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Religion and Society

Burqa: is a law really necessary?

The Islamic veil is a “mere identity symbol” and a “costume external to Islam”; it has no religious foundation and is not at all contemplated in the Koran. This is the popular discourse on the burqa we have recently listened to, in Italy as well as elsewhere. Instead of starting from this “theological” outlook, however, we would rather opt for a more modest sociological observation: the veil is currently perceived by the majority of Muslims as a religious obligation, to the satisfaction of the so-called “moderate Islam” and its advocates. This does not imply the impossibility of a change of mind, or the non-legitimacy of prompting such a change. It should not be forgotten that the Arab feminist movement started off with the “unveiling”, at a time when the condition of women, particularly in rural areas, was extremely difficult. This is why in many Muslim countries the veil is a symbol that touches raw nerves and hurts sensibilities. Yet, the idea that such a kind of evolution could be imposed by law conceals a seed of violence. To repropose today, in Europe, a Kemalist dirigism or the shah’s mindless policies appears neither wise nor attractive.



However, it depends on the kind of veil. The most widespread type among Muslim women today (there was a lot more variety in the past) is called hijàb and looks like a headscarf, with the difference that it completely covers the woman’s hair. The burqa, i.e., the all-covering veil, is typical of some tribal regions and from there it has spread, in the last few decades, among Islamic hard-liners anywhere. It is also a question of fashion. In the 1950’s Western-style dress was in vogue (as documented in period photos and films), while today the rich Gulf countries are the model. In terms of observing the Islamic religious precept, however, the hijàb is sufficient: compared to the burqa, it has the advantage of respecting a woman’s dignity as well as some practical ones concerning identification and security. There is also a battle of images: the burqa in the West conveys the idea that the surrounding territory is “polluted”; it has, in fact, an unmissable ideological value which does not facilitate integration.



In order not to be drawn far too deep into symbolism, we could more realistically start from the observation that in Italy the practice of the burqa is actually very limited. As Cardinal Scola has remarked, the burqa issue is best dealt with at the civil society’s level: a law would just invite radicalization. Far from claiming to be absolute, this assessment considers today’s Italy, a plural society not lacking interreligious tensions but also rich in positive experiences. In other countries it might be more relevant to promote the dignity of women. In no case, however, the hijàb should be forbidden, as happened in France with the law on religious symbols in schools: religious freedom has a price, and one must always be ready to pay it.



One more thought for reformers of any latitude. Apart from some merely tactical advantages, the constant repeating, as a sole argument, that this or that precept is not contained in the Koran continues to be misunderstood in its implications. This position, in fact, implicitly supports the basic postulate of every fundamentalism, i.e., that everything is already contained in the Book. There is then the further problem of the “progressist” interpretation as the more solidly grounded in the letter of the text. Interpretative efforts do not contemplate shortcuts; nor is it useful to yield to simplifications. So wrote the late Mohammad Arkoun, in an article significantly entitled The Deceitful Challenge of the Verses, published in a past issue of OASIS: “We are content with selecting the verses in favour of peace among the nations, religious tolerance, respect for human life... So some modern interpretations are improvised, while the verses which a growing number of Westerners, irritated by the apologetic opportunism of this process, oppose to the ″believers"’ ideological bricolage are pushed back into the past” (Oasis 3, 38).