, make sure that noone is forced to wear the burqa against her will. But aren’t we naïve to think that removing Burqas will solve the problem of female oppresion. If, as put by Sarkozy, burqa is a symbol of submission, we cannot expect to get rid of the submission just by removing the symbol. An oppressed woman will not become empowered and equal, just because the state is banning a piece of clothing.

We have to bear in mind that the reasons behind oppression are much more complicated than the amount of clothes. If women are deprived from education and if they are ordained to the privacy of home without any access to labour market, we can not empower them just by changing the way they dress. The fight against oppression is a more profound one; it is a fight that can not be won through legislation. It demands change in our thinking and in our attitudes. That is why it is important that the whole society is taking part in this change.

This leads us to the second aspect of the burqa ban - its social implications. The aim of the ban is to integrate the Muslim women better to the society and to include them to social life. However, there is a risk that the ban will rather build up more barriers between the Muslim and the mainstream populations, instead of tearing them down. As put by the French Immigration Minister Eric Besson, the ban is most likely to “create tensions”. It can easily be interpretated as a hostile reaction against Islam and as an attempt to limit the religious freedom of the Muslim population. This, in turn, can lead to further isolation and mistrust. In the worst case the ban can make the whole issue of burqa even bigger. Currently, the use of burqa is relatively seldom, but through the ban it could become a symbol of religious freedom or resistance against the western oppression and its use could spread out significantly all around Europe.

As the example of the burqa shows, it is extremely hard to draw the line between promotion of freedom and protection against oppression. Although we can not close our eyes from oppression, we have to be aware that freedom does not come in a one-size-fits-all guise. What is freedom for me might be a prison for someone else. Or as put by Bob Dylan:

You might like to wear cotton, you might like to wear silk
You might like to drink whiskey, you might like to drink milk
But you're gonna have to serve somebody
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody

In a multicultural society we have to be extremely careful before we go about releasing others from their cages. What we need is tolerance and mutual understanding, rather than bans and dress codes.

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Alexander Mikhaylov2009-07-12 01:12:17
' In a multicultural society we have to be extremely careful before we go about releasing others from their cages. What we need is tolerance and mutual understanding, rather than bans and dress codes.'
Marksist's - leftist garbage!

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