Maltese members of parliament were recently discussing whether the burqa should be banned from use in public.
This is not a straightforward issue. It transgresses left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious opinions. Many feminists want to ban the burqa and but others don’t. Such divisions exist even internally within political parties and civil society organisations.
There are various arguments characterising the burqa debate, which, in turn, are not necessarily exclusive of each other. In this article I wish to focus on three.
The first argument concerns equality. Here, it is argued that equality should be given precedence over diversity, as sometimes multiculturalism can have its limits, for example when a cultural practice forces women to wear the burqa and to be considered as second-class citizens.
The argument goes that if multiculturalism leads to a moral relativism, then this can lead to a dangerous context of ‘anything goes’, at the expense of equality. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’ would simply be personal opinions, and no one would have the right to condemn or stop a practice which belongs to a particular culture.
A shortcoming of this approach is that even if one agrees that the burqa is a sign of gender inequality, why not attack this rather than its symbols?
Given the complexities involved, maybe the burqa issue requires a practical working agreement rather than a one-size-fits-all approach
To date I have not seen campaigns in parliament against, for example, the marketisation of the body, which renders human beings as objects, for example on mainstream television programmes.
Another argument deals with security. Here, one can refer to France’s 2010 ban of the public display of religious symbols, including the burqa, and to the European Court of Human Rights’ support of the country’s banning of people covering their face in public.
France had argued that when one’s face is covered in society, this violates a “minimum requirement of life in society”, and the court’s judgement added that “a veil concealing the face” goes against other people’s rights to “live in a space of socialisation”.
The problem with this argument is that it is very arbitrary. Does revealing your face necessarily make you more sociable? If terrorism is seen as a main concern in terms of security, does wearing a veil make you a terrorist? As far as I know, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the American Oklahoma bomber, did not wear a burqa.
Finally, another argument gives priority to choice. Here, it is stated that in a pluralistic society, people are reflexive and have a right to choose their identity, as long as it does not infringe on the identities of other persons.
Henceforth, the argument adds, women who choose to abide by their religious beliefs by wearing the burqa should be free to do so, just as other women and men get along their daily lives by wearing what they deem fit to wear. Proponents of the choice argument usually add that burqa opponents are concealing their own fear of living with difference, which is a key characteristic of liberal democracy. Besides, by giving power to the burqa bashers, society can drift towards unnecessary impositions by the state on people’s individuality.
Yet, even this argument has its problems. What if the liberal democracy championed by the supporters of the burqa does not extend to the circumstances of everyday life? Is the burqa really a personal choice or is it an imposition by an ultra-conservative patriarchy within one’s family?
Maybe a pragmatic way forward for the burqa debate would be to see what wearers have to say about this but this option has similar challenges to the ‘choice’ argument.
Given the complexities involved, maybe the burqa issue requires a practical working agreement rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Perhaps it would be wiser to give more importance to civil society deliberation than having a short-termist parliamentary debate that aims to resolve the issue after a few sessions. People and groups from different sides can and should discuss the issue in a spirit of respect. Internally, each group may have its own different voices, yet this diversity can actually encourage broader communication.
In this sense, the burqa debate can lead to a genuine multiculturalism of respect, where cultures learn from each other, rather than a multiculturalism of intolerant identities that do not interact.
My deepest condolences to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. In such dark moments, hope should still guide us. #NousSommesUnis
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.