WASHINGTON -- After the British army conquered the Sindh region of what is now modern-day Pakistan in the 1840s, Gen. Charles Napier enforced a ban on the practice of Sati -- the burning of widows alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. A delegation of Hindu leaders approached Napier to complain that their ancient traditions were being violated. The general is said to have replied: "You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. ... You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."
The incident can hardly be commended as a model of cross-cultural relations, but it clarifies a tension. Conflict can arise between respect for other cultures and respect for universal human rights.
This is particularly true when it comes to the rights of women. Traditional societies can be deeply admirable -- conservative, family-oriented, stable, wise about human nature and human society. But they can also be highly patriarchal, evidenced by such practices as Sati, foot-binding, widow inheritance and female circumcision. This is not to say that modern, rights-based societies are without their own faults and failures; it is only to recognize that multiculturalism and human rights can sometimes clash.
For the most part, these tensions no longer emerge through colonialism but through migration, which can transplant a traditional culture smack in the middle of an aggressively liberal one. The most visible areas of difference -- say in dress -- can spark controversy, just as the wearing of the burqa is now doing in Europe.
Belgium is moving toward a total ban on face-covering veils in public. Italian police recently fined a woman for wearing a burqa. In France, a law banning garments "designed to hide the face" is likely to be introduced in July. "The burqa is not a sign of religion," says French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."
Disagreements about the burqa among Islamic women are often heated. This is to be expected because religious covering means different things in different contexts. It can be a "body bag" placed on unwilling women by threatening relatives and religious police. It can be, according to one critic, "a sad process of self-isolation and self-imposed exile." But it can also be a way for women from traditional backgrounds to preserve their marriage prospects and family honor in mixed-sex settings. Many women who wear the burqa are fully conscious of the choice they are making.
The motives of European leaders in this controversy are less sympathetic. Some speak deceptively (and absurdly) of a security motive for banning Islamic covering. Who knows what they are hiding? But by this standard, the war on terror would mandate the wearing of bikinis. The real purpose of burqa bans is to assert European cultural identity -- secular, liberal and individualistic -- at the expense of a visible, traditional religious minority. A nation such as France, proudly relativistic on most issues, is convinced of its cultural superiority when it comes to sexual freedom. A country of topless beaches considers a ban on excessive modesty. The capital of the fashion world, where women are often overexposed and objectified, lectures others on the dignity of women.
For what the opinion of an outsider is worth, I do think the burqa is oppressive. It seems designed to restrict movement, leaving women clumsy, helpless, dependent and anonymous. The vast majority of Muslim women do not wear complete covering because the Koran only mandates modesty, not sartorial imprisonment.
But at issue in Europe is not social disapproval; it is criminalization. In matters of religious liberty, there are no easy or rigid rules. Governments apply a balancing test. A tradition that burns widows or physically mutilates young girls would justify the Napier approach. Some rights are so fundamental that they must be defended in every case. But if a democratic majority can impose its will on a religious minority for any reason, then religious freedom has no meaning. The state must have strong, public justifications to compel conformity, especially on an issue such as the clothes that citizens wear.
In France -- where only a few thousand women out of 5 million Muslims wear the burqa -- a ban is merely a symbolic expression of disdain for an unpopular minority. It would achieve little but resentment.