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Burqa Bans Are Misguided And Ultimately Undemocratic

Burqa bans have already been adopted in France, Belgium, and parts of Spain.
Burqa bans have already been adopted in France, Belgium, and parts of Spain.
The Netherlands, historically associated with the principle of religious tolerance perhaps more than any other state in Europe, has announced its intention to ban the burqa in public.

The Dutch government has explained that wearing the burqa does "not fit into our open society and that women must participate fully."

Not only the Dutch, but members of other European societies are apparently abandoning commitments to religious freedom their governments have made as parties to the European Convention on Human Rights.

A similar ban has been adopted in France and parts of Spain, and is also under way in Belgium. According to a 2010 "Financial Times" survey, a majority of the people in the UK, Italy and Spain favor prohibition of the burqa.

The Dutch rationale is consistent with arguments that have typically been advanced in favor of the ban, including support for women's rights, defending secular democratic values and security concerns.

Women's rights advocates argue that the burqa is an unacceptable symbol of women's subjugation to men and that some women are forced to wear the burqa against their will.

Irreconcilable With Democratic Values

It is certainly true that the burqa symbolizes values that are inimical to gender equality. It is incomprehensible that women in the West would choose to wear garments that women in Afghanistan were forced to wear on the pain of death under the Taliban.

But studies in both France and Denmark suggest that most of the women who wear burqas do so voluntarily, and that many are converts to Islam.

Two Belgian sisters, who were each fined 50 euros in August for wearing the full veil in public, show their citations to journalists outside the town hall in Brussels.
If women do not have the right to make choices that the vast majority of other people disapprove of, they cannot be said to enjoy equal freedom with men.

After all, no European country has banned men from wearing turbans or kippahs when walking down the street.

Banning clothing because of its symbolic value is irreconcilable with freedom of expression and religion, the most prominent of democratic values, which should and must protect peaceful manifestations that shock, disturb and offend the majority.

The important pan-European efforts to integrate Muslims and secure respect for modern secular values are at its core a battle of and for the minds of Muslims, not their clothing.

Fining women for wearing specific clothing will only create the most unlikely of martyrs out of the very people whom European governments wish to liberate.

But what about the women forced by their families to wear the burqa? Forcing a woman to wear a burqa is a serious violation of a woman's freedom and should never be tolerated. But in most European countries it is already a crime to force someone to wear specific clothing against their will. Enforcement of these laws, however, is notoriously difficult, and has been weakened by ideological multiculturalism.

A Waste Of Energy

Instead of devoting energy on banning the burqa, supporters of women’s' rights should rather focus on creating mechanisms that allow women to leave oppressive family structures without having to fear for violent consequences.

A law forcing women not to wear burqas is just as inconsistent with human rights as
one forcing them to do so.
Moreover, if the ban against the burqa is genuinely aimed at those who are being coerced, rather than its symbolic value, the ban should logically cover other religious garments -- such as the hijab as well.

There are legitimate security concerns related to the burqa, but a general ban against wearing it in public is not a proportionate response.

There are hardly many incidents where gangs of women in burqas commit serious crimes or act in a threatening manner. Nor are women in burqas likely to be terrorists.

It is true that criminals and terrorists can hide their faces behind burqas, but the same can be said of crash helmets and ski masks, the wearing of which no one would seriously try to prohibit. Israel, whose security concerns dwarf those of any European country, does not ban the burqa.

While the wearing of the burqa is protected by freedom of religion and expression, these rights should not provide privileges. Thus it is perfectly legitimate to require women to remove their burqas at security checks in airports, when taking pictures for official IDs, when entering a bank or the like.

Likewise, objections to burqa-wearing by employers are valid if it interferes with work. Women in burqas must also tolerate open disapproval of their clothing and lifestyle by their fellow citizens.

But these restrictions on freedom of movement and job opportunities, as well as possible social isolation, are very different from a ban, since they stem from a woman's free choice. A law forcing women not to wear burqas is just as inconsistent with human rights as one forcing them to do so.

Jacob Mchangama is director of legal affairs in the independent think tank Center for Political Studies (CEPOS) based in Copenhagen. Aaron Rhodes is an international human rights consultant and university lecturer based in Hamburg. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.