This week, the burqa became illegal in France. There’s no doubt that it’s a contentious issue, and one I will only touch the very edge of here. The thing is, much as I’m all for secularism in most of its forms, I believe that this new legislation is farcical. David Mitchell summed up my feelings on the issue perfectly today in his Graun column:
‘Damian Green, the immigration minister, deftly dismissed calls for a burqa ban as “rather un-British”… I certainly prefer that argument to his colleague Caroline Spelman’s view. She thinks burqas are “empowering”. That’s only true in the sense that a ban would be massively disempowering and colossally violate the rights of free-born citizens.’
The French government claims that this new law is not about institutionalising Islamophobia, but about security. If anything that obscures the face is to be included, then shouldn’t they also legislate against sunglasses, big hats and The Stig?
However, any claim by the ban’s advocates that this will somehow liberate female Muslims is, at best, misguided. Countless atrocities have been carried out in the name of religion, Islam included, and even at the present time, women are suffering in ways that make religious clothing regulations seem comparatively irrelevant. Against the deafening squeals of xenophobic tabloids, it is easy to forget that some women wear the burqa out of choice. After September 11th, many took to the veil as an act of pride and defiance against the terrible hostility they faced from non-Muslims.
As you’re probably aware, I’m not a fan of religion in any of its forms, but to claim that a burqa ban is for the benefit of women is absurd. It’s despicable for a man to demand that a woman wears a certain item of clothing, but it’s just as despicable for anyone else to demand that she doesn’t. Where is her choice in any of this?
In May, the Telegraph reported on an incident of “burqa rage” in France:
‘At one point the lawyer, who was out with her daughter, is said to have likened the Muslim woman to Belphegor, a horror demon character well known to French TV viewers. Belphegor is said to haunt the Louvre museum in Paris and frequently covers up his hideous features using a mask. An argument started before the older woman is said to have ripped the other woman’s veil off. As they came to blows, the lawyer’s daughter joined in.
“The shop manager and the husband of the Muslim woman moved to break up the fighting,” the officer said. All three were arrested and taken to the local gendarmerie for questioning.
A spokesman for Trignac police said that two complaints had been received, with the Muslim woman accusing the lawyer of racial and religious assault. The latter, in turn, had accused her opponent of common assault.
The French parliament has adopted a formal motion declaring burkas and other forms of Islamic dress to be “an affront to the nation’s values.”‘
The Telegraph weren’t altogether accurate on one aspect of this story: Belphegor was a fictional character who first appeared in 1927, embarked on a complicated mission to steal and hoard museum artefacts, and repeatedly evaded capture by the authorities. Created as a rival to the famously masked, enigmatic anti-heroes such as the Phantom of the Opera, Belphegor has been celebrated in the mediums of comic, literature and television for nearly 80 years, most recently as a feature film in 2001.
The most striking thing about this accomplished super-villain, the fact that the Telegraph missed, is that in the Scooby-Doo moment at the end, when Belphegor was finally captured, that impenetrable mask was removed to reveal… a woman. In losing her anonymity, the mighty Belphegor lost her power.
Take heed. You may consider it wrong for a woman to wear a veil, but if you tear away her disguise in the name of liberation, she may not thank you for it. In the meantime, you can learn more about Belphegor (pictured below) here.