Thursday, August 11, 2005

Can a free society ban the burqa?

David Frum blogged The Italian Senate’s action to double penalties for wearing masks in public places has caught the attention of the world. Opponents of the law, both Italian and foreign, point out that Italy’s ban on masking originated under Mussolini and must therefore be “fascist.” But those critics forget that other countries have also banned public masking, not to suppress public liberty, but to defend it. The United States, for instance, restricted the wearing of masks in the Civil Rights Act of 1871 in order to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. The Reconstruction Congress recognized that the Klan’s masks were essential to the Klan’s campaign of intimidation in the American South.

I don't know why Mussolini banned public masking, but I suspect it was to see who was against the Fascist state. But in the case of the Klan, it was to keep people from knowing who was in the Klan.
The Klan’s masks helped preserve the secrecy of Klan membership in the villages and countryside of the Old South. Secrecy enabled Klan members to escape responsibility for their violent actions. Secrecy enhanced the power of the Klan too, by provoking worries about who might be a masked member of the group. The town chief of police? The teachers at the local school? The banker who approved and disapproved loans? The Klan called itself “the invisible empire” and hoped its mystique would frighten federal officials out of the South – and the United States government into abandoning the rights of the Klan’s black victims.
The Klan was despictable
Extremist Islam regards women more or less as the old Klan regarded black Americans: as natural slaves and as perpetual threats to a social order based upon their slavery. Like the Klan, extremist Islam conducts a low-intensity guerilla war against women who dare to assert their freedom: casting acid in the faces of unveiled, beatings and rape in the home, honor killings. In the American South, it was the slave-masters who wore the masks as they waged their war against their former slaves. In extremist Islam, the masks are forced upon the slaves themselves. The American feminist Phyllis Chesler shrewdly observes in her important forthcoming book about women under Islam, THE DEATH OF FEMINISM, that the traditional formula for expressing thanks to a woman for some domestic service is: “May God conceal your shame.” Heard in context, it is a wish that the woman may find a husband. Yet the formula should be heard literally too. It means that to be a woman is inherently shameful. The burqa literally fulfills the ancient wish by concealing the woman from head to toe, as if she were something so disgusting that no eye could bear to see her.
I am not certain that is the motive; I think it is that women were considered property, and that only the woman's husband should be allowed to see her. However this in no way justifies the use of the burka.
If Italian women of Muslim faith or background were piteously petitioning the state to permit them to abase themselves before their husbands and masters – if they insisted that they really and truly wished to be treated as slaves – it would still be a very difficult question whether the Italian state should allow them to do so. Italy does not allow people to sell themselves into slavery.
If a woman wants to wear a burka, because it is expected by her society, she should be permitted to do so, but she should not be forced to wear one.
But except for a few radicalized mouthpieces for extremist Islam, it is not Muslim women who are demanding the right to wear the burqa. It is radical Muslim men who are demanding the right to force women into it. This is not a libertarian demand to put it mildly. And once the extremists have forced their own wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters into the garments of slavery, they can then turn to other women in the Muslim communities of Europe and ask: “What about you?” And this is exactly what is happening and what has happened in schools and neighborhoods where extremist Muslims live. They create an “invisible empire” of their own: a society within a society characterized by a cult of violence among the men and absolute degradation for the women. The burqa symbolizes that degradation – and is also its most constant daily expression. Nor is the burqa a threat to women of Muslim background alone. Already we hear complaints from Mulims in the West – and not only from violent extremists – about the “immodesty” of women here.
Some of that, like the excessive focus on sex in movies and TVs, I agree with, but I deal with them by not going to those movies, or watching those TV shows. I would not insist that women wear burkas. And if Muslims in the West want all women to wear burka, they should move to countries where that is the accepted norm.
Already there are apologists who suggest that perhaps we can learn from Islam not to objectify women sexually. Already there are officials hinting that social order would be assisted if women would follow a few simple precautions ….

Italy is now a country with a substantial Muslim minority. That minority has rights that the Italian state must protect. But let us remember please that half this minority is female – and that the protection they most need is protection against the bullies and extremists who seek to export the ancient oppression of the Middle East to the cities and suburbs of the modern West.

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