Opinion: Burqas

POSTED: 02/7/12 3:56 PM

We once calculated that finding a woman in the Netherlands who is dressed in a face-covering burqa requires extreme eyesight, because there is only one burqa-sporting muslima for every 83,685 citizens. The brilliant government in The Hague sees burqas nevertheless as a threat to public safety. At least this is one of the arguments it brought to the table when it presented the draft-law on a general burqa-ban.

The real reason is of course that the feeble minority government desperately needs to pacify the rightwing Freedom Party PVV. That, in turn, is not a consideration the Council of State has to take into account.

And the council’s advice department was very clear in its negative advice about the draft law. It violates the constitutional right to freedom of religion, subjective feelings of unsafety are no valid reason to ban burqas and apart from all this, women are free to choose whether they want to cover their face or not.

Theoretically, this is the end of the burqa-ban discussion in the Netherlands. If the government ignores the advice, it would be a rather unique move, and a prelude to endless court cases.

There is of course something to be said for the argument that burqas are designed to suppress women. Assuming this is the case, how does the government imagine winning this cultural war? The ban has been declared unconstitutional by the Council of State, so any fine that will ever be written will cost the state more than it will ever bring because the only option open to the courts is to void those fines.

Freedom ends where it intrudes upon the freedom of others, we have argued on this page many times. The burqa-ban seems to fall upside down in this category. Freedom of religion is a constitutional right, and the state should not violate that right. At the same time, who knows how many muslimas are forced –by their husbands or by their religious community – to cover their faces? That is an equal infringement on women’s freedom to choose what they want to wear.

In the Muslim-world, cultural violations often meet with draconic counter measures. In the end, women who belong to this community have to choose between complying with those cultural rules, or face the consequences.

Some may argue that this is no choice at all, but that perception is incorrect. It is a choice: in some cases it is made out of free will, and in other cases it is made under duress. That’s a reality no law maker is ever going to change.

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