This is for the first time that women would be penalised for wearing the burka. Earlier France banned Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in schools. It argued that these religious symbols interfered with the state's commitment to secularism and the French culture. In fact nothing happens without political ideology behind it. This measure is being championed by rightwing politicians who are exploiting anti-Islam feelings in France among a section of the people under the cover of secularism.
However socialists are opposed to any ban on the burka though they are not in favour of women wearing the burka. They feel women should be discouraged rather than banning the burka (which includes covering the face). Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon announced that wearing the burka was not desirable but he did not favour a ban which would amount to an inconsistent ad hoc measure. “We are totally opposed to the burka. The burka is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic,” he said. “But an ad hoc law would not have the anticipated effect.”
The stand taken by the socialists appears to be quite logical. One cannot stop women from wearing the burka through a ban. It is quite undemocratic to punish one for wearing a certain type of dress. It is anti-democratic and anti-secular for a multicultural society. Let it be very clear that to cover the entire body, including the face, is not necessarily an Islamic way. The Al-Azhar in Cairo has banned such a cover under an Islamic edict.
The ulema hold different views on the subject. A majority of them hold that covering the face and hands is not prescribed by the Quran or Sunnah. Only very few theologians and jurists want women to be fully covered. To compel women to so cover their bodies and face is indeed against women's rights and dignity. And a woman should be a free agent to decide for herself what to wear within decent limits and the cultural ethos.
However, this freedom also includes the right of women to cover their face, if they so desire and if they think it is a requirement of their religion. When I was lecturing at Bukhara University in a class of women students all of whom were wearing skirts with their heads uncovered, two women came fully covered including their faces. All other women demanded that these two burka-clad women be thrown out.
I told them to imagine that the burka-clad women were in a majority and two women had come wearing skirts with their heads uncovered, and the majority of the burka-clad women had demanded that those two women be thrown out — how would they feel? I, therefore, argued against getting violent just because someone dresses unlike us. We should have a dialogue with them and persuade them, if we can.
There could be a number of reasons why one prefers to wear a certain kind of dress. Maybe there is coercion by parents or husband which is undesirable. Or maybe one thinks it is a religious requirement or one tries to assert one's right. Or maybe one is trying to fight cultural alienation. Certain dresses also become identity markers. Many Muslims who migrate from Asia and Africa experience a cultural shock when they see French or other European women wearing scanty dresses like bikinis. Thus they feel all the more compelled to wear their traditional dress.
Also, in France and several other European countries migrants are marginalised and feel alienated which pushes them into practising their own cultural norms. And then it is also to be remembered that all Muslim women in France do not wear such dress covering themselves fully. In fact many Muslim women have integrated themselves in French society by taking to western dressing.
A ban will only build up resistance among traditional Muslim women and they would try to defy the law resulting in social tension. It would be far better to resort to persuasive ways to discourage the more traditional women from wearing the all-covering burka.
Persuasion alone will not work unless backed by other measures, economic as well as social, to fight the alienation of religious and cultural minorities.
Thus, one needs multi-pronged measures to contain this problem. The Muslim ulema and intellectuals living in France also have to adopt creative ways to interpret Islamic traditional sources to address emerging conditions. It is necessary to revisit traditional sources which were rooted in a medieval, tribal/feudal culture.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.