Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
In world news today, Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France, has announced his support for a ban on wearing burkhas. I think this is colossally wrong-headed, and goes against the very principles Sarkozy claims to uphold.
Classical liberals who believe in individual freedom, as I do, are appalled by some societies for the way they treat their women. The burkha is a symbol of this oppression, and obviously our hearts go out to women forced to spend their lives hiding their faces and their bodies from the world. But the operative word here is ‘forced’.
We are troubled by burkhas because they represent coercion. But not all women who wear burkhas, especially in the West, do so because they are being forced into it. Many women wear them out of choice, and we should respect that choice. We may disagree with their reasons for it—but really, once that choice is established, those reasons are none of our business. They have as much of a right to wear a burkha as to not wear a burkha, and to outlaw that option amounts to the same kind of coercion that Sarkozy is trying to position himself against.
In his speech, Sarkozy said, “The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity.” I agree—and that is why we should respect their freedom and dignity by not trying to regulate what they wear. Sarkozy condescends to women who choose to wear a burkha by implying that the government is better placed to make those choices for them. If I was a burqa-wearing women, I’d be rather pissed off.
The issue of coercion is, of course, more nuanced than this. A woman may not be explicitly forced into wearing a burkha, but for a young girl born into a devout Muslim family, there may be subtle pressures that will take her in that direction. Non-conformity carries greater costs in traditional families and societies, and she may rationalize her wearing a burkha and represent it as her choice. I agree that this is problematic—but I maintain that in the absence of explicit coercion, it’s none of the state’s business.
Also, many women do make that choice in the absence of either coercion or any kind of pressure. Check out Shagufta Pasta’s excellent satirical post on this, “Talking to Someone Wearing a Headscarf: An Etiquette Guide.” (This link is via Chandni.)
Barack Obama, by the way, has spoken out against Sarkozy’s move, “saying the US values religious freedom and would never ‘tell people what to wear’.” Much props.
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