Froma Harrop | Ban the Burqa

Belgium has banned the burqa, the head-to-toe veil worn in parts of the Muslim world. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants his country to follow suit. What’s an open-minded person to think? The answer is, you have every right to regulate your world.

Burqa-wearing is often forced upon women by men. By covering the face, it negates the woman’s existence, and it hides her identity, thus becoming a security threat.

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman defends the burqa with his usual wit, but his libertarian arguments fall short of making a sale. He writes that forbidding the burqa in public “trades one form of compulsion (you must wear this) for another (you may not wear this).”

Not quite. “You may not wear this” leaves considerably more latitude for personal expression than “you must wear this.” The Parisian options include everything from a tiny tube covering just the essentials to a long granny dress and turban.

In this country, Chapman says, modestly dressed Amish women and miniskirted, cleavage-flaunting babes who do not approve of each other’s attire can avert their gaze. But how can you discern an extreme mode of dressing without giving it a good look? No matter. Either the babe or Amish woman might evoke curiosity on the Champs Elysees but not the discomfort brought about by the complete anonymity of the burqa wearer.

Chapman makes his best case in questioning whether the veil is really a symbol of oppression by men. “The same thing could be said about surgically enhanced breasts in Europe and the United States,” he says. To which I would add 4-inch spike heels.

His worst argument is the security one. Chapman holds that sunglasses and ski masks are also put to sinister uses by “camera-shy bank robbers.” Why doesn’t he try to enter a bank wearing a ski mask? I’ll hold the video camera.

His second-to-worst argument is that, heck, very few Muslim women in the West wear the burqa, anyway. In France, it’s less than 2,000 out of 5 million Muslims.

That’s like saying that if only 12 out of 8 million New Yorkers want to stroll through Manhattan stark raving naked, no problem. Tell that to the cop trying to maintain order.

There are norms for the nude beach and norms for the streets, even in the world’s liberal cities. Note that Amish women don’t cover their faces, and babes don’t go topless (not legally) on San Francisco’s sidewalks.

I’ll buy the libertarian pitch on such personal choices as smoking, drinking and drug use. But when it comes to communal settings, some freedoms must be curbed to keep things functioning and pleasant. I like zoning laws that stop builders from putting skyscrapers in old Victorian neighborhoods. And I like a few rules on dress.

Otherwise, our world turns into a libertarian mush. Cultures disappear, and every place looks the same. Classrooms resemble Halloween parties. (As it is, they’ve gotten close.)

Heaven knows, there’s not much “compulsion” in the West on what one may not wear. I wish more people would voluntarily curtail their sartorial exhibitionism, but that’s another column.

Every society gets to make its own rules for conduct, which includes dress. Some cultures require covered heads. Some require uncovered faces. We don’t have to approve, but we have to respect. Granted, these arguments get dicey when they touch on civil rights. But the French should have the same option to ban burqas on the street — or green socks, if they choose — as Saudi Arabia has to proscribe miniskirts.

Libertarians will counter, “We think Saudis should allow miniskirts.” To that I respond, “Update us on your progress.”

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