This week France’s Parliament moved a step closer to a ban on covering one’s face in public; Spain moved to keep it legal; and Syria banned it in universities, both on the part of students and teachers. Around the globe, debate is raging over whether Muslim face veiling is a symptom of women’s oppression or an expression of spiritual empowerment, whether banning it would be a violation of religious freedom or a victory for women’s liberation, and whether such a ban would enhance integration or extremism among immigrant Muslim populations in the West.
Personally, I have a visceral, negative reaction to face veiling, much as I do against the exploitation of women’s bodies by the pop music industry. A long time ago, as a young, twenty something woman, I saw hijab (the headscarf and long, loose clothes) as the ultimate “up yours” to the cult of causal sexuality that seemed to have overtaken American youth, the abusiveness of the beauty industry, and the objectification of women by Hollywood and advertisers that had spawned an epidemic of anorexia and bulimia among young women and its flip side, an epidemic of obesity, which left practically no woman happy with her body. Hijab was delightfully freeing, a way of stepping outside that game and rejecting it utterly. I knew that this interpretation of hijab was something quite unique to Muslims in the Western world, but I also knew there were plenty of other women — both converts and those who were born into a Muslim families — who saw it in much the same light.
Since then, I’ve grown more and more aware of how, for most of the Muslim world (including many who are living here in the west), the hijab is the mirror image of the cult of objectification of women’s bodies: cover up because women are too tempting and men cannot control themselves — once again it’s the sexualization of women to the exclusion of their personalities, their hopes and dreams, their essential humanity even. That’s not a Qur’anic notion — indeed it is a bastardization of Islam’s understanding of gender — but it certainly is widespread in the Muslim world.
And face veilng, whether it be in the form of a niqab or burqa, is the ultimate in terns of sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies. It declares that even a woman’s face is too sexually arousing to be seen by the general public. That is a proposal I cannot accept, as a woman, and as a human being. I do not believe that we are so driven by our sexual impulses. I believe we can indeed relate to one another on the basis of character and personality, without sexuality intruding upon every conversation or causal meeting.
Aside from this intellectual rejection of face veiling, I also have a instinctive, negative, emotional response to women who wear the face veil. I find it creepy when I am talking face to face with a person to have their words disassociated with their mouth. The lack of visual cues at times makes it hard to understand what is being said, and it impinges on my ability to judge the tone and intent with which those words are being spoken. The disconnect between the expressions of the eyes with the expression of the rest of the face is at best disconcerting; and at worst leads to such distractions to the conversation as wondering if the speaker is really smiling or just crinkling her eyes.
Finally, I object to the religious extremism the niqab and burqa represent. Islam calls itself the middle path, the path of moderation. There is nothing moderate about clothing that covers your entire body. Religious extremism is threatening the stability of global society (whether it be on the part of fundamentalist Christians, ultra-nationalist Hindus, or Muslim militants). I dislike niqabs and burqas not only for the social and personal implications they carry, but also as symbols of extreme thought.
Against this backdrop, issues of banning or not banning, of women’s liberation or oppression become very murky. Is it liberating to take absolute control over who has access to your body… I certainly can see how it would be. Is it oppressive that sexuality not only dominates every aspect of all relationships, but is seen as such a potential for sin that it must be completely suppressed… it sure as hell can be. Does it have to be… not necessarily, especially if it is the genuine belief of the woman herself, and face veiling is a choice she makes of her own free will.
Complicating the picture is the social backdrop… is the woman wearing a face veil in opposition to culture or in conformity with it? While I support the moral agency of women, and their right to understand human nature as makes sense to them, I have a big issue with cultures that see human relationships as dominated by sexuality, especially when that leads to lack of opportunity for women, or to their exploitation. The oppressiveness of face veiling, then, is relative to the culture in which it is practiced. In France, it is much more likely to be a symbol of women’s spiritual and personal empowerment. In Syria, it is more likely to be a symbol of her submission to objectionable norms.
Either way, though, I am wary of taking women’s agency away from them. Reducing women’s ability to make choices about basic things like what sort of clothing they choose to wear, or how they express their religious beliefs, in an effort to promote women’s equality, is it seems to me ultimately counterproductive. If social pressures and social norms result in women being oppressed, in lessened opportunity to engage fully in public lives and to fulfill their dreams, then the answer is to deal with the problem through educational campaigns, through advocacy, and legislation. Outlawing a type of dress is not likely to change the fundamental attitude behind that dress, it simply changes what people wear. Banning the burqa is not likely to remove women’s oppression in those societies where it is common, far more is needed than a simple change in costume for that to occur.
Equally murky are questions of integration and immigration. Will banning burqas in France encourage the Muslim population to become more integrated, or will it create even more alienation and hostility to French culture? I think the latter. Will banning it in Syria’s schools inculcate more secular values, or will it just drive extremism into more hidden, and thus less easily dealt with, pockets. Again, I tend to think the latter. The battle for the soul of Islam has to take place on an emotional and intellectual plane, legislating values and morality simply doesn’t work. It may create compliance to dress codes, but it doesn’t change minds or hearts; if anything it hardens them.
Despite all this, I do support banning burqas in public venues. Ultimately, I believe that the need of a society to be able to identify it’s members trumps religious freedom, and even women’s agency. It is with good reason that we do not allow people to walk into banks or board buses in ski masks. So too, face veils should be restricted to private gatherings.
The arguments that have been flying in France, or even in Syria, about secularism and women’s oppression are red herrings in my opinion. Most of them are patently paternalistic, bigoted and racist. Arguments on the other side, supporting religious freedom and women’s control over their own bodies, have it right on those two issues, but they have it wrong when it comes to society’s need to police itself. I’m not suggesting that women who choose to wear a face veil are likely to be criminals, but rather that criminals could — and would — take advantage of the legality of covering one’s face in public.