Rejecting the burka

The burka can't be permitted under the freedom of religious expression, just as full nudity can’t.

April 26, 2010 22:35
3 minute read.
Faiza Silmi, a 32-year-old Moroccan,wears a burka in France

Burka in France 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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The burka ban debate raging in Europe has made it to Israel. MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) announced this week her intention to initiate a bill that would prohibit the wearing of a full-body and face covering for women. Solodkin said that her bill would not differentiate between Muslims and Jews.

The burka is most commonly tied to Islam. It is worn in more extremist Muslim traditions as part of a conscientious adherence to hijab – the Islamic requirement to dress and behave modestly in public. But in recent years a zealot sect of haredi women, numbering perhaps a dozen or two, has also adopted the burka as part of their understanding of tzniut – Judaism’s modesty requirements. The most prominent member of this splinter group, who became known as the “Taliban lady,” was charged with sexually abusing her children.

Solodkin, inspired by a recent anti-burka campaign launched by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, argues that the burka is an attack on the dignity of women. We agree.

Whether there are in Israel enough burka-wearing women to justify devoting the energy and resources needed to legally discourage the phenomenon is unclear. But in principle, a strong argument can be made for banning the burka and what it represents.

First, the custom is misogynistic. The aim of covering a woman from head to toe is to blot out her feminine presence in the public domain; to turn her into a nonentity that cannot express her desires and her thoughts; to deny basic human interaction. Religious freedom, like any other right, is granted on condition that it is not exploited for destructive goals, such as the subjugation of women.

Muslim women who say they choose to wear the burka might argue that they are no more a product of male domination than anorexic western women vainly striving to meet men’s prurient demands for a perfect body. But while the objectification of women is wrong, it cannot be compared to the brutal erasing of their very presence. The burka deviates so radically from accepted Western norms that it cannot be permitted under the pretext of freedom of religious expression, just as full nudity can’t. That’s why the vast majority of moderate Muslims oppose the burka.

The burka also undermines social cohesion. Women who wear the burka in Western countries send out a strongly anti-integrationist message. It is part of a wider rejection of Western values by radical Islamists who insist on full communal autonomy and the official recognition of Sharia law, including the imposition of the niqab (full veiling of the female face), and sometimes the right to perform female genital mutilation.

In Britain, for instance, this total lack of willingness to integrate on the part of some Muslims has become an obstacle to the formal learning of English, has heightened inter-communal tensions, and has reinforced the ghettoization of Asian Muslims into separate enclaves with high unemployment and increased social alienation.

Finally, the burka can be a security or crime risk: It hides the identity of a potential terrorist or criminal.

FOR THESE reasons, lawmakers in several European countries, including Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Italy and France are pondering anti-burka legislation. In January, Denmark decided to restrict niqab in public institutions.

Those who support such legislation realize that an easygoing multiculturalism works only when there are basic shared values and a willingness to integrate. But European multiculturalism has deteriorated into rudderless moral relativism and a pusillanimous reluctance to criticize radical Islamic customs for fear of being branded an Islamophobe.

Sadly, some Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow and leader of the Conference of European Rabbis, have helped foster such unfounded fears. “Sixty-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz,” wrote Goldschmidt in the New York Times in February, in an op-ed opposing the idea of bans on the burka, “Europeans can permit themselves to be squeamish about how things start and how things, if left unabated, can end.” As a rabbi, he added, “I am made uncomfortable when any religious expression is restricted, not only my own.”

Goldschmidt has got it wrong. Europeans have a right to feel uncomfortable. But not, as Goldschmidt argues, because Europeans are being too hard on Muslims. Rather, because they are being too soft.

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