Sex and religion are at it again. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing to ban women from wearing the full Islamic veil because it “hurts the dignity of women and is unacceptable in French society.”
But this is no more about women’s dignity than the invasion of Iraq was about liberating Iraqi women (though the Bush administration didn’t hesitate to use that as one of their many false rationales for war).
Sarkozy’s logic is so badly skewed that it looks like yet another fit of Islamophobia, cynically using women’s rights as the excuse.
Any woman who’s ever tried on a vintage hat with a veil falling from the brim knows the sexy feeling that comes from being half hidden. But that’s a far lipstick-feminist cry from the full ultra-orthodox Islamic veil — the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered, or the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eye slit. These literally make women invisible. Or in France, it seems, all too visible.
Yet why exactly is such veiling so abhorrent it requires a law to ban it?
Veiling has been used throughout the centuries as a means of keeping women second-class citizens, and not solely in Islam. It was only narrowly avoided in Christianity — Saint Paul wanted it adopted for all early Christian women. And women hiding their hair with variants on headscarves is a sign of piety in orthodox Judaism and Christianity (think nuns) as well as in Islam.
Yet the Bible doesn’t call for veiling. And neither does the Quran. What it actually says, in Sura 24, verses 30-31, is as follows: “Tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts… And tell believing women to lower their glances and guard their private parts… and let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines.” Basically, if you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it.
It takes centuries of ultra-conservative clerics to turn a call for bisexual modesty into a sexist straitjacket.
But does that mean a western government should punish women for refusing to conform to social norms? How is that different from punishing women for refusing to wear the veil in authoritarian Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban?
Does this mean France might consider banning other items of women’s clothing? Ban women from wearing pants, for instance? Where exactly do “dignity” and “acceptability” start and end, and in whose eyes? If a woman chooses to cover her face, that’s her decision to make, just as it is if she chooses to bare her midriff. Either way, government intrusion is objectionable.
Ah, but there’s also a security reason for the proposed new ban, adds Sarkozy’s spokesman. We need to be able to see people’s faces at airport security checkpoints. But then why not simply require that people uncover their faces for security screening? Why go full tilt at the full veil?
By adopting such legislation, France will only move itself toward a mirror image of Saudi Arabia. Bare midriffs banned here, full veils banned there. And women, once again, just pawns in the game.
Looks like Belgium has passed a law to that effect. See http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2010/04/29/les-deputes-belges-s-appretent-a-voter-l-interdiction-du-voile-integral_1344971_3214.html (in French) for some details.
It is interesting that the law was voted today (April 29) considering that Belgium doesn’t have a government anymore…
France is not the only country making laws against the niqab. Belgium, parts of Germany and parts of Canada are making laws against it too. Interestingly one of the main groups leading the Niqab ban in Canada is the Canadian Muslim Congress (Sunni Muslims). . . and it’s not just Western Countries . . .
Al Azhar University in Cairo has banned women from wearing niqab to the famous University and many other Muslim countries such as Iraq heavily frown on this practice.
For policy makers this is not a question of a woman choosing to observe niqab, it has deeper religious and political motivations. Most countries, Western and Eastern, do not want the Saudi brand of Islam (Wahhabi or Salafi movements) to feel welcome or acceptable in their countries which is associated with the ultra-conservative practice of full-veiling. For them, this is not a matter of a “woman’s choice” but discouraging extremist Islamic groups who are hateful and disruptive in society to flourish.
However, not ALL niqab wearing ladies are extremists. As a peace-loving Muslim woman who wears hijab I would be horrified if the hijab was banned. Where’s the balance between a woman’s right to choose, religious freedom and a countries right to protect itself from importing religious extremism? Personally I’m stuck on that one.
Lesley, thank you for starting a blog site. I always enjoy your style and appreciate your perspective.
Further reading, a discussion with Dr. Bernard Lewis:
J’Amy, yes, the Belgian law just passed — even without a government. What got to me in today’s HuffPo piece on it was the citation of “Belgian anxieties that visible signs of Islam erode national identity.” I wonder what “a Belgian” looks like. A British writer’s stereotype like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot? National stereotypes are insidious and absurd, all the more so when national legislatures themselves adopt them. And religious stereotypes are just as dangerous.
I simply feel uncomfortable around those who try to hide in front of me and anyone would whatever reasons lie behind it. I simply feel that all this attempted to be intellectual debate is rather simple. It is not the covered women who talk to native wester ones that feel uncomfortable but the other side. They come to a foreign country and impose their own religious norms, and they do IMPOSE them as when it comes to speaking you just give an addressee an option of not listening but if you simply wear a cloth on your face, that restrain the hearing by the way, you impose it. Its like testing the boundaries of how tolerant the other side is, but what about your tolerance and respect of the western country. So expect to be respected but you don’t consider giving it back. Quite fair indeed…
If you want to practice the weird way of being do it where everyone is like that but reflect twice before you make everyone like it too. Its just simple manners, sorry.
Thank you for your honesty. I gather your discomfort comes from the sense that “they” are hiding, though even with niqab, the eyes are visible, and the hijab covers only hair, not the face. The issue here seems to be that you feel something is being imposed on you. But what exactly?
A few further questions occur to me:
Do nuns wearing coifs also make you uncomfortable? Or orthodox Jewish women wearing wigs? Or African American women in big go-to-church hats? Is the discomfort only with women, or are you also uncomfortable with Sikhs wearing turbans?
And when does a country stop being “foreign”? When you are born there? When you have lived there for half your life, as I have in the US? When you speak the language as well as or better than native-born citizens? When you are second-generation, or third-generation, or fourth or fifth or sixth or more?
I hope you’ll agree with me that these are at least questions worth pondering. — L.