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Is the burqa a "cultural practice"?

Is the burqa a "cultural practice"?

Categories: Latest News

Thursday May 19 2011

Priya Shetty in The Guardian’s Comment is Free writes on the Home Affairs select committee report on forced marriages arguing that women are often as culpable in the perpetuation of oppressive cultural practices, like forced marriages, as men who enforce codes of “honour” in minority communities.

Shetty is of course right to argue that female members of a family can be complicit in the emotional blackmail, kidnapping and forced marriage of young adults as criminal cases have shown.

Shetty concludes her article thus:

“Where the French are decidedly more forthright about which cultural practices they will tolerate – several women have already been arrested for wearing a burqa after it was banned recently – in multicultural Britain, we tiptoe gingerly around controversial cultural practices for fear of stymying a plurality of expression or being tarnished as racists. But British society now needs to take a deep breath and engage with these issues head-on: ancient cultural practices can never trump human rights.”

The paragraph repeats a false dichotomy with a “multiculturalism of fiction” masquerading as a “multiculturalism of fact, “as Gary Younge put it. And while no-one would deny that honour killings and female genital mutilation are horrific crimes deserving of the force of law to stamp them out, is it proper to designate the wearing of the face-veil (niqab or burqa) with practices that are neither Islamic nor defensible by recourse to Islamic teachings? Furthermore, is it appropriate to refer to the choice exercised by Muslim women to wear the burqa as “controversial cultural practices” which we “tiptoe gingerly around… for fear of stymying a plurality of expression or being tarnished as racists”?

No one observing the rancorous debate that has descended upon women who wear the face-veil could sensibly consider it an example of our “tip-toeing gingerly around” for fear of anything.

Perhaps the more disturbing dimension to the sentiments expressed by Shetty is the presumption that women wearing the face veil are engaging in a cultural practice rather than understand it as the articulation of their right to freedom of religion; a human right after all.

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