First published on Kakak Killjoy
As we all know, the “burqa” ban has taken effect in France on Monday as a political and nationalistic expression to preserve the French cultural identity and end the “oppressive” practices of face-covering among Muslim women. Two women have already been arrested. We should know that such invasive intervention done in the name of French culture and freedom is in itself oppressive and an act of hypocrisy of the highest order. And as well-noted by the New York Time’s editorial statement, the burqa ban directly affects only a tiny minority of women who wear the niqab but serves as an implicit excuse to Muslim-bash every other Muslim.
The ban has been outrightly condemned and rejected by many, and even within the French corridors of power there is no unanimous agreement on the ban. Time and time again, the words ‘liberation’, ‘oppression’, and ‘culture’ have been used against a very small number of women and their friends and families when proponents of the ban are guilty of the hypocritical use of the words themselves.
Before we can have a strong opinion on either side of the ban, bearing in mind that Sarkozy himself has said the niqab/burqa has no inherent religious underpinnings, we must ask “How does the physical niqab and its wearer threaten the rights of others and national identity?”, “Why punish the women who under no coercion wear it in the name of freedom of dress?”, “Why is Sarkozy so interested in liberating women by picking on Muslim women?”, and “Some women who wear the niqab are themselves French citizens, and France is a religiously and ethnically diverse country making France multicultural, but why isn’t their French identity protected by the state?”.
In Malaysia, we cannot ignore that the heated opinion-making on the burqa ban has been divisive. Views coming in from a number of self-proclaiming Malaysian liberals and conservatives alike align themselves against the niqab. Some have praised the ban as punishing Muslims for not respecting the norms of their “host” country. Without examining the national origins of the women, they are by default pendatang.
Others have expressed that the niqab erases women’s identities, as if women’s identities lie only in the way they dress and in their faces. Some will even admit that they have the right to see the faces of the people they speak to, as if communicating on telephone or emailing breaks down communication altogether. Besides, what rights does a person have to see the face they’re speaking to?
And here’s a contentious argument on the relentless correlation with Islam. Deep down, there is perhaps a resentment of Islam and Muslims who have become too uppity for their own good, making a mockery of liberty while in many places of the world Muslims have shown to exhibit no tolerance for individual liberty. The niqab ban can divide Malaysians when religion seeps back uninvited into the debate, re-opening the old wounds of Malay-Muslim hegemony and fears of the imminent global dominance of Muslims that have made many Malaysians casualties of fear and state oppression. These arguments have been worded and rationalised in more sophisticated ways but thinly veil unexamined prejudices about Muslims and an undercurrent of disrespect against women’s freedoms.