Having grown up in a traditional Hindu family in India, I understand something about the domestic pressure for public modesty on girls. Jeans came into vogue just when I hit puberty. But for years the only way I could step out of the house in them without risking a minor nuclear explosion by my dad—a fairly urbanized doctor—was if I slipped on a blouse loose enough to smother my front and long enough to conceal my behind. A bathing suit—much less a bikini like the one that the first Muslim Miss USA wore to victory this week—was out of the question. Hence I never learned to swim.
Although these restrictions were nothing compared to what girls in strict Muslim households faced, they were enough to send my budding feminist consciousness into paroxysms of rage. And I often fantasized that if I were born Muslim and forced to shroud myself in a burqa, I'd just run away from home.
I could never have imagined then that I would find myself one day defending this garment from fellow atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, who are cheering French plans to ban it, as if its very existence on secular soil is an affront to their values. But their reaction betrays more affinity than they realize with the religious tendencies that their secularism is supposed to transcend. This becomes obvious when one compares their attitude toward the burqa to that of India's secularists, few of whom would ever dream of banning it.
The French parliament this week will culminate six months of hearings and move toward legislation outlawing the burqa. It would be one thing if the ban were limited to when the burqa comes in the way of official business like taking photographs for drivers' licenses. But this law would go much further and actually criminalize burqas, slapping women with fines if they wear them in public hospitals or trains. Coming on the heels of the 2004 ban on headscarves in schools, this law can't help but inflame French Muslims, not encourage them to assimilate. Besieged minorities after all tighten—not loosen—their grip on their ways.
So why does France feel the need to do this?
It's not like burqas are a huge problem in the country. Although estimates vary, Muslims constitute less than 10 percent of the French population and no more than 2,000 of them sport burqas. This means most French folks can comfortably go through life without ever encountering a burqa-clad woman. By contrast, India has nearly 140 million Muslims—or 13.4 percent of its population—and millions of them sport burqas, making it hard to go a few days without running into one.
France has certainly experienced its share of troubles with Muslims, including most recently the 2005 riots that paralyzed France for weeks (although arguably that episode had more to do with tension between the police and immigrant communities than between the French and Muslim communities). But Hindus have felt threatened by Muslims since the 16th century when Muslim conquerors invaded the country, initiating several centuries of Islamic rule. Hindus' lingering sense of defeat is a perennial source of tension between the two communities and erupts into sectarian warfare with disturbing regularity.
Over the centuries, Hindus have articulated a whole litany of gripes against Muslims but most involve—at least on the face of it—some material impact on Hindu interests. For example, special Haj lanes near airports to accommodate Muslims headed for Mecca are a source of endless irritation for Hindus stuck in traffic snarls. But what Hindus don't generally get worked up over—at least not strongly enough to create a credible political movement—are personal Muslim habits that don't in some direct way affect them. Indeed, last year a state college triggered a big brouhaha—especially among Indian feminists—when it refused to let a burqa-clad woman attend classes. Pramila Nesargi, a Hindu politician who champions women's causes, declared: "Not allowing a woman to come to college just because she is wearing a burqa is against her personal rights, fundamental rights and human rights.”
The contrast with the French spirit could not be starker. As a precursor to final legislation, French lawmakers recently voted for a non-binding resolution condemning the burqa because they see in it not an expression of personal piety—but a message of religious fundamentalism meant to insult French secularism. President Nicolas Sarkozy went so far as to say that the burqa is “not welcome” in France, calling it a symbol of female “subservience and debasement.” Likewise, Christopher Hitchens, the most prominent cheerleader of the burqa ban in America, is convinced that Muslim women don the veil not because they choose to—but because they risk acid in their face if they don't. Hence, in his view, France will actually do Muslim women a favor by banning it.
Burqas are certainly a tool of female oppression in Islamic theocracies where sharia law sanctions violence against women who violate its strictures. But that is not true in liberal democracies where the reason government exists is to protect personal choices from physical violence. When women wear burqas despite such protection, it has to be assumed that they are doing so of their own free will. This doesn't mean that all Muslim women affirmatively embrace burqas—although no doubt some do. But it does mean that their emotional ties with their communities and families are, on balance, stronger than their distaste for the burqa and hence they'd rather wear it than face rejection.
Nor will it do to justify this ban on grounds that it will save women from having to make painful personal choices. It is not the job of liberal governments to make personal tradeoffs painless—just possible. Giving individuals the right to exit without fearing physical retaliation provides an automatic check on oppressive traditions without taking away the crucial tool that minority communities in liberal polities have to perpetuate themselves: moral suasion. Banning the burqa or the Sikh turban or the Jewish yarmulke is tantamount to telling observant Muslims, Sikhs and Jews that they don't have a right to exist.
Despite years of sectarian bloodletting, if Indians still intuitively understand this and take a benign view of the burqa, it is hardly because they are inherently more rational. It is because their secularism has been shaped by India's dominant religion—Hinduism—whose non-monotheistic ethos allows the space for multiple faiths. In this sense, Hinduism is perhaps more profoundly in sync with liberal tolerance than monotheistic faiths.
More crucially, however, there is nothing in Hinduism that makes an individual's spiritual salvation anyone's business except the individual herself. By contrast, Hitchens, et al, who have been raised in the cradle of a Christian civilization, have imbibed a certain comfort level with the crusading notion that people can—and ought to—be saved even against their will. Hence, it does not matter if Muslim women don't regard the burqa as oppressive. They have to be given sartorial liberation in the same way that the heathens need to be given spiritual liberation.
This is a profoundly anti-liberal and anti-secular idea. Indeed, if the French and Hitchens were serious about either secularism or liberalism, instead of asking Muslim women to shed the burqa, they would be shedding their own proselytizing prejudice against it.