Wednesday, April 13, 2011

France's ban of burqa: What does it show us?

France enforces its controversial ban on 'burqa' earlier this week. I am not a French nor have anything much to do with the country. I haven't been there either. The closest I am to France is reading Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Satre, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and, of course, the indispensable Jean Calvin. So I don't claim to know the country, the culture and the problems the nation is struggling.

Nonetheless, I find the ban puzzling, together with others French Muslim women. One of them commented that, "The law is humiliating--and it's ridiculous."

Another commented in similar abhorrence, "This whole law makes France look ridiculous. [...] I never thought I'd see the day when France, my France, the country I was born in and I love, the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité, would do something that so obviously violates people's freedom. [...] I'll be getting on with my life and if they want to send me to prison for wearing the niqab then so be it. One thing's for sure: I'm not taking it off."

A 27 year-old Muslim woman became the first to be fined 150-euros for wearing burqa in a shopping complex. Two others have been arrested by the police.

I keep thinking to myself, whether is this necessary?

Some reasoned that the burqa poses a threat to France's national identity. "France is a proudly secular state. The wearing of the burqa, even though it is not a religious obligation, is a challenge to that. To accept that is a one-way ticket to eventual national oblivion. [...] this was not about limiting the religious freedoms of anyone. It was about protecting the hard-won norms of the French state and the Sarkozy government was right to do so," wrote Tony Metcalf, Editor in Chief of Metro US.

William Langley remarked that the ban is for the good of the French society, to liberate Muslim women from being culturally forced to wear burqa. "Women who refuse to wear the hijab, and, increasingly, the burka, are intimidated and brutalised by gangs whose ideas about female emancipation are on an exact par with those of the Taliban. [...] Large numbers of the women who wear the burka – whether in France, Britain or anywhere else – don’t have a choice. So France has taken a stand. The first country in Europe to do so, and, I would suggest, by far the best equipped for the task. Secularism is taken seriously in French society – a legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism that was further enshrined in the landmark 1905 law that prohibits the state from recognising, funding or favouring any religion. [...] [France's President Nicolas Sarkozy] in banning the burka, to demonstrate that France has a more sophisticated concept of tolerance than Britain."

If Langley is right, then the banning of burqa is simply a manifestation of a militant version of secularism.

For those who are for the ban to avoid being perceived as intolerant, they would appeal to the cultural oppression experienced by the Muslim women. That's what Langley and the "parliamentarians and feminists in France" did.

For those Muslim women who are against the ban are appealing to their own preference. One of the veiled Muslim woman said, "There was no mosque involved, no pressure from anyone. It is not a religious constraint since it is not laid down in Islam or the Qur'an that I have to wear a full veil. It is my personal choice. [...] I would never encourage others to do it just because I do. That is their choice. My daughters can do what they like. As I tell them, this is my choice, not theirs. [...] I never covered my head when I was young. I came from a family of practising Muslims, but we were not expected to even wear a headscarf. Then I began looking into Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim and decided to wear a headscarf. Afterwards in my research into the wives of the Prophet I saw they wore the full veil and I liked this idea and decided to wear it. Before, I had felt something was missing. Then I put it on and I felt serene and complete. It pleased me and it has become a part of me."

Another one shared about her personal choice to wear burqa, "I was very flirtatious and wore a lot of makeup before I met my husband. After we got married, I stopped wearing makeup and dressing up, but I still got attention from men and I didn't like it. I felt much better behind the veil. It's a barrier between me and men."

In an interview with 32 Muslim women carried out by Open Society Foundation noted that all of them chose to wear the burqa willingly, without being forced to do so.

Clearly the reason used by French feminists, politicians, and William Langley does not apply to these Muslim women who conscientiously decided to veil themselves.

Rokhaya Diallo, the founder of Les Indivisibles, after seeing what is happening in France in the past few years has written in 2010 that "secularists become more militant, their arguments have gotten less rational and have begun to ring with the righteous conviction you usually associate with religious forces they oppose. [...] My perception of secularity has always been one of protection, of the state and society defending individuals and minority religions from coercion. Now we frequently see the opposite at work."

Jean Baubérot, a professor emeritus of sociology and expert on secularism at Paris University's École Pratique des Hautes Études remarked, "The 1905 law establishing secularism describes it as a measure to protect individual citizens' freedom of religion and faith by rendering the state totally neutral to — and disconnected from — religious matters. [...] Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs or practices of people or organizations. [...] Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a 'civil religion': the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to — or be made to respect."

The move in banning the burqa is obviously not without its reasons. Yet this does not make the ban any lesser a violation of individual's liberty. France became a secular nation because it realizes how oppressive it was during the time when religion was prevalent in its government. But the recent ban simply demonstrates how empty its excuse to be a secular state was in the first place.

What we are witnessing here is a clear evidence that governance can be as oppressive regardless of its religiosity or secularism. This also exposes the emptiness of a very popular notion among the Christian community that says "God or/and the Church is/are non-partisan."

The problem is not with partisanship but with the right party. And right does not mean perfect. Our theological notion of right can never mean 'perfect' in this saeculum age. God's partisanship is with the right party. And God's partisanship is not permanent as long as the eschaton is still not here. Hence the Church should perceive its political partisanship in similar manner. Whether does the Church has an unanimous partisanship is of course another matter altogether.

I shall leave it at that.

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