Revisiting issues that I previously have written about is not something I do often, but I'm making an exception to return to the West's most beloved human rights cause: Banning the burqa.
I last wrote about pending legislation to ban burqas in Europe more than a year ago when France first proposed laws to make it illegal to wear the burqa in public. Proposed legislation is pending with a final vote set in September.
There is no argument that can persuade me that laws designed to bully women into abandoning their cultural traditions because it makes people uncomfortable are essential in a free society. If a woman chooses to wear the niqab who are we to pass judgment? Lawmakers who argue that banning the burqa is a blow against extremism are naïve and lazy. Band-Aid approaches to fighting extremism are rarely successful. It only serves to pander to the ignorance and unfounded fears of politicians' constituents.
Yet I have grown to hate the burqa. I hate the burqa because it serves no logical purpose in Western society. The intent of the clothing is to draw attention away from the woman, but in the West it only attracts unwanted attention. Recently a Glasgow man was sentenced to prison for attacking a burqa-clad Saudi woman on the street. He ripped away her niqab. The woman was a graduate student. She has since quit her studies and refuses to leave her apartment. To her the attack was an act of rape.
I was reminded of this attack the other day as I was sitting on a bench in Newcastle's Eldon Square. I noticed a Saudi family leaving a rented apartment to walk through the square to a nearby restaurant. It was evening and the pub crowd was out and about. The mother was dressed in a burqa with niqab and she was wearing sunglasses. I watched her skirt along the edge of the square to avoid some loud young men who obviously had plenty to drink. The boys mocked her a bit but left the family alone.
I followed the woman into the restaurant. I tried not to be a scold, but told her that wearing the niqab in public on a late Friday night invited unwanted attention and could be dangerous. I suggested that under some circumstances she should consider leaving the niqab at home. A colleague told me he saw the same woman the next day wearing her burqa. Apparently she is willing to risk her safety to maintain her cultural identity.
The climate for Muslims living in the West could not be worse. The Guardian reported recently that three-quarters of the United Kingdom's non-Muslims have a negative view of Islam. About 63 percent agree with the statement that "Muslims are terrorists." And 94 percent believe that Islam oppresses women, according to the Guardian.
The image of Islam in the West is so badly damaged that Saudi Sheikh Aedh Al-Garni issued a fatwa that Muslim women may show their faces in countries where the niqab is banned or when wearing the niqab may pose a danger to the woman.
There are only a handful of niqabis in Newcastle, but each time I see one I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Protecting her image is not worth the trauma their Muslim sister is experiencing in Glasgow.
This is particularly true for niqabis who wear the burqa for the most ludicrous reasons. Most Saudi women, like me, leave the burqa (abaya) and niqab in Saudi Arabia. But I'm guessing that more than a few Saudi girls wear the niqab because their husbands insist on it. The husband doesn't care whether strangers see his wife's uncovered face, but he cares a great deal that his Saudi male friends do. His selfishness and warped view of manhood are more important that his wife's safety is inexcusable. Thankfully, most Saudi women ignore this kind of male behavior, but others don't.
For a long time I strongly objected on principle alone to ban the burqa. A burqa ban is equally offensive as the Taliban's mandate for women to wear one. I see no difference. But Muslims no longer have the luxury of choosing whether to wear the burqa in the West. The French government has led the campaign to steal that choice from us. We now must think in practical terms. Co-existing with non-Muslims in the West means what we must reconsider our cultural and religious values or we go home. By the same token Muslims rigidly adhering to wearing cultural dress unnecessarily invites trouble. It doesn't take much to compromise and adapt at some level to a new environment.
There is no reason to pass laws to ban the burqa. The climate of fear is so prevalent today that wearing the burqa will slowly disappear out of necessity of survival. There will be a price, though. Some Muslim women will return home without a Western education and that will make bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims more difficult. This fear also forces Muslims who want to live in the West to conform to Western appearances. It will also cause resentment and make the fight against religious extremism more difficult. People are not inclined to help governments that pass abusive laws. Muslim women will continue to fear harassment from non-Muslim. And non-Muslims will continue to fear Muslims wearing traditional clothing and hijabs because it represents beliefs alien to them.
Outlawing the burqa will create a tremendous divide between non-Muslims and Muslims. But wearing the burqa in the West is also just plain stupid.