Friday, May 07, 2010

Wearing a Burka in Public

I just saw a news story coming from the BBC describing a case in which a woman wearing a burka in Novara in north-western Italy was arrested. The wearing of a full face covering in public places that prevents identification was made illegal in Italy as part of an anti-terrorism effort. The lower house in Belgium has just passed, with no dissent, a law against the wearing of burkas in certain public places. The French moved in this direction in 2009 but no law was passed as far as I know.

Now, there is nothing specifically linguistic about this of course except that a law banning a "full-face covering" would be one thing and a law banning a "burka" using these phrases specifically, would be interpreted very differently. A law mentioning the latter would constitute religious discrimination. A law banning the former would not even though it could have the same effect.

There are huge cans of worms lying about here. What about a child wearing a ghost costume that covers the face, as well as the rest of the body? Or, more seriously, the wearing of balaclavas in very cold weather, something that I have done. Compare the image of someone wearing a balaclava (upper photo) with one of someone wearing a burka (lower photo).

It seems pretty clear to me that the person wearing the balaclava is a woman but I could be wrong.  That's less clear in the case of the burka.  However, either garment would be very effective in concealing one's identity in a store robbery.  Persons wearing burka's have committed crimes, as in a case in Bradford, England where two persons pistol-whipped a post office manager in a daylight robbery.  Of course, the balaclava is the standard covering for those wishing to commit crimes without giving away who they are.  There is a nice cartoon at cartoonstock.com in which an alien is depicted wearing a balaclava.

What we have here are items of clothing with significant symbolic meaning.  In my mind, balaclavas signify something a bit disreputable -- when I wear mine when going out to a football game in November, I do not put it on until I am on campus where there is a good chance I will not be perceived as someone about to commit a stick up.  Burkas obviously signify that the wearer is a Muslim.  The problem with them is that to many non-Muslims, it signifies a woman under the control of a man.  In the Italian case, the husband demanded that his wife not take the burka off.  This kind of marital relationship is offensive to many non-Muslims such as me.  Of course, to outlaw the burka would be a brute force way of expressing one's disfavor and wouldn't change the relationship between husband and wife.  Burka's also, thanks to the association of head coverings like this to Muslim terrorists, signfy the possibility of danger.  Two males wearing burkas covering vests packed with explosives in Afghanistan were shot dead before they could detonate the devicies.

Making it illegal to wear a burka/balaclava in the commission of a crime would not deal with the public safety issues raised by the wearing of such items of clothing.  In the case of a robber who is later caught you could stick a few more years on the ends of his sentence.  But, there is no similar punishment available to the successful suicide bomber.  The the only recourse the society has is to make the wearing of either item illegal in public.  In Quebec, when bill restricting the wearing of burkas was announced, it was said 
This bill has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with integration and equality.
This is, of course, bullshit.  Such an argument would make sense if it applied to all wearing of all ethnically identifiable clothing. As I noted, banning burkas doesn't change marital relationships so its not clear what sort of equality is achieved by banning them.

To my mind, there is one and only one sound reason for banning wearing of burkas and, for that matter, balaclavas, in public and that is to promote public safety.  It is not often that a Muslim woman wearing a burka is going to be blowing up anything anywhere, but as in the Afghanistan case, burkas can be worn by men who wish to exploit the fact that women rarely commit crimes of violence.  Adding the balaclava to the burka in one's law makes sense for they too have been used to conceal the identities of persons committing crimes and it rids the law of any association with anti-Muslim bias.  I will find another way to protect myself from the cold in the future if such a law is passed.  And, I can still wear mine at home when snow-plowing.  However, it is not clear to me that the public safety issue is worth the trouble a law like this would create.

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Blogger Shakir said...

I am from Pakistan, a very conservative society regarding the religion. But we do not impose Burka on our women, it is their will how they want to take it. Either they want a Burka or Hijab, hopefully you may know the different between Burka and Hijab. My mom takes Hijab and my father never argued or forced her to take Burka. We do not impose, we all are not anti-women as Muslims. They are exceptional cases which do this. Pardah (to hide the open parts of your body) is the sign of protection for women, its their will whether they chose Burka or Hijab. Its not like a sports kit, which should be worn on play ground only, its our way of living, its the part of our daily routine life. Its our rite to live as we want, so if a women wants to take Burka she should be allowed. We do not object on the wearing of Nuns, they take Hijab like cloth on their head also. Why then Burka and Hijab? Aren't they double standards?
I am sorry for any harsh word, I just wanted to clarify we do not impose Islam. It is one's will. If someone imposes then he/she is everything else other than a Muslim.

6:40 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you for your comments. I meant my comment about a husband ordering his wife to keep her burka on to apply just to him not all husbands of burka wearing women and certainly not those in Pakistan. I personally think Western countries need to be very careful in how they approach the public safety issue.

7:26 PM

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11:38 PM

Blogger Obscurely Diverse said...

Hmm, outside of them being paranoid of suspect terrorists, maybe they thought it was some crazed, deranged ninja about to perform the art of Ninjitsu in the middle of the street or something. Ha-ha!

9:04 AM

Blogger Jhon Davis said...

دوست@ you are wrong that it is not in Islam the will to wear, I think you even being a muslim you are ignorant of Islam. I will tell you it is in Islam to ask women to cover their body.

It is not their will but Islam want them to.

wearing burqa in public places is not secure for others as you what muslims are doing in the world. It is better to show your Identity if you are in public place.
You should know that mostly robber wear this kind of dress who will differentiate.

7:26 PM

Blogger Walter Aprile said...

I would just like to add that the Italian law against hiding your identity in public places dates back from the 1970s (1975 to be precise), when the country was devastated by a wave of terrorism.
The same law is also used to prevent people from wearing e.g. motorbike helmets in football stadiums.
Notice that the law (known as the Legge Reale, from the name of the legislator) forbids disguising headgear in demonstrations and public events. Non-disguising is OK, so head coverings, nuns' cowls and headscarves are not in question here.

12:25 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Interesting, Walter. Be hard to argue that the law is anti-muslim. I wonder if enforcement has been consistent or just recently stepped up.

1:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting, it makes you think a lot about these rules.

10:39 AM


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