Bulletin # 181 (8 July 2009)



Burqa ban, France and Sarkozy

To ban or not to ban?

Sanal Edamaruku

Afghan widow in Kabul, November 2001, United Nations World Food Program (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)
Afghan widow in Kabul, November 2001,
United Nations World Food Program (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

The French Government wants to ban the burqa, the Islamic full-body cloak that covers women from top to bottom and allows them only to look out through a mesh screen over their eyes. "In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity," president Nicolas Sarkozy said in his address to a joint session of both the houses of parliament in the Chateau of Versailles to extended applause. "The burqa is not a religious sign, it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement — I want to say it solemnly," he said. "It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."

Secularism is not only a pillar of the French Constitution; it is the essence of modern civilization and has to be defended against all religious attempts to undo historical achievements. Defending its secular identity, France has always been an encouraging model for the side of freedom and progress. But can a democratic state simply ban a certain cloth because it is a sign of subservience, religious or otherwise? What about women who insist that it is their considered choice to hide their bodies and faces under this ominous gown? Shouldn’t they have the right to do so? On what grounds could they be stopped?

The case is different here than in it was in 2004, when France banned the hijab and other religious symbols from state schools. The concept of schools as protectorates, where all children are equal and cannot be touched by the claws of political, religious or family powers, is one of the best guarantees for a free society. And a secular “uniform”, bare of any religious power symbols, can contribute to create a climate that encourages young minds to form their own convictions and find their on way of life.

But the burqa ladies are responsible adults, French citizens or guests, who enjoy the right to individual liberty and self-determination. This includes the right to renounce their liberty. And if they chose a dress that looks like a mobile prison cell, so be it.

It is quite possible that they defend the burqa only out of unadmitted fear from family and community pressure and that they would clandestinely hive a sigh of relief if French state authority defeated Islamic family authority and set them free. But things need not be that simple. There may be other motives also, motives that may not comprehensible or acceptable for many of us.

Wearing burqa is not a fashion statement. It is submission to a dress code. Violating it may cause discomfort, even panic fear. This may be unrealistic in France, where no Taliban moral police can harass them, but the fear of breaking a socio-cultural taboo can be so deep-rooted that it survives the change of cultural context. In most societies public nakedness is the most powerful taboo. Being paraded naked is therefore one of the hardest torture methods. Many people are not able to overcome their inhibitions and enter a Finnish sauna, though nakedness is accepted here and does not pose any whatsoever danger. For some women who have never in their adult lives shown their faces in public, it may be equally hard to put down the veils. In such cases, friendly encouragement may be far more helpful than a cloth-down-order.

If Sarkozy’s intention is to help these women to liberate themselves – provided they wish to be helped at all – there would certainly be better methods than the ban. Discrete consultation could be helpful, a telephone helpline, financial support, safe houses, education and assistance in finding jobs. Such an offer should be made available to all others as well, male or female, who need a helping hand to break out of their private prisons.

But there is another side to it. The faceless mummies leave many fellow citizens uneasy and worried what sad, cruel and perhaps dangerous secrets their ominous garb may conceal. It is a scary encounter, not only because of the looming terrorist threat. For others it is offending to be forced to witness the degradation of a human into a faceless bundle of black cloth. It is like meeting humans in slavery chains or on dog leashes: deeply disturbing, an offence against civility, public decency and morale. If not backed by religious institutions or traditions, victims who fight for their chains run the risk of being branded mental patients.

Strangely, the more familiar sight of Christian nuns in their wrap ups, ancient execution equipment around their necks, does not disturb the public too much. If Sarkozy could manage to take an impartial look, they should be the next candidates for a ban. Regarding free choice, most nuns are not better off than their burqa sisters. They have been hapless under-aged girls, when they were pushed under the veil, and there was no return ticket. Unfortunately, Sarkozy’s impartiality is not beyond any doubt. “I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic faith…” he states in his book, ‘The Republic, Religions, and Hope’. As a Catholic he may be praying to Virgin Mary, who is in all traditional depictions shown covered by a veil. And if he decides to visit the Pope together with Carla Bruni, she would have to bow to the Vatican protocol that demands that visiting First Ladies be dressed in black and veiled. Prince Charles’ wife Camilla recently had to do so. Radical ‘secularist’ activism that turns a blind eye to one religion is not very convincing and can under certain circumstances even invite communalism – a dangerous message.

Looking at it politically, burqas are like banners symbolising Islamic fundamentalist triumph: a highly offensive and provocative signal for any secular society. If you try to force them down, they could multiply and produce martyrs. China was not very successful with the suppression of the Falung Gong, because in a country with a great contingent of unhappy citizens, even this obscure movement could emerge as a symbol of resistance and become a catalyst for serious unrest. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern secular and democratic Turkey, campaigned vigorously against burqa, but did not ban it when he implemented his broad political, social and cultural reforms in the spirit of enlightenment. He established laicity and equality of men and women in the young republic and created great enthusiasm, pride and hope. In a similar move, France once curbed the dominant influence of the all powerful Roman Catholic Church and established the lay society. Now it tries to defend its secular identity against the new religious wave of worldwide rising Islamic fundamentalism.

But is a burqa ban really the best defense? Islamic fundamentalists and their burqas are a tiny minority among Frances’ estimated five million immigrants from Muslim countries. If the French Government decides to crack down on them, the damage caused to a democratic society committed to the values of individual liberty and self-determination could outstrip the benefit. Ridding the public eye of the disturbing sight of a few willing victims of religious suppression does not solve the problem; it pushes it into the dark and out of control. Public education and the offer of support to those who want to come out would be in every respect a better solutionFrance: To ban or not to ban.

Turin Shroud: Made in the image of the creator - Leonardo da Vinci

Shroud of Turin
Shroud of Turin

The mysterious Turin Shroud, for centuries believed to be the crucified Jesus’ burial cloth bearing his face impression after he was wrapped into it, may have been created by Leonardo da Vinci using his own face. A new study by Lillian Schwartz of the School of Visual Arts in New York demonstrates with computer scans that the face on the Shroud has exactly the same dimensions as that of da Vinci. The Renaissance artist may have created the artifact by using pioneering photographic techniques and a sculpture of his own head.

Already in 1988, carbon dating has proven that the Shroud is far too young to be authentic. It could originate, however, from the da Vinci era. Leonardo had long been suspected to be its creator. But now there seems to be proof.

In their book Turin Shroud: How Leonardo da Vinci Fooled History, Oliver Prince and Lynn Picknet proposed already in 1994 that the famous face impression was created by using an advanced photographic technique. Da Vinci was familiar with the principles of photography (which were known long before the first photographs were made in the 1820s) and he used to make experiments with a camera obscura. The image on the Shroud seems to be created by coating a cloth with light sensitive chemicals using it as a film to project the face as a photo negative. Experiments with this technique produced face impressions very similar to the relic. Now the computer scan provides the missing link to Leonardo. The Shroud could be another “Da Vinci code”, created to immortalize the painters own face.

There has been another link found also. Studies by Oliver Prince establish that the Shroud face matches the proportions of da Vinci’s Jesus-painting Creator Mundi. There is no contradiction in both the theories as Creator Mundi has obviously been painted using the formula of da Vinci’s own face proportions. The same applies to the famous Mona Lisa, as Lillian Schwartz showed already in the 1980s.

Turkey bids farewell to a secular icon

Prof. Dr. Turkan Saylan
Prof. Dr. Turkan Saylan

Turkan Saylan, famous secularist and women’s rights champion who changed the life of thousands of poor young girls in rural Turkey by supporting their education, has died on 18th May in the age of 74. Her funeral in Istanbul was attended by thousands of people from all backgrounds and wages of life, many among them women, who mourned for their mother and benefactress. “You, my dear daughter, stop asking yourself, ‘Why am I born a girl?’ and aim at becoming the best you can be,” said Saylan’s letter to the girls of Turkey that was read at her funeral. She had written it short before her death for a yet unpublished book.

Turkan Saylan was a dermatologist, former professor at the University of Istanbul and WHO consultant, fighting against leprosy. She built up the Turkish Leprosy Relief Association and was a founding member of the International Leprocy Union. In 1986, she received the International Gandhi Award for her work in this field. In 1989, she founded a charity with the name Cagdas Yasam Destekleme Dernegi (CYDD; meaning association to support contemporary life) and dedicated herself to the education of poor children. Since then, the organisation facilitated the education of about 58,000 children, most of them girls, by providing student grants and scholarships to them. Aysel Celikel, former minister for justice and Prof. Saylan’s right-hand woman, will succeed her in the organisation.

19 May, 2009, Mourners at Sisli, Istanbul
19 May, 2009, Mourners at Sisli, Istanbul

Saylan was suffering since 19 years from breast cancer – all thoughout her relentless work for the education of the poor. At the end of last year, her physical condition worsened dramatically. Most of the last five months of her life, she had to spend in hospital undergoing chemotherapy. What may have weakend her more than her illness during this time, however, was the brutal harassment of the governing Islamist Justice and Development Party. A staunch secularist as she was, she had been a thorn in their flesh since long. Now she had to appear several times in front of public prosecutors and defend herself against the absurd accusation that she was a conspirator planing a military coup against the government. In the second week of April, when her doctors allowed her to spend a weekend at home, the right wing camp used the opportunity to deal a brutal blow to her. This very weekend, police raided her home and offices and Dr. Saylan, frail and sick unto death, had to watch helplessly how they confiscated and destroyed private and professional documents. Her colleagues were put under surveillance too, 17 offices of the CYDD were raided and scholarship documents of more than 500 girls vanished, who would not be able to get financial help now. In a statement on the CYDD’s website www.cydd.org.tr, Dr. Saylan insisted that the organisation supported neither a military coup nor Islamic law, but the secular ideals of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. She clarified her position again in a live television interview and accused the government for the injustice meted out to her and her organisation. The public was shocked and outraged.

Fury againt the government and the emphatic avowal of secularism resounded during Turkan Saylan’s funeral and made it a political event. Besides gratitude and respect shown to her as a doctor fighting leprosy and an educationist fighting poverty and gender inequality, she was celebrated as an icon of secularist resistance against the onslaught of Islamic fundamentalism. “When her activities are considered to support a coup, then all of us are ‘coupistas’!”, said Aysel Celikel under thunderous applause. “Turkey is secular and will stay secular!” people were chanting again and again in the streets. The army sent a wreath with the inscription “We are all Ataturk’s soldiers”, and the national flag was draped around her coffin. The government did not dare to send any representative and kept mum.

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