What not to wear: outlawing the face veil

By Zehra Rizavi, contributor to Altmuslimah.com Editor’s note: A French constitutional court Thursday determined that the measure banning the Islamic … Continued

By Zehra Rizavi, contributor to Altmuslimah.com

Editor’s note: A French constitutional court Thursday determined that the measure banning the Islamic face veil “conforms to the Constitution,” according to the AP. That endorsement moves the measure forward.

Two weeks ago the French Senate passed a piece of legislation 246 votes to one to outlaw the face veil worn by a small number of the country’s Muslim women, with President Nicolas Sarkozy stating, in no uncertain terms, that the face veil is “not welcome” in France.

The law follows at the heels of the Belgian parliament’s ban on the full face veil–known as the burqa or niqab–in public places. “It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual,” said Daniel Bacquelaine, who proposed the bill, adding that he was not targeting the classic headscarf worn by many Muslim women. “Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society,” he declared to the press.

Although the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights can challenge such a ban as a violation of international human rights laws, Italy and the Netherlands have not been dissuaded from considering joining the fray. The hostility towards Muslims, in particular Muslim women and their garb, appears ubiquitous in Europe these days and can only be described as a step backwards for Western society.

As a Muslim female, who does her best to select items for her wardrobe that meet the Islamic guidelines of modesty, I do not believe that the face veil is mandated by my religion, though its proponents insist that it is. Prior to Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) arrival in seventh century Arabia, concealing one’s face symbolized a high class status in the Persian Empire, as well as in parts of Europe. In fact, both men and women draped the veil over their faces to project an image of wealth and status.
The great majority of Islamic scholars today however, identify the full face veil as a cultural relic, not an Islamic religious duty decreed by the Q’uran. This is not to suggest that Muslim women who wear the face veil are oppressed creatures–take Hissa Hilal, for example, a Saudi woman in niqab who writes scathing poetic invectives criticizing extremist Saudi clerics and their rulings. The debate on the merits of the face veil must come from within the religion, not imposed from without. When European governments inject themselves into the discourse, and dismiss the veil’s religious validity, they do nothing but engender anger and resentment in their Muslim communities.

In an ironic twist, many supporters of the ban argue that the face veil is an expression of patriarchal control; a woman would only cover herself in such a manner if a man had intimidated her into doing so. Assuming that all women who wear the burka or the niqab are wearing it under duress, it doesn’t follow that men, like the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, ought to command a woman not to wear it. That too is an expression of patriarchy. Although the Belgian and French governments make the specious claim that the ban against the face veil restores women’s rights, it, in fact, restricts them.

Islamic scholar Michael Privot has pointed out that Belgium and France have now joined Iran and Saudi Arabia “in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain.” It seems clear that fear and racism are masquerading as liberalism, because there is nothing liberal about targeting a community over a form of dress. And it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see that perhaps European governments’ insistence on banning the face veil under the false pretext of defending women’s freedom is an example of the imperialist mind frame–the civilized ‘white man’ has a mission to liberate the colonized from their inferior and outdated traditions.

If France’s ban is not an example of Europe’s ill concealed feelings of cultural supremacy, it is certainly a clever political tactic. After his party was beaten badly in regional elections in March, and as Sarkozy watched his poll numbers plummet, the French President decided that to restore his and the party’s popularity, he must win over the extremist anti-immigration bloc. Why else would he propose a ban against the garb of a negligible fraction of France’s Muslim population–no more than an estimated few hundred women wear the face veil in France? After all, rallying people against a minority in order to distract them from real problems, such as unemployment or pension reform, is an effective, albeit shortsighted, political maneuver. And unfortunately the French citizenry seems to have fallen for this smokescreen, making Muslim women the scapegoats for their fears.

The tactic is a shameful one, because Sarkozy fails to see how this issue has international consequences beyond his immediate political survival. The ban is a blow to Europe in the war of public opinion more than anything else; extremist Muslims, who are in the business of recruiting impressionable youth to carry out acts of violence, smile at such bans because they strengthen the case against the so-called liberal Western world and its anti-Muslim sentiments.

Whatever the reasons for France and Belgium’s decisions to ban face veils, if the objective was to liberate Muslim women and assimilate European Muslims into the larger population, then both nations have failed marvelously. The bans slice a country’s population into two: one group’s unfounded fears about the other are confirmed by the prohibition, while the other resents the secular government vilifying what the group considers either its religious obligation or its cultural tradition.

If European public policy makers are using an enforced dress code as a social engineering tool to design a more homogenous society, then they are further pushing an already marginalized immigrant community to the sidelines. Shedding the burqa or niqab will not make Muslim women in France or Belgium more European, but it does pander to the xenophobic constituents, antagonize Europe’s estimated 20 million Muslims and confirm the assumption that the two identities–European and Muslim–are irreconcilable.

Read more about AltMuslimah and their new blog at On Faith here.

About

Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • abrahamhab1

    “…because Sarkozy fails to see how this issue (banning the burqa) has international consequences beyond his immediate political survival.”

  • boboberg

    Sarkozy was 100% corret, the burqa has no place in western countries where we respect women’s freedom and identity. We don’t want overbearing parents, boyfriends or spouses to deny a woman’s freedom by forcing them to cover their faces. If you want to wear a burqa then go back to where you came from, we don’t want it here. Mark Montgomery [email protected]

  • lepidopteryx

    So if I chose to wear a Lone Ranger mask just cuz I liked to pretend I was riding with Jay Silverheels, that would be okay, but not if I wore a veil because I thought it showed respect to my deity of choice? Makes no sense.

  • AKafir

    “But if another woman wants to be covered from head to toe, whether it’s in a bonnet and prairie skirt or a tent with eye slits, it’s not my place (or anyoone else’s) to tell her to uncover any more than it would be her place (or anyone else’s) to tell me to cover up.”Baloney. That is why the French have a penalty for the males who force women to cover up, or males who threaten women if they won’t cover up. How many news do you want to see from around the world about women being threatened and forced to wear the body shroud? If a woman really wants to wear a body shroud in the west of her own free will, then perhaps she should be treated like the one who wants to walk around naked. Both of them need a ticket to the closest mental hospital.

  • Secular

    This whole article is conflating false equivalences, a classic technique of Islamists and their apologists. We all now that overwhelming majority, i bet it isn’t even close, the women wear “the beekeeper suit”, because their neanderthal husband or father forces them to. Whom are these people kidding? They want us to believe that these are the moderates. Do these moderates want to live in the 21st century or do they want to be living in 7th century arabia. Why the hell don’t they tell the OIC countries to take out the hijab restrictions, on visitors. Again no body asking a neanderthal from Algeria to move to France or Belgium, they can all go enmasse to Saudi Arabia, instead.

  • habibbarri

    AN article in the Jerusalem Post on January 9th 2009 gives cogent reasons for banning face coverings in public.”In ‘Ban the burka – and the niqab too,’ two years ago, I documented how these two items pose criminal and terrorist dangers. Is that still the case? Criminality: Jordan offers a glimpse into the potential for niqabs and burkas as illegal accessories. One news report indicates that 50 people committed 170 crimes using Islamic garments during the past two years, or roughly one incident every four days – a crime wave that has prompted some Jordanians to call for restricting or even banning these Islamic head coverings. No other country reports nearly so many head-garment-related crimes, but Philadelphia, Pennsylvania boasts multiple robberies (three banks and one real estate leasing office) in a 16-month period in 2007-08, including the murder of a police officer. The United Kingdom has the West’s second-worst record. Jewelry stores – some owned by Muslims – have been targeted in the West Midlands, Glasgow and Oxfordshire. Two travel agencies were attacked in the adjoining towns of Dunstable and Luton, while an armored truck driver was assaulted in Birmingham. Robbery is not the only motive; teenagers in London used niqab-style face coverings when stabbing a younger boy. OTHER CRIMINAL incidents in the West include East European pickpockets wearing Islamic headgear in Rotterdam, and a burgundy burka’ed armed robbery at the People’s Bank in Hiddenite, North Carolina (population: 6,000). The man who abducted Elizabeth Smart, 14, of Salt Lake City, forced her to wear a niqab-like garment that hid her in plain sight for nine months. In response, banks, credit unions, jewelry stores and schools are limiting access to persons who are covered.” All face coveriings, including Lone Ranger masks and Nixon masks should be banned in public in the interests of public safety.

  • ender3

    The burka in public places has already shown itself as a tool of criminals as posted above about the UK. It provides anonymity and concealment. If you wore any like garb into a bank or jewelry store you would be kicked out immediately as a security risk. It is the same thing on the street for the general public.Public safety trumps ancient cultural oppression.

  • Arif2

    Burkas and all face coverings must be banned. When will muslims criticize wrongs in their religion? In muslim countries burkas, chadors, tents etc make women invisible; the way they should be in Islam. The irony in western countries is that this very invisible woman is a tool for muslims to further their islamic agenda. The French hostage taking and release will most probably be based upon the womans hijjab ban in France. Islamic censorship is coming to a neighborhood near you, koran burning made the western press and free speech pundits put their tails between their legs.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    I believe that woman who wear a face veil do so to comply with male intimidation, and there is nothing that anyone can say to make me believe otherwise. Of course, women who are forced to wear the face veil are not going to admit it, for they are under male intimdation and threat to pretend that they like it.If a woman truly is so repressed that she cannot come out into public without textiles covering her from head to toe, then that is matter for a psychiatrist. This is obssessive compulsion, not religion.If Islamic women wanted to walk around in public naked because of their reliigon, would that be ok too?

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    The fact is, to be female in an Islamic culture is to endure crushing oppression. There is and there can be NO DEFENSE of that. Western society will not give even a single inch towards religious tolerance, on this subject of female oppression. If the Islamic establishment thinks that it vsm make any headway at all on this point, they can think again.

  • kathy523

    I see American women and even feminists like Hillary having to cover their head while in most Islamic nations. Why are Muslims even migrating out of Islamic nations if their dress code is so stringent?

  • AKafir

    “I see American women and even feminists like Hillary having to cover their head while in most Islamic nations. Why are Muslims even migrating out of Islamic nations if their dress code is so stringent?”Because they are taught the earth belongs to Allah and Allah has promised that they will rule the world. So far it has always worked for them (the exception being spain and they want spain back). As long as the kafirs bend backwards to accommodate the demands will never stop. See what is happening in Europe.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Why don’t Muslim men cover their faces? How come it is just Muslim women who must cover their faces? Maybe because it is men who make all the rules, and it is men who say what the women must do, and maybe men do not want to cover themselves because it is uncomfortable, ridiculous, and absurd; maybe men do not want to stand out and attract attention; maybe they do not want to cope with all of the complications and embarrassment, that they foist upon their women folk.How come Muslim men so readily adopt Western clothes but forbid the women to do so? Aren’t they hypocrites?

  • suraiyasaw

    Before I express my very strong stand against those who champion the hijab, and for the French government in their ruling, let me first clarify that I am a Muslim living in the USA, and I do not subscribe to the hijab nor will I ever go to Saudi Arabia, and be subjected to the hypocritical laws of their land, not even for the Hajj. The simple reason is that I adhere to the laws set by God in the Holy Quran,and ONLY the Holy Quran. I reject the Sirah and all Hadiths as the Holy Quran was the final revelation that does not require any further addition or deletion of God’s laws as stated in the original Scriptures, Torah, and Holy Quran. To the author of this article and to all Muslim women who cover themselves from the simple hijab (and baggy clothes) to the tents with tiny screens over their eyes; You champion this act because you have been duped into believing this is necessary to curtail evil. You fail to understand that you have “chosen” to do this only because of the embedded brainwashing over a long period of “patriarchal control” and more importantly patriarchal authority on religious law. This is no different than the women who have been brainwashed into believing that female circumcision is necessary to curtail female sexuality which is evil. To date this horrific act of genital mutilation is still championed, performed and forced on girls by their mothers and grandmothers in many “Islamic” countries. This is no different that the rites to prove a bride’s virginity also championed by females across the globe! This is call being psyched, or being duped into believing what one wants you to believe.

  • amber8

    to suraiyasaw – yours is a beautiful and revealing comment. I have lived in a muslim community (but I am not muslim) and it is true that the women I talked with and shared a friendship with hate these clothing restrictions. When we would travel away from their male partners they ripped off all that clothing faster than you could wink an eye. They expressed a genuine fear that originates in childhood from being oppressed and brainwashed into thinking this is how you should be a religious, acceptable muslim woman and if you don’t wear these you risk violence to yourself. Remember they have no where else to go or live.

  • Utahreb

    Immigrate to a different country? Then why not assimilate, too? Why even move if you don’t want to adapt to the mores and culture? Worship in your temples, your mosques – fine. But don’t expect us to cater to your dress if it covers up the entire face. We impose pictures on our driver’s licenses for a reason – identification. Who the heck knows what is behind a fully covering veil?

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