A committee of Belgian Lawmakers have voted to ban the wearing of burqas in public, but while some political commentators have argued that it is a women’s rights issue or an issue about keeping religion separate from society, one has to ask whether the opposition to burqas is based on political rather than moral reasons?

France, Netherlands and Switzerland have all brought some form of legislation to restrict the wearing of of certain Muslim dress, and now Belgium plans to ban the wearing of burqas in public.

The arguments for these legal moves have ranged from integrating Muslim populations into the main culture, keeping religion separate from the state to even an argument about women’s rights.

Yet behind all these arguments the question that is never asked is, when did European populations and governments oppose Muslim dress, before or after the 9/11 attacks and the ‘war on terror’? The point is you will have to look very hard to find any news article or any legislation before these events to indicate that there was a general problem with Muslim dress in Europe.

Heather Akou is an assistant professor at Indiana University and expert in African and Muslim dress and largely agrees that some Muslims believe the burqa  to be an oppressive piece of clothing for Muslim women, especially when people look at women in Afghanistan. Despite that however, she also points out that the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women is seen as “liberating” by many Muslim women. (Pennington: October 23, 2008)

She said, “It’s not that you have no body and you have no beauty, but outside of the home you don’t want to be an object of harassment. You want to have people interact with you based on your ideas and your abilities and not so much what you look like.” From this perspective how is the hijab oppressive?

While the burqa’s ban is open to debate the hijab ban which has been discussed by the governments of France and the Netherlands makes little sense. It is perhaps an indication of cultural arrogance rather than a genuine concern for women’s rights.

Yet France’s own record when it comes to women’s rights is not that great, an Inter Press Service report by Alecia D McKenzie (November 25, 2009) mentioned that one woman is killed every three days in France because of domestic violence.

A national police report in 2008 said that 156 women in France were murdered by their partner or ex-partner in that year alone, this represents 16 percent of the national homicide total.

McKenzie said “Overall, reported cases of domestic violence have increased by about 30 percent, which may be due to greater awareness. More than 47,500 cases were reported in 2007 and surveys indicate that two million French women experience domestic violence at some point.”

According to Ernst Hirsch Ballin, Minister of Justice, for the Netherlands, “Forty five percent of the people in the Netherlands between eighteen and seventy years old have experienced (been subjected to or witnessed) at some time in their lives domestic violence in their own family circle, where one should feel the safest!” (June, 2009)

In light if these figures which did not include the statistics for rape and rape convictions in these countries the idea that Europeans somehow have an enlightened view of women can be challenged.

Another question that should be asked is why are hijabs and burqas seen as oppressive but not the full length religious dress of nuns? Again this seems to point towards political and cultural arrogance from a European perspective.

The burqa will remain a controversial but necessary topic of discussion, but if we are to discuss these issues let us do so from an objective position without resorting to racial, cultural or political prejudices.

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