Let’s Be Honest About Banning Burqas

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A protester against former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who may be investigated for possible breaches of the Conservative Party code of conduct for saying that women wearing burqas look like 'letterboxes' and 'bank robbers' (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A protester against former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson. Johnson may be investigated for possible breaches of the Conservative Party code of conduct for saying that women wearing burqas look like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers.’ (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

A gang of jewel thieves dressed in burqas made off with $265,000-worth of gems and $98,000 in cash from a store in the UK. The gang hid machetes and sledge hammers under their voluminous garments and didn’t hesitate to use them to hatchet those that got in their way. The gang managed to rob 10 stores over a 12-month period before they were finally caught and jailed.

Laws banning burqas have been enacted in 13 countries worldwide, ranging from Austria and France to Tajikistan and Cameroon. While non-Western countries had little problem banning the garment for security reasons, Western countries – which face the same type of threats – fell into the mire of political correctness over attempts to forbid the wearing of face coverings in public.

Take the most recent example in Denmark. As such legislation was about to go into effect, hundreds of left-wing (mostly non-Muslim) Danes took to the streets, accusing the government of denying a woman’s right to dress as she wants – a supremely ironic take on burqa wearing considering that given the choice, it is probably safe to say that many if not most women would relish freeing themselves from the oppressive and claustrophobic garment.

(Witness the reaction of women in Iraq and Afghanistan when ISIS and the Taliban, respectively, forced women to wear burqas. When these extremist forces were defeated, women made videos of themselves celebrating their liberation from and burning what they viewed as a vile garment — an oppressive infringement on their freedom and femininity.)

Yet, in making moves to ban the burqa, Western countries and their politicians continue to fall into the trap of cultural relativism: Politicians on the Right speak of upholding “secular and democratic values”; those on the Left cry discrimination and Islamophobia.

This gets particularly sticky when it comes to the exercise of the European idea of human rights — namely, freedom of religion. Although in Europe, freedom of belief is protected, the freedom to exercise one’s beliefs in the public sphere is murky.

Take for example the landmark decision by the European Court of Human Rights that ruled in favor of a Belgian firm that sought to prevent a Muslim woman from wearing a hijab at work.

The court cited two basic reasons for their ruling against the women (both of which would have been laughed out of a U.S. court): First, the company had an “unwritten” rule against employees displaying visible signs of belief, and (2) even though not allowing the woman to wear her hijab at work could be viewed as denying this employee her religious freedom, the court ruled it was a legitimate denial due to the higher purpose of projecting a neutral corporate image to the public.

Contrast this to a similar case in America, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a young employee of Abercrombie & Fitch who was not allowed to wear her hijab at work due to the company’s stated “look policy,” which prohibited employees from wearing any type of headgear.

According to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, employers must provide their employees “reasonable accommodation [to exercise their freedom of religion] without undue hardship [to the employer].” Essentially, in ruling in favor of the woman, the court concluded that making an exception to the “no headgear” rule on the part of Abercrombie would not pose an undue hardship on the company – meaning upholding the value of freedom of religion was more important than corporate image.

While even Americans might be tempted to argue about the need to ban the burqa to preserve the “secular and democratic values” of society, an honest look at this reasoning shows its flaws.

Whose secular values are we speaking about? Whose idea of democracy are we promoting? Such a stance puts the society on the slippery slope of cultural relativism and, ironically, away from the freedoms we Americans rightly hold dear – namely the fact that democracy is not enshrined in secular dogma – or any other dogma for that matter that is held as a value above the rights guaranteed to all of us in the First Amendment.

Throughout the annals of history, that has been tried before — most recently in the last century’s experiment with the “secular and democratic values” of communism.

Both the Left and Right need to argue for the only ethical and legal reason to ban the burqa: Plain and simple, in the society in which we live, burqas present unreasonable security risks, thus constituting an “undue hardship” on the society at large.

Once that gets settled, it would behoove the protesters to consider the real issue of coercion for many of the women who are forced to wear burqas and demonstrate for their right to choose.



European High Court Rules on Hijabs at Work

Hijabs in the Workplace: To Wear or Not to Wear?

Ban the Hijab…But Only in Hotels! 


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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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