Of Burqas and Bridges: An Appeal to Human Dignity

A burning issue in France right now is whether women should be allowed to wear the burqa — a complete face-veil considered obligatory by some Muslims for the sake of modesty. Non-Muslims may be confused about a variety of terms and various versions of such a device, and understandably so. Muslims disagree among themselves as to the prescriptions of their faith, some wearing no head-covering at all, some covering only the hair, and others wrapping themselves loosely according to local custom. What has led to the impasse is the insistence by some that, in order for a woman to leave her home, she must be invisible-leading to a host of impersonal shrouds floating through the streets of Europe, rattling the sensibilities of the locals and setting relationships between the cultures rightfully on edge.

There are a number of factors to be considered in response to the burqa, and preeminent among them is the question of freedom. Since Christendom has given way to a Europe of the Enlightenment, the prevalent view of freedom is that of religious tolerance and equivocation among professions. Thus Mohammed and Jesus, the Buddha and Lord Shiva must all break bread with Voltaire and Rousseau and the only prevailing maxim is to give each his due. If moral confusion ensues, it is the price of accommodating every worldview as an equal and no confession as true.

At first glance, this interpretation of freedom seems to reflect the Catholic definition, which is found in the Catechism : “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude ” (CCC , 1731). These words leave no room for coercion or force, and would appear to allow men and women the autonomy to act without constraint according to their lights in daily life.

In this light, we can understand the stance of the French Catholic bishops, who have spoken against the imposition of a ban on wearing the burqa. In part, they were quote in the Daily Mail as saying: “If we want Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries to enjoy all their rights, we should in our country respect the rights of all believers to practice their faith… A dialogue in truth among believers will help us go beyond mutual mistrust.”

Interestingly, two points ground their appeal. The first is the concept of reciprocity — that the freedom Muslims have in the West to express their faith should be met with a similar freedom in Muslim countries, allowing Christians to live their faith without reproach. The second is their appeal to the pursuit of truth, and yet that seems to be overshadowed by their desire to embrace diversity. Whether or not the pursuit of the first is possible (or even wise given the intransigence of Muslim political leaders) that diplomatic effort is beyond the scope of this article. I do firmly believe, though, that it is undermined by the second consideration — the truth about human dignity which has been swallowed in confused notions of modesty.

In the same Daily Mail article cited above, Muslim leaders admit that the extreme form of modesty expressed by those who wear the burqa is not a requirement of Islam. It is a private interpretation embraced by a small portion of Muslims and indicative of a radical view of interpersonal relationships. Those who are familiar with the life of the prophet Mohammed, the Koran attributed to him and the traditions passed down — called ahadith — will recognize that he had firm ideas about women that are contrary to our modern sensibilities. Islam teaches that men are superior to women, that women are property of the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, husbands and sons) and women should not mix freely with men who are not related to them. Girding this worldview is the notion that women are temptresses and men are incapable of resisting their crafty wiles.

In terms of the dignity of the human person, this is insulting. Christianity understands men and women to be fundamentally equal and called to a fruitful complementarity. The virtues of modesty and chastity are grounded in the call to prudence and self-control, and freedom includes the ability to act in accord with God’s will despite our disordered passions and compromised will. To blame women for leading men astray and punish them by banishing them from visible society is what leads many to say that Islam must not be taken as an equal partner by those who value the gifts of women. And to add to the insult, there are those who suggest that the Virgin Mary herself gives credence to such misogyny.

Just as civilization has rightly marginalized racists and anti-Semites, the bigotry inherent in Islam has to be considered from a human rights angle. To consider diversity as a strict benchmark ignores the hard fact that some of the celebrated cultures brought into the circle of respect degrade certain persons and deny them authentic freedom.

Thus I respect the bishops’ grave concern for the safety and well-being of Christians in Islamic nations. I’ll even grant that diplomacy demands a measure of reciprocity on a secular plane. But I would warn that if a singular drive to co-exist is the fuel to their action, then authentic freedom is in grave danger everywhere. When the bishops choose to ignore the degradation and oppression bound up in shari’a — the application of Koranic values to everyday life — then Christianity is placing its salvific light beneath a bushel basket and denying many European immigrants their due respect.

Is it not possible to say that Europe so respects the integrity of its citizens that it defers to those who are insulted by the bundling of women into non-persons? Would it not make sense to say that the freedom France espouses is so important that interpersonal relationships must be founded on mutual respect among men and women? Doesn’t the acceptance of fully veiling women indicate that permitting some to exist as non-persons in Europe is an acceptable price to pay for negotiating abroad? What of the countless women who look to the West to honor their dignity and reject those who brand them as chattel?

The bishops can pursue a “tit for tat” strategy in good conscience if they only consider one angle. I think the wider lens must take into account their respect for those who suffer abuse merely because of their femininity. To insist on decency, integrity and respect for women-Christian, Muslim and other-requires that all forms of oppression be banned, both in Europe and abroad, from human trafficking to child brides. To this end, a soul-searching inventory of all elements of utilitarianism and objectification would enrich men and women and set a higher standard — and here France has an opportunity to take the lead. That’s the difference between the values of Christendom and the Enlightenment. It’s all about the non-negotiable dignity of every human person.

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