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Reason Foundation

Unveiling the Truth About Burqa Bans

In a free society, no one should be forced to integrate

Steve Chapman
May 24, 2010

If you are Amish and accustomed to seeing women only in long-sleeve, floor-length dresses with bonnets covering their hair, it must be uncomfortable to visit a non-Amish town and confront women in miniskirts, girls in tank tops, and females of every size and shape in form-fitting garments cut down to here and up to there.

But that's life in a free society. Any Amish who object to provocatively dressed females have the option of staying away or averting their gaze. Any non-Amish who are annoyed by the sight of "Little House on the Prairie" fashions can do likewise.

The mutual tolerance approach works well in this country. But some nations that require ultra-conservative Muslims to accept constant exposure to immodest attire think modern Westerners should not have to put up with the clothing choices of ultra-conservative Muslims.

These governments want to forbid women to venture into public wearing the niqab, the black dress that covers everything but the eyes, and the burqa, which covers the eyes as well. Belgium has banned them, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to do the same.

Never mind that faceless women are not exactly rampant in the West. The Belgium Muslim Council says that of the country's 500,000 Muslims, only two dozen or so keep their faces covered. Among France's 5 million Muslims, those in veils number just 2,000.

So why are some people so riled? Muslims suspect the motive is religious bigotry, but the opponents insist they are safeguarding the values of a democratic society as well as the rights of women.

The veil, we are told, is a symbol of oppression imposed on women by husbands and other male relatives. Could be. But how do the critics know? The same thing can be said about surgically enhanced breasts in Europe and the United States.

Just because a few adults may be coerced into doing something doesn't mean others should not be allowed to do it of their own free will. If men are employing violence to control wives and daughters, the reasonable response is to punish them sternly while encouraging women to report the crimes.

But outlawing the burqa merely trades one form of compulsion (you must wear this) for another (you may not wear this). Besides, it is bound to backfire: If brutal men can no longer prevent women from wearing veils when they leave the house, they can prevent them from leaving the house at all.

It may be difficult to interact with someone whose face you can't see. But lots of things that are difficult when unfamiliar soon become tolerable or irrelevant.

When I first met someone I knew was gay, many years ago, I was very ill at ease. The first time I conversed with someone wearing a safety pin through her eyebrow, likewise. In both cases, I got over it. I suspect that if they had no choice, the anti-burqa crowd would adapt as well.

A more imaginative argument is that covering the face is an attack on civilized norms. "The niqab and the burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others," says French parliamentary leader Jean-Francois Cope. Journalist Christopher Hitchens calls them "the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate."

But in a free society, none of us is obligated to integrate. The Amish don't. Neither do the Hare Krishnas. Or Trappist monks. Wearing a suicide bomb around your waist is aggressive. Concealing your face is peaceable.

Veiled women are not refusing to exist in the eyes of others. They, like all the rest of us, are merely deciding on what terms to make their existence visible.

It's also claimed that covered faces are a security threat, since criminals have donned burqas in a handful of instances. Veils can be put to sinister uses—just as scarves, ski masks and sunglasses are often worn by camera-shy bank robbers. We don't ban those, and absent compelling evidence of an epidemic of burqa-enabled felonies, we shouldn't ban veils.

Contrary to the prohibitionists, being deprived of an option is not liberation, and choosing your own clothing is not aggression. The few Muslims who take cover behind the burqa should be tolerated as long as they observe the first axiom of a free society: Live and let live. Maybe someday their opponents will learn to do the same.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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