U.S. Should Also Consider Banning Burkas

By Christopher Hitchens, New York Daily News - July 1, 2009

Last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his support for legislation to ban the burka, the dark, heavy and not-too-comfortable garment worn by many Muslim women. The question arises: Is this forcible French secularism run amok, or a prohibition that Americans, who often believe we have struck a better balance between church and state, might entertain?

I would say the latter.

A sign on the door of my bank in Washington politely but firmly asks me not to enter the precincts if I am wearing a hood, a cap with a visor pulled down or any other garment that prevents the staff and the other customers from seeing my face. As far as I am aware, no suit for discrimination has been filed against this branch of the bank at least: Most people know without having to have it explained to them that a person entering such premises with a mask of any kind has incurred a presumption - slight but no less definite for all that - of noninnocence.

Of course you would have to be crazy to try to rob a bank while wearing a burka, even if you were a heavily armed man: The whole point of the garment is that it weighs you down, restricts your movements and abolishes your peripheral vision. It's like being condemned to view the world through the slit of a mailbox.

But that observation - if you will excuse the expression - brings us to another and even more powerful objection to this mode of dress. It is quite plainly designed by men for the subjugation of women. One cannot be absolutely sure that no woman has ever donned it voluntarily, but one can certainly say that, in countries where women can choose not to wear it, then not wearing it is the choice they generally make.

This disposes right away of the phony argument that religious attire is worn as a matter of "right." It is almost exactly the other way around: The imposition of burkas or even head scarfs on women - just like the compulsory growing of beards for men - is the symbol of a denial of rights and the inflicting of a tyrannical code that obliterates personal liberty.

Western masochism about other people's "culture" often obscures this obvious fact. Think of the things that we all have to do now, like submitting to humiliating searches at airports, or showing our ID to people who have no "probable cause" for demanding it. Can we turn up at airport security wearing a bag over our heads? Can we produce a photograph that shows only our eyes through a slit? Of course not. Nor can anyone in a Muslim country (though of course in Saudi Arabia an unchaperoned women cannot turn up at the airport anyway).

And don't force me to say this, even though I will: One reason we have to undergo such indignities is because of faith-based suicide attacks on our civil aviation, and so far the perpetrators of this nightmare have not been caught wearing crucifixes or Stars of David around their necks.

Thus the two questions - of rights and of security - actually merge into one and dictate that we must insist on seeing people's faces. It's an elementary aspect of civilized life: If you want to teach my children or be my doctor or even be the clerk on the other side of the counter at my bank, I demand, as my right, to be able to read your facial expression.

In France, the government already says that when you are in school you leave your religious identity behind. Many young Muslim women support this ban because it gives them legal protection against cruel and illegal pressure to wear items of dress that they have not chosen.

It is depressing that our President, in addressing the Muslim world, takes the most reactionary religious practice as the symbol of rights and identity. The klansman's hood, remember, is also the symbol of a white Protestant religious "identity" movement. We may be too constitutionally squeamish to ban the klan regalia outright, but we are entitled to our prejudice against those who choose to assert themselves in this way, and I would shudder for the country if this prejudice ever showed any sign of weakening.

Hitchens is a correspondent for Vanity Fair. His book "God Is Not Great" is now out in paperback.

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