Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Isn't banning the face veil just as oppressive as requiring it be worn?

There's a number of countries or parts of countries -- France, Belgium and Quebec, off the top of my head -- that are considering or have considered banning the niqab, or face veil, which is traditionally worn by Muslim women. How many times have you heard this discussion: "Did you know that in some parts of the world, women are required by their religion to completely cover their faces and bodies? OMG that is so oppressive," possibly followed by talk about how "we" are so "lucky" that "we" don't have to "deal" with that. Sound at all familiar?

Guess what? Now "we" have to "deal" with that. And here's why: making it illegal for a woman to wear something, especially something related to her religion, is also oppressive. Just take out the religious aspect of this altogether, and you're left with governments telling a certain segment of the population what they can and cannot wear. Um, no. This is wrong, all the way around.

Look at this, from a story about Belgium's impending ban (emphasis mine):
"The face-covering veil is set to be banned within weeks in Belgium, making it the first country in Europe to make the wearing of Muslim clothing illegal. Women who flout the ban will face from one to seven days in jail or a fine of €15 to €25."
How is that any different than women in stricter Muslim countries being punished (jailed, lashed, etc.) for wearing, say, pants?

And then there's this reason given for the ban, from MP Daniel Bacquelaine:
"Wearing the burka in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society. The burka is contrary to the dignity of women. It is a walking prison."
Maybe that is true when women are forced to wear them. But guess what? Some women CHOOSE to wear them! And they should be allowed that choice. Just like women are able to choose to wear "revealing" clothing. (I mean really, if we're talking about clothing dictating the "dignity" of women, aren't a good number of us not "dignified" at all? I dress in jeans and a T-shirt about 80 percent of the time. It's a ridiculous concept to say that being fully covered is "contrary to the dignigty of women," especially when it's that woman's choice.)

Of course, some governments offer reasons besides gender and religion to support why such a ban should be made: In France, it's complicated, as the kids say, and has to do with things like secularism and freedom and religion and how Muslims view freedom (France's words, not mine.) I'd recommend this Salon article for a better understanding of France's explanation. Other excuses offered up involve identity/security concerns, and "integrating Muslims into society." Seriously.

Because she said it better than I can, I'm going to generously quote Alanna Shaikh's piece on the UN Dispatch about this subject (but please read the whole):
Veiling creates a barrier to assimilation only if mainstream culture chooses to treat it that way. If everyone in France talked to women in veils just like they speak to everyone else, the veil wouldn’t be a factor in marginalizing women or preventing engagement with classic French culture. It would just be a piece of cloth. Stigmatizing the veil, and the people who wear it, creates the very alienation that the French government is trying to combat.

Making the face veil illegal takes that stigma to the ultimate level. Women who wear the veil by choice will take it off, true. But women who are trapped in oppressive patriarchal structures won’t get to remove their veils and go out in the world. They’ll be kept from going out at all by the same men who force them into the veil in the first place.

If Sarkozy actually wanted to help Muslim women in France, he’d support things that actually improve their lives. Better educational opportunities. Employment programs. Quality housing. Instead, he’s grandstanding to further marginalize the women who need help the most.
^Exactly.

More reading:
  • Bitch: "Feminist Intersection: The Niqab Ban IS a Feminist Issue."
  • Racialicious: "Quebec Niqab Ban: No/Non to Bill 94!"
  • Muslim Media Watch: "Niqab by Numbers: Quantifying the Overreactions."
  • IBN Live: "Niqab ban gets unanimous support in Canada."
  • Reuters: "Committee backs banning veil in public."
  • RTT News: "France Advised Against Enforcing Total Ban On Islamic Face-Covering Veils."
  • Feministing: "Designers in Paris Veil Models in Protest of Proposed Burka Ban." 

3 comments:

Ray Beckerman said...

Personally I don't think so.

I think there are legitimate societal, non-religious reasons for not allowing people to hide their faces.

Ray Beckerman said...

I don't think so.

There are legitimate, societal, non-religious reasons for not allowing people to go about with their faces masked, especially in the age of terrorism.

NancyP said...

I agree with Ray. Public identifiability can be important in a large number of situations. Before the niqab, the people wearing full-face coverup were criminals (and burn victims still healing).To gain entrance to federal buildings, banks, and secure installations of other types, full face exposure should be required at the door. The woman might put it back on once inside, that's perfectly fine. In general, in non-secure situations, niqab is fine. It is possible that other technology could allow identification without dropping the veil for a moment - retinal scan, DNA-based - for some purposes, particularly for repeat visitors.

It should be obvious that operating cars and other vehicles while wearing niqab won't work due to peripheral vision issues. Surgical-style hair and nose-mouth coverage would be just fine, but not a thin and inadequately wide eye slit.

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