Of all the great challenges Europe faces today, from security to climate change, who would’ve thought banning the burqa or bukini would dominate our public conversations?
Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the European Youth Event 2018 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg alongside 50 other young Muslims from across the continent. The delegation was organised by the Forum of Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO) and Etudiants Musulmans de France (EMF).
The two-day event involved workshops, debates and lectures, which were attended by nearly 9000 young people from across Europe and beyond. They centred around themes relevant to contemporary European societies, with a goal of engaging young people in the discussions which will ultimately impact them.
One of the most well attended and hotly anticipated debates was the “Dress code debate: Ban on the burqa and burkini?” I was particularly interested to see what the youth of Europe would have to say on this topic. From the outset, I have to make it known how ridiculous it is that we actually debated this issue.The bottom line is, this was a discussion about whether we should ban an item of women’s clothing, which as far as I’m concerned is absurd.
But despite my objection it wasn’t absurd to some of the attendees. It was strange for me that an audience predominantly made up of non-Muslims felt they had the right to speak for and about Muslim women, justifying their gander into this exotic new topic under the pretence of standing for women’s rights and freedoms.
Not all were foaming at the mouth to take our clothes off, in fact many stood up against the measure. But it does reveal the place of Muslim women in these societies; that a right guaranteed to all members of these societies are contingent when it comes to us.
The political hysteria surrounding the hijab in France it seems is an infectious disease.
A male audience member felt it his place to say, when advocating for the ban on the burqa, that in his country “we do not hide our lovely ladies”. To my surprise his comment was met with rapturous applause.
“Our lovely ladies”? Two questions immediately come to mind. If we accept his use of the word “our” (which I don’t), you have to wonder how he didn’t realize that he was in a room with many Muslim women who wore the headscarf, who are also citizens of Europe. When did we become the “other”? It would be a charitable interpretation of what he said to assume this was an honest slip of the tongue.
And concerning the use of the word “our”- this implies ownership. It strips away the agency of women who choose to wear the hijab or burka and those who don’t. It’s as if the way we dress is meant to soothe the egos of our male overlords, for fear that if we don’t show the satisfactory amount of skin or cover too much of it, we might upset them. I just wanted to know who put him in charge of these ladies he claimed were his?
I felt compelled during the debate to have to contribute to the discussion as it became very clear that some segments of the audience were becoming sympathetic to the idea of banning the items of clothing to “protect women’s rights and freedoms”.
The hypocrisy of those who favoured the ban angered me to the core. In one breath they spoke of protecting and advocating for the rights of women whilst in the next, they favoured taking those very rights away. It seemed that if we take our clothes off we are emancipated but if we decide to cover up we are suppressed.
And to add insult to injury, another audience member would go on to say that asking
women to take off a burkini isn’t traumatizing and another stated that to call such a thing Islamophobic was to play victim.
Welcome to the European Parliament ladies and gentlemen where some people believe they have the right, bestowed upon them from up high, to decide which rights Muslim women should enjoy, and which they should be denied.
Rather than celebrating the richness and diversity of Europe, some took the view that at worst, minorities and their choices of lifestyle are a threat to Europe, and at best, an inconvenience. The hijab for them symbolized a “lack of integration”, not paying attention to the fact that integration is a two-way street.
What they couldn’t see was that this wasn’t a question of integration but in fact assimilation, because to integrate is to come together, to celebrate our differences and to appreciate one another.
Many of my young peers came from societies which supposedly extolled and celebrated values which recognised the autonomy of the individual in making his or her own choices. I guess many of them didn’t reflect upon what they were saying. Their arguments were an anathema to those values. Their arguments weren’t inspired by principles such as tolerance, but by the impulse to dominate. It was about assimilating Muslims, or marginalizing us and making us invisible.
In her book Separate and Dominate, French sociologist Christine Delphy suggested a simple rule which many of those who advocated the ban could learn from. “We have no right” she said, “to make decisions, above all heroic ones, when people other than us have to bear the consequences.”
Some of the greatest advocates of the ban in the chamber that day were people who clearly had little understanding of how such a ban would impact the already dire prospects for equal engagement Muslim women have in Western societies today. Yet they were the most vocal and had the most to say.
Perhaps if we advocated a comparable ban, they’d understand why we object so vigorously to the idea. But instead of despairing or retreating, I, along with many other Muslim women and our allies (of which there were many in the audience that day), will continue to organise to protect our rights as citizens like anybody else.
These views are sadly nothing new, and clearly have wider purchase than most care to believe. But we won’t stay silent. That’s clearly no longer an option.