City City Bang Bang, Columns

Is banning burqas an act of modernity?

The French decision to ban the use of the burqa by women in public has met with an interesting range of reactions. There are those who find the action culturally intolerant and smacking of the Islamophobic undercurrent that seems to be running through the developed world. Then there are others who see this as an affirmative step that pushes back against what they see as the tendency to pander to the interests of various minorities in the name of diversity and multiculturalism. And of course, there are still others who are torn between wanting to respect the right of all cultures particularly those marginalised by the mainstream and fighting the battle for gender equality. The banning of the burqa creates a schism between two liberal concerns and makes it difficult for this set of people to take a clear view.

It is an interesting question, one which marks an inflection point in the attitude of the developed world towards the idea of tolerance towards other cultures. For years now, the tide has been turning against immigration with more and more countries tightening their laws and taking active measures to stem the influx of people from other countries. The debate about outsourcing in the US too reveals the ease with which countries that stood on pulpits and lectured to the world about the virtues of the free market backtrack when their interests are placed on the line. And of course, the post 9/11 world, liberal and otherwise, looks upon Islam in particular with deep suspicion, and this apparently legitimate need for caution has given force to a latent unease about the changing character of their own cultures in the wake of the relentless waves of immigration.

The fault line has been established between culturally neutral and universally applicable liberal values and countries that are culturally ‘loaded’. An asymmetrical relationship gets established between modern universalist ideas and ‘cultures’, one where local cultures need to be patronised in the name of respect. Liberal notions are seen to stand outside culture instead of being seen as being part of another kind of culture, which is what they are. The burqa debate tends to be seen as a conflict between modernity and Islam whereas it is perhaps more accurately described as one between two different cultures, both with their own set of constructed assumptions.

It is important to recognise that the uncritical acceptance of a certain view of modernity as being absolute, universally applicable and inevitable is inherently flawed. Take the example of arranged marriage for instance. To the modern mindset, this is an anachronistic institution, rooted in repression and one that must inevitably give way to what we call a love marriage in India. The Western mode of marriage is seen to be the right one, and something that the rest of the world must be converted to at some stage. And yet, it is hardly that simple. Firstly, the Western model is by itself flawed, in that it is still rooted in gender inequality (even now only the man can propose marriage) and offers little practical hope of durability. More importantly, in a culture like India which has opened up to change, the arranged marriage has evolved so as to take care of contemporary needs and continues to thrive. Increasingly, there are people choosing this mode out of their own free will.

Even when the world seems to be embracing more modern notions of political organisation, it does not follow that it is equally keen to embrace other modern ideas. The brutal molestation of CNN reporter Lara Logan at the hands of a pro-democracy Egyptian mob is a reminder of the complexity of change. It is likely that democracy when it does come to the Middle East will look different from its cousins elsewhere just as freedom in the political area will not necessarily lead to emancipation in another.

What seems to be happening is that with the reduction in the power distance between the developed world and others, the idea of liberal tolerance has taken a knock. The gap between professed ideals and primitive instincts is no longer sustainable and we can see a resurgence of shriller voices emerge in many parts of the world. The US is a good example of the nature of political discourse in today’s times for the debate there is being framed by people like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and an assorted bunch of fringe lunatics preaching a dangerously simple-minded form of mainstream hate. And in a wider sense, when it cameto the crunch, the West’s liberal pretensions have collapsed quickly and dramatically, as is evident from Guantanamo and selective attacks on unfriendly regimes. The fact that the US celebrates Barack Obama because he is the first black President after over 200 years of independence and alleged equality is a telling commentary of the reality when it comes to tolerance and fairness. And even now, he is plagued by accusations about being Muslim, as it were some sort of crime.

The truth is that every culture will find its own trajectory of evolution. It is likely that the change will happen non-linearly, with movement taking place both forward and backward. The attempt to force change from the outside using external yardsticks of an absolute nature are unlikely to succeed, although they too will play a role in determining the pace and the nature of change. The banning of the burqa is a French reaction, not a modern one and it rooted in a set of cultural assumptions and not anything universal and absolute. The French have a right to safeguard what they see as their own way of life in their own way, but unpalatable as it might be to some, their actions are not fundamentally different from the say the Saudi ban on women driving. Both are primitive responses aimed at protecting a way of life and both take refuge in high minded ideologies. What we call modern , is at one level, just another culture or put another way just another tradition peculiar to some cultures.