On Friday night, over dinner, a group of friends started debating the topic of the French Senate recently passing a bill banning women wearing the Islamic veil (Niqab – full body covering) on public streets and other places. I (CJG) spent some time listening to everyone’s views and soon realised that generally people are either… really confused what to think because they don’t think women should be forced to cover up but don’t feel quite right about a ban on a piece of clothing either.. or… they simply outright agree that the ban is a good thing.
People who think that the veil should definitely be banned generally argue these points:
- Wearing the veil stops full integration in society – why go to a Western country, flee the things you don’t like but not embrace the new and keep repressing women? When you enter a new society you should dress and behave in a way to fit in to it.
- Wearing the veil is a security issue – identification of people is necessary in our societies.
- Wearing the veil is repressing women and our societies can liberate them by banning the veil.
- The veil is a symbol of Islam that is not welcome in our societies.
The conversation seemed to centre on how wrong it is that women are made to wear the veil by their husbands and how important integrating in to society is. Themes of religious freedom, female equality, secular traditions and fears of terrorism are the basis of these conversations.
After much listening and thinking I decided to pitch in with my view which I am now sharing with you. Please feel free to add your thoughtful considerations of this delicate topic in the comments section.
Repressing and empowering women
Prior to passing this bill, Muslim women in France could make a choice (or their husband would make the choice for them) to wear a veil in line with their customs and religion.
On banning the veil, the government has dictated that Muslim women must not wear the veil in public.
Is this empowering women? Does it free them from repression by their husbands and brothers? I don’t think so. These women still have absolutely no choice and are sadly at the mercy of another authority.
In my opinion, taking the choice of wearing a veil from her husband (or herself) and giving it to the government has great potential for further problems in society. These women are no more empowered than before and are probably at risk of being further repressed. I believe some women, who were before free to walk the streets, go shopping and attend university while wearing the veil will now be denied an education, will be forced to stay at home so as to avoid showing their faces in public and eventually be excluded from the society they want to live in.
After all, what is their alternative? Wear the veil in public and get a fine of €150 ($200) (including for tourists!)? Have their husband or brother fined €30,000 and a year in prison for forcing them to wear the veil?
Education and community involvement
I believe that empowering women in these situations is about allowing them to live in a safe society where they have opportunities to be accepted, educated and participate in community initiatives. Education opportunities are beneficial not only to the covered Muslim woman but to the general public.
Surely, instead of banning the veil, steps should be taken to educate and engage the general public on Islam (France is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim population) and encourage acceptance, not only of different cultures and religions but even different clothing.
Education does not have to be through formal institutions, but can be through open discussion and debates through media like community radio and at social gatherings. Education should not be about the veil per se, but on a myriad of topics useful for all members of society – cultural sharing, women’s health, family relationships, raising children, terrorism, etc.
The wider community needs to understand the fear mongering around terrorism and the events that encourage it (the war in Iraq, for example). They need to meet and have personal experiences with Muslim women wearing veils to understand they are no more likely to be a terrorist than their neighbour is a serial killer. Disguises are used by criminals and spies worldwide and yet fake moustaches aren’t illegal!
Address the problems instead of just the symptoms
Empowering women should allow them to choose for themselves what clothes they wish to wear and how much of their bodies they wish to cover, in accordance with the beliefs that they hold.
Ok, I know what you are thinking… “but they aren’t choosing for themselves, they are being repressed by their husbands.”
Well, I think individuals are highly complex in their reasons for doing things and the choices they make so even if this is the case, the ‘solution’ does not account for this. It is a one sweep, catch all ‘solution’ to a symptom. Banning the veil does not fix the problem. As we have learnt through history, this is an overly simplistic and dangerous approach (see my post on the history of soil for another example of how applying solutions to symptoms creates more problems).
The reasons for banning the veil
I really think the discussion on banning the veil should be centred more on a reasonable justification for doing so.
The French seem to see the bill as a symbolic defence of French values that will preserve the nation’s secular foundations and notions of fraternity. France’s Justice Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, has said: ”The full veil dissolves a person’s identity in that of a community. It calls into question the French model of integration, founded on the acceptance of our society’s values” and also, “that it reaffirmed the French values of equality and dignity of all individuals and would prevent women from simply becoming faceless members of a larger ethnic community”. Mr Sarkozy said veils oppress women and are “not welcome” in France.
As I mentioned above, I think the opposite of the intention of this bill will be the outcome. I think Islamophobia will increase in a country already dealing with targets on mosques (and synagogues too by the way) and Muslim women will be further isolated from daily participation in society and education. This decision violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion and gender. I am genuinely afraid of the precedent this sets at a time of increasing intolerance toward Muslims in the Western world. I also feel a great deal of compassion for the many Muslims who will be feeling more vulnerable than ever. Does anyone really think that treating innocent Muslim women like criminals will help integrate them in to our societies and free them from repression?
For me at least, the reasons given for the ban of veils – symbolism, French values, integration, security, equality – are actually the reasons the ban should not have been enforced.