Yesterday, the French government officially moved toward banning the burqa and niqab in all public places in that country. This issue has promoted tensions between the cultural traditions of Islam and the Christian and secular values of the West in our increasingly globalized world. The burka- a tent-like face garment worn (mostly) by Afghan women- seems to be ground zero for this battle at the moment and people are taking sides and seeing it as either a woman’s right to wear or a symbol of degradation and subservience.
I completely disagree with the approach that the French government is taking. I fully support the choice of a woman to wear the burka should she feel that she would like to cover her skin and/or hair for religious reasons. As soon as it becomes forced and situation where a woman’s agency is taken away or she no longer has the right to make that decision for herself. We can’t really understand the cultural context, or simply judge others, if we haven’t walked in their shoes. And, that goes for everything!
For me, the debate really becomes more personally relevant when we look at the larger picture and see that the French government has had to shape a strong stance to the issue of accommodation or assimilation of minority cultures and their own traditions within their borders. These are fundamental approaches that nations, cultures and societies are faced with as they attempt to deal with the tensions between their traditions and values and embracing new cultures and ideas. Yes, the French need to do what they can to protect their unique culture but all this is doing is further isolating and singling out a religion and its practices and shoves it back into the French “closet” where it will further stigmatize these people.
When we look at issues like same-sex marriage in the same context, with the same tensions over tradition and religion and giving a minority rights that goes against a society’s traditional values, one begins to understand and perhaps even respect the other side of the coin. I’m not saying you have to agree with it, but that understanding can serve as a starting-off point to bring together two opposing sides to talk about the issue to find some common ground and work out solutions rather than see who can scream the loudest and lobby the most politicians.