The French government this week decided to fine Muslim women who wear a full-face veil in public -- and France is only the latest in a series of European countries seeking to ban the religious garb. Is this an infringement of religious liberty intended to discriminate against Muslims? Or is the measure necessary to protect the security of others? The answers are a lot more complicated than you might think.
A minority of Muslim women actually wear the burqa or niqab in Muslim countries or the West. The garb consists of a gown and headdress that covers the woman head to foot, revealing only her eyes. Obviously, it is impossible to determine who is under the veil -- even whether the person is male or female. In Paris recently, a group of armed robbers pulled a heist wearing burqas, which made it not only impossible to identify them but easy for the criminals to conceal their weapons when entering the bank.
And the burqa presents even greater challenges when it comes to national security. Increasingly, we rely on cameras and facial recognition software to aid in protecting us against terrorism in public places. What's more, one of the most effective means for airport screeners to detect a potential terrorist is to assess the person's facial reactions: Does he or she appear unduly furtive or nervous, for example. But these techniques are impossible if the person is wearing a burqa.
As Jean-Francois Cope, majority leader in the French National Assembly, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, "(The burqa) is not an article of clothing -- it is a mask, a mask worn at all times, making identification or participation in economic and social life virtually impossible." And that is also its intent: to isolate the wearer from all aspects of public life.
As Cope notes in his op-ed, the Koran does not tell women they must cover their face, and most Muslim women do not do so. The burqa goes far beyond protecting a woman's modesty; it transforms a woman into a non-person. She becomes a shrouded creature whose face and body are undistinguishable as a unique human being.
Two decades ago, it was exceedingly rare to see burqas in public in the United States. But, depending on where you live, burqas are now visible at shopping malls and on the street. What strikes me most when I encounter burqa-clad women is the contrast between their dress and their male companions'. Most of these women are covered in thick, black cloth, even in Washington's 90-plus degree summers, while the men wear short sleeves and light khakis.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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