On the eleventh of April, it became illegal to veil one’s face in public in France.
This is something that seems to have made a lot of people happy, and they defend their being happy quite vigorously.
The arguments, if one can call them so, run along three fairly broad and predictable lines:
First, that the burqa, in whatever form (hijab, niqab) is against “French/European culture” and said culture has to be protected from it
Secondly, that the burqa is, by its very nature, oppressive to women; and
Thirdly, that the burqa is a security hazard.
Each and every one of these arguments is hollow and self-serving.
Let’s take the first argument first.
Now, I’m not denying that to people who aren’t exactly used to seeing masked faces, the sight of a woman in a veil may be momentarily unsettling. But that’s all she is…a woman in a veil. If a woman in a veil is a threat to one’s culture, I submit that said culture has problems far greater than can be cured by merely banning the veil.
Besides, while culture is of course a plastic item and changes, albeit usually rather slowly, over time, exactly how great is the threat to French culture from the niqab? Actually, we don’t have to resort to guesswork. France has roughly three million Muslim women. The French police did a survey to check how many wore the niqab. The answer? 367.
Now you tell me what kind of culture is at threat from a miserable three hundred and sixty seven veiled women? And in Belgium, which is also planning to ban the veil, there are half a million Muslim women, of whom a humongous two dozen wear the veil . Amazing.
I think, for the moment, we can put the culture issue aside as a shoddy excuse.
The second argument is the idea that being made to wear a veil is “oppressive” to women.
On the face of it this might seem a seductive notion, and it is…so long as you don’t ask those veiled women what they think of it. If you do, the reactions might be surprising.
This is what Kenza Drider, a French Muslim woman who wears the niqab and is determined to violate the ban, has to say :
“This whole law makes France look ridiculous…I never thought I’d see the day when France, my France, the country I was born in and I love, the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité, would do something that so obviously violates people’s freedom.
“I’ll be getting on with my life and if they want to send me to prison for wearing the niqab then so be it. One thing’s for sure: I’m not taking it off.”
So here we have an “oppressed” woman prepared to go to prison rather than remove the symbol of her alleged oppression.
In fact, worldwide, the burqa or niqab can be seen to be an empowering garment rather than an oppressive one.
How so? In order to answer that, we must ask first this question:
Who, precisely, are the people who wear burqas, hijabs or niqabs? Aren’t they fundamentalist Muslims? They are.
Now, the burqa or other veil is actually not required wearing in Islam. It’s more a cultural thing, and it’s mostly a coincidence that those cultures which traditionally veiled their women also tend to have the more fundamentalist interpretations of the Islamic faith. But the fact remains that the veil is worn by women, primarily, in cultures where they have to wear it in public if they go out at all. Tradition, reinforced by their menfolk, ensure that they keep the veil.
Often, in fact, the veil is just a temporary garment, for wearing in public. Women in many countries will dress to kill, put on the burqa over their hip-hugging jeans and low-neck tops, and go to all-woman malls and discos, where they will dump the veil in the check-in and turn into birds of paradise for the night. You’d call that oppression?
For many women it’s much more of a necessity. I myself knew a dentist in Calcutta who worked in her clinic in the regulation white coat, latex gloves and face mask. But when her clinic hours were over, she would put on a burqa for the trip home. And this was a well-educated professional. There are many more who do the same, whose lives outside the home take place within the folds of a burqa.
Now, suppose you ban the burqa. Will those veiled women suddenly gain the freedom to go out without their enveloping garments? Of course they won’t. Instead, they will find themselves confined within the four walls of their home, prisoners of their inability to put on the veil that set them free.
Pretty strange way of enforcing female emancipation if you ask me!
Then, the third excuse is the “security” one. In these days of Islamophobia and terrorism-mongering, this strikes a raw nerve. In fact it’s so clearly designed to strike a raw nerve that you know right away that it’s a fake argument.
Let’s think about a veiled woman in the street. Sure, she could be hiding a bomb under her niqab’s folds. Hell, if it’s winter, any guy or gal in a heavy jacket could be hiding a bomb under said jacket. Do you ban jackets?
Then, in a world where Al Qaeda has already produced and used intestine bombs , a burqa-clad suicide bomber would be rather…obvious, no?
But let’s not even go to all that. A burqa-clad woman stands out in a crowd, instantly. If you are in a situation where you need to check her identity, just ask a policewoman to do it. It’s a system used in India, for example, where a large number (yet very, very far from a majority, let alone all) of Muslim women are veiled, and so far it’s worked more or less perfectly.
In North India, a lot of Muslim women,who are otherwise poor, semi/illiterate,and from fundamentalist families,wear the veil. They go shopping,work,even drive,wearing it. I’ve treated veiled Muslim women many times. You ban the veil,and what happens to them? Answer-they’re, instantly, disempowered.
The irony is that the nations banning the veil have almost no veiled people,while nations full of veiled women don’t seem to have any problems with them. You’d think India might have more problems than France with the veil,wouldn’t you, assuming of course that said problems exist?
But of course all this veil-banning has nothing whatsoever to do with any of the three “arguments” advanced. It has everything to do with scoring cheap political points in an environment where Muslim-bashing is an easy way to popularity, so long as you don’t openly call it Muslim-bashing. The fear of Muslims has seeped so thoroughly into modern Europe (replacing the fear of Jews) that anything that targets them will get electoral support, no matter how ridiculous it is.
And of course this veil-banning is counterproductive. Leave the veil alone, and it’s fairly certain that the children of the veil-wearing generation will abandon it for what their friends and colleagues are wearing, or their children will. But ban the veil, and wearing it becomes an instant act of defiance, a badge of resistance against cultural diktat. I’d be very surprised if non-niqab-wearing Muslim women in France don’t now start wearing it as a mark of protest.
And since populism and tokenism aren’t the prerogative of any one party, the Islamic Right will (in case it hasn’t already done so) instantly leap on the ban as yet another proof of the evilness of the Crusader West, and use it as a tool to further raise anti-Western hatred. It suits their agenda perfectly.
In fact this kind of thing (like Switzerland’s banning of mosque minarets, another ludicrous bit of stupidity) is so tailored towards cleaving societies asunder that I’d be astonished if those responsible weren’t doing it deliberately.
Clashes of civilisations can be created in inventive ways.