Discussion Question: Are burqa bans oppressive to religious freedom or a defense of the rights and dignity of women?
This week an Italian parliamentary commission approved a draft law banning women from wearing veils that cover their faces in public. This sets Italy on course to join several other European nations with headscarf or burqa bans either already on the books or maneuvering through the legislative process. Are such garb prohibitions oppressive to religious freedom or do they in fact release Muslim women from an oppressive, medieval practice?
Supporters of Italy's draft law against the Islamic veil argue that prohibiting the burqa and niqab eliminates the suppression of women who are forced to wear them. However, forcing all women not to wear a veil is hardly the appropriate way to counteract those who coerce some women to wear them. The women who believe in wearing the veil in public must now remain at home to act in accordance with their beliefs. The seclusion and isolation that thus results for these women is not a fair trade-off for the liberty of those who no longer have to wear the veil.
The crux of the matter is individual freedom. There is a striking similarity in the absence of choice afforded a woman compelled by her community to wear certain articles of clothes, or compelled by her state not to wear those same articles. If the concern is truly women's freedom, then that concern should extend to the choice of wearing the veil as well.
In banning the veil altogether, Italy is sidestepping the core issue of freedom to choose. There are many things in society that are allowed, even encouraged, but are criminal when forced upon people. This includes areas of life such as labour, sex, and marriage. Religious practice should be no different. As long as it does not infringe someone else's rights, religious practice should be allowed, but criminal when forced on someone else because that violates the principles of freedom and democracy. Banning a religious practice altogether because it is sometimes forced on others is the same as saying because there is forced labour or forced marriage in the world, we should ban all labour or marriage. It makes no sense. Italy needs to deal with crux of the matter, freedom, by criminalizing the coercion to wear the veil, not the veil itself.
Another issue arises because dress is incorporated into many religious traditions: the Jewish yarmulke, the Sikh turban, and the Hindu bindi, for example. If a society bans certain religious dress, equality necessitates banning all religious dress (as has occurred in the school system in France). This forces secularization and is a violation of freedom of conscience and religion. Individuals are not, and never will be, cookie cutter copies of each other. Every person brings to the table a unique ethnic, cultural, and religious background. Trying to change this is a contravention of the founding principles of a free and democratic society.
We need to be careful of swinging like a pendulum in society. Rather than going to an opposite extreme to counteract one wrong, we must discover the root of that wrong and pull it up. Ironically, if we do that, we see that the root problem is the absence of individual freedom to choose, which is exactly what the state is extinguishing with its draft law. In the fight for individual freedom, Italy is throwing out religious freedom, and in the long run, individual freedom itself, with the bath water.
Written in partnership with Carmelle Bussey, Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada
Author: Grace Mackintosh
Grace Mackintosh is General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada. She is a published author, and prior to her move to Ontario in early 2009, she worked as legal counsel with Miller Thomson LLP in Calgary, Alberta representing clients with respect to constitutional, government and human rights law. Grace also served at the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission for three years, from 2001 to 2004, where she developed human rights policy and made public presentations on behalf of the Commission. She is currently involved in several religious freedom public awareness projects addressing national and international issues.