No garment is more symbolic of the debate between integration into society and tradition than the burqa. This piece of cloth has been under the limelight in recent years, facing bans across countries – France, Denmark, Sri Lanka, and most recently the Netherlands. Having spent some time living in Western societies, I know that this is a topic that has surfaced on more than one occasion for me.
The burqa is a garment donned by Muslim women which covers the whole body, including the face, eyes and the head. Often confused with the niqab (which leaves the eyes uncovered), the burqa was worn by women in the Arab Peninsula before Islam came into being. The religion adopted it as a continuation of the prevailing tradition.
Different countries in the EU have their own regulations (France, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Bulgaria, Netherlands). France was the first European country to implement the full-face veil ban in public.
Women donning burqas and or niqabs can face a fine of €150 (~S$230) or be required to take a citizenship course. Those in support of the ban identified the garment as a means of repression towards women, and that such an ideology is not compatible with the values of a secular society.
Further, the Court also endorsed their stance that while it affects some Muslim women, at the same time there is no restriction to wear any kinds of garments that do not conceal the face. In October last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) had said that the ban enforced in France is a violation of human rights.
Belgium then followed suit in 2011. Those who are found breaking the law risks fines or being arrested. Some other countries that have enforced the so-called burqa ban are Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Sri Lanka, and Switzerland (partial ban).
The Netherlands is the sixth EU country to prohibit full-face veils in public (government buildings, schools, public transport) in August this year. It also includes ski masks and full-face helmets. Critics have argued that the ban makes it difficult for those wearing the burqa to go about their everyday lives, and implementing the ban is a waste of resources.
Banning the burqa is an attack on the very fundamental rights of exercising freedom of choice and thoughts, individual freedom, and control of their own bodies. Implementing the ban and criminalising the garment is not going to attain gender equality in countries, nor is it going to ensure national security, or ensure that ethnic and religious minorities are properly assimilated.
Sociologists have even studied the effects of the ban. One of the effects includes increased isolation for many women as they would prefer to stay home more and push the minority further away.
By banning the burqa, it is effectively preventing Muslim women from practising their basic human right to do what they want and express themselves how they see fit.
What happens if someone who dons the burqa out of her own free will and choice? Is she a criminal? Will she be arrested or fined because of practising her own personal convictions and identity expression?