France is now poised to enact legislation making it illegal to wear the burqa (full body covering) and the niqab (face veil). And a growing number of European countries have already passed or are well on the way to passing similar legislation.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is promoting such a ban in his country, says bluntly: "The burqa has no place in France."
Yet, while the anti-burqa frenzy sweeps Europe, the targets of these measures seem virtually invisible. It is estimated that a couple of hundred women in Belgium wear a full veil. In France, one study estimated that there are 1,900 burqa wearers in a Muslim population of five million.
European public policy makers are using the idea of an enforced dress code as a piece of social engineering, trying to hasten the assimilation of Muslims into the general population. Those opposed to this policy contend that assimilation doesn't happen this way. The result of the ban, they say, will not make them more European; it will only make Europe less free.
With that background, I was interested to learn what my (largely American) readers thought about this issue. So, to a largish but handpicked list (attempting some kind of balance), I emailed the following question:
"France is about to pass a law banning the wearing of the burqa (full body covering) and the niqab (face veil). Proponents of this measure claim the legislation strikes a blow for women's freedom by allowing them to cast off garb they have been forced to wear against their will. Others say women who want to wear these items will now have no choice.
"The religious issue complicates the situation further. Some Muslims feel that these items of clothing are part of a religious obligation; others deny that the Koran makes dress mandatory.
"I'd like to know how you feel. Does the proposed new law help or hinder the rights of Muslim women?"
I got a goodly number of responses. They broke down into four main categories: those opposing the ban outright; those favoring the ban; those who thought the issue was none of the government's business; and the outliers - people who suggested off-the-beaten-track solutions.
Readers who felt that such a ban would impede the rights of Muslim women who want to wear such clothing was by far the largest group of respondents. But they often reached their conclusions after a lot of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand rabbinical angst.
Typical responses from this group:
"It seems to me that the costumes are an integral part of freedom of religion (speech) as the wearing of orthodox Jewish garb, nuns habits, or even justices use of robes. It is all part of freedom of expression. Even the question infers that such repression is justified by the benefits that may derive from such prohibitions. The issue of women's freedom to shed such costumes is a separate one and yet another justification for holding sacrosanct the civil and human rights to freedom of and from religion and politics."
And another reader: "I'm assuming that all Muslim women are not alike, but if I had to make a choice, I'd say that the mandate impedes the rights of Muslim women who want to wear such clothing."
And another: "I am terribly conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, I hate these items of dress because they seem to keep women in a subservient position. It also sets them apart from other women whose dress is conventional. Often people see clothing of this sort and distrust the person. On the other hand, religious garb is typical of many religions. Catholic women wearing head coverings in church, Jewish men wearing hats in temple, and you know the rest. Do those practices need to be outlawed? It seems to me as though it should be all or nothing."
And another: "Okay, my conclusion is that if a woman should choose to wear it, it's okay. If she's forced to wear it, it isn't. How do you legislate that?"
And yet another: "My opinion as a liberated woman is that: Sounds like state-sanctioned racism to me. Will they next start banning turbans or yarmulkes? Will orthodox Jewish women not be able to cover their heads with scarves or wigs? Will they be forced to conform to contemporary French fashions? I understand that the intent is good. But I also understand that it will effectively eliminate these women's ability to choose. In my opinion, a civilized society should respect cultural differences. This law is a newfound fascism turned on its head and blinded by a contemporary "niqab."
Another group favored the ban, another position that garnered a sizable minority.
As one reader in this group put it, "It's quite possible (though hard for me to believe), that there are women who actually want to be invisible, but they are better off learning to live - and dress - as part of society. Moreover, some people claim it's a security issue, if you are going to throw a bomb what better way than to be all covered up? So I think it goes beyond a civil rights issue. Only very radical fundamentalist Muslims claim it is a religious obligation mandated by the Koran, by the way."
"National security is at stake with burqas and niqabs. They conceal identity and conceivably suicide weapons. If a woman wants to dress in them, then she can go to countries where they are accepted."
And from another reader: "If they want to live in a country for which this is not the custom, then they have to conform to the local culture. Muslim women and their spouses are free to return to the country they came from. I don't see this as France's problem. Their problem is if concealing of identity and weapons causes challenges to unknown innocent people."
And another: "I would be against the law, except for cases of national security. There is no way government should dictate how to dress or undress. However when it is an issue of identification the dress should come off."
And another: It's a difficult issue, but on balance I agree with the proposed ban. It's quite possible (though hard for me to believe), that there are women who actually want to be invisible, but they are better off learning to live - and dress - as part of society. Moreover, some people claim it's a security issue, if you are going to throw a bomb what better way than to be all covered up? So I think it goes beyond a civil rights issue. Only very radical fundamentalist Muslims claim it is a religious obligation mandated by the Koran, by the way."
And finally: "If there is no definitive religious mandate, it would seem reasonable for a government to invoke a dress code in the same way that governments prohibit public nudity or covering the face with ski masks or nylon stockings upon while sauntering down the street toward a bank while carrying an AK-47 assault rifle as an elegant accessory."
Then there was a third group, also a sizable minority, which felt this was none of the government's business.
One reader put it this way: "France's proposed law could help the rights of those women who oppose the items of dress, but take away the rights of those who want to respect and honor their tradition. I don't know France's motivation behind this. If hidden weapons have become an issue then it might be a strategy to seriously consider. However, if it's to free women of the garb, I don't think that's the state's place. Whether or not the Koran makes the dress mandatory is irrelevant since it's not the state's role to interpret the Koran, and since most religious sects have a range of interpretations of their sacred writings. This is a religious and cultural matter which those who oppose it should pursue as such; that's what "movements" are for. The State should keep its hands off."
And from another reader: "This question is at the heart of our future. Where, when and how does one culture impose its values on another? At what line? We may think that the wearing of the burqa and the niqab delegates women to the dark shadows of life, obliterating their existence in domesticity. But is it our--or the French government's-- business? Whose business is it?
And yet another: "Anything so rigid in ANY direction is bound to trample on someone's rights. I don't see why this law needs to be in effect at all....seems like choice is the way to go here. But there is a lot of background, I'm sure, that I am totally unaware of in this case."
And another: "I think it isn't our business what these people want to wear. But when I taught in Spanish Harlem the boys who didn't want to take their hats or jackets off -- there was the suggestion that it had to do with being Muslim -- bothered me. I felt they didn't want to be where they were...learning now to be in a foreign culture.
And a final comment, treasured for its brevity: "Is it the place of a national government to impose a dress code?"
Then there were the inevitable outliers.
One of them opposed wearing religious garb of any faith. He said, " From a purely non-sectarian point of view, I would say that the wearing of the burqa and niqab hurts women, especially if they are forced to wear them against their will. However, it is my understanding that many Muslim women (especially those in western countries) that choose to wear those garments and therefore they feel it is a choice that they are consciously making. In terms of women's rights, however, I am sure that there are many other restrictive measures that crush women's rights; restrictions that are probably far more egregious and harmful. If it were up to me -- and I were king -- there would be no public displays of religious vestments whatsoever, but hey, that's just me."
Another reader chimed in with a Solomonic question. He said, "Of course, if wearing burqas and niqabs is, indeed, mandated by religion, the decision would have to turn on weighing the balance of religious freedom and the public good. And who is really qualified to render such a judgment?
And yet another reader suggested that burqas and niqabs be "grandfathered" into the laws that are passed. He said, "I am always for a free decision based on all relevant and current information. Those entering France when these garments were allowed should be free to continue--all new entrants should be subject to then existing laws. However, any government can impose sumptuary laws (tobacco prohibition) on everyone (without discrimination) which they consider benefit society; those disagreeing can appeal to the courts."
What are we to take away from these comments? First, we need a disclaimer: This was certainly not a scientific survey. Second, the sample was much too small to qualify as a credible base. Third, many of my readers, it is probably safe to say, are known to have a built-in bias toward the Left. And it's a fair bet that most of my readers are highly educated, with advanced university degrees.
Finally, it seems to me that most of my readers' comments are conditioned to a greater or lesser extent by the events of 9/11 and the whole issue national security. Some respondents made that caveat explicit: Are burqas going to be used to secret suicide vests?
(Personally, I would be more freaked by the potential loss of peripheral vision by a car driver with a niqab.)
But I think most national security experts would tell you that trying to chase down every burqa in town won't necessarily turn up more suicide vests, only more irritated Muslim women complaining about being racially profiled.
That said, it seems to me that the French Government, and all the other European Governments who are considering the dress code issue, are simply trying to eliminate that big slice of its population that's "not like us." They are attempting to achieve instant homogeneity by wardrobe. But the history of immigration tells us this is not the way people get assimilated.
The history of immigrant assimilation into our own country may not be the best example, simply because it is our own country, where many things have worked differently from their European counterparts.
Legal immigration into the U.S. was accompanied by a great deal of we'll-let-you-be second-class-citizens attitudes, we'll-give-you-the-jobs-no-one-else-wants-to-do work. And, yes, there was conflict not only between immigrants and non-immigrants, but also among immigrants from different parts of the world.
These new Americans cleaned our houses, took care of our children, and picked the fruit and vegetables we put on our tables. And they got paid less for doing more.
In other words, immigrants were the victims of institutionalized greed. Most began in poverty and improved their condition gradually by buying and selling among themselves - in their ghettos. Eventually, a few began to accumulate wealth. They became the ghetto leaders. Then they broke out of the ghettos and became entrepreneurs.
And, for many, although they still clung to some old customs, always remembered the music, and spoke some of the old country's languages, their principal aspiration was always to be 110 per cent Americans. Baseball. Apple pie. The Whole Nine Yards. This evolution took generations.
So it is and will be for future generations of immigrants. You can see the full metamorphosis if you visit the Muslim neighborhoods of places like Dearborn, Michigan.
People who live there - part of the several million Muslims who are proud to
call themselves Americans - remember where they came from. The elders may even remember the discrimination and the second-class citizenship they experienced - some of which lingers to this day, thanks to the Islamophobia that followed 9/11.
But, by and large, these people have become the kinds of fully assimilated Americans who would warm the cockles even of fear-mongering nativists like Tom Tancredo and Steve King.
Could this happen in Europe? Well, I guess anything's possible. But on the Continent, it faces a major obstacle: Europe does not honor diversity; it honors a homogeneity that can't be achieved in the 21st Century.
At the core of Americans, I still find that most people buy into the narrative we invented of improving ourselves and our country by celebrating the differences among and between our people.
What the so-called anti-immigrant forces want is an instant replay of Ellis Island. They want immigrants to come to our country legally. That's not so far-fetched. It's the duty of every sovereign country. But one of the problems with that construct is that, for the most part, the people who passed through Ellis Island looked pretty much like the rest of us. There may have been Mediterranean men who looked Latino - but back then, we didn't fear Latinos. And there were certainly no women in burqas or hiqabs!
In any event, people who really know about immigration tell us that banning burqas and hiqabs will be about as effective in controlling border traffic as the fences we've built.
Getting this job done will take nothing less than CIF - Comprehensive Immigration Reform. CIF that puts illegals on a path to citizenship, that lets hard-working people do the jobs only hard-working people would want to do, that regulates the numbers and types of immigrants we wish to welcome, that treats immigrant detainees humanely, and that takes a big whack at employers who use wink-and-a-nod personnel practices to hire people who are in this country illegally because it saves them money.
That sounds like something we could actually do!
But at the same time, there are ominous portents of things to come taking place among our neighbors to the North. Quebec has recently tabled a new law, Bill 94, which will ban the niqab -- or any face cover -- when extending and receiving public services in such institutions as courts, hospitals, schools, and licensing bureaus.
Could this be the beginning of the slippery slope for the Western Hemisphere?
Having sounded that alarm bell, I have to say that whether or not there's a burqa ban in Europe, or in Canada, or even in America, we're dealing with a sideshow, a symptom. The woman who really wants to wear these garments isn't going to change because she's told they're banned. She's just going to get angrier and less assimilated.
So, until they find the smarts and the courage to come up with a lot more holistic and robust approach to immigration, governments should just get out of the way.