Defend the Republic! Ban the burqa!
When so few European women wear the full veil, why are governments falling over themselves to ban it? It’s pseudo-libertarian grandstanding.
In spite of the grave crisis of the Euro, the French cabinet will today (19 May) find the time to discuss a draft law banning the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Spain has just slashed public wages and is on the verge of economic collapse, yet the minister of work yesterday made the effort to visit Lleida and voice his support for the mayor’s plan to prohibit full Islamic facewear in the streets. Last month, Belgium’s coalition government had dissolved and there was talk of splitting up the country, yet the parliament managed to unite 136 out of 138 deputies to vote through a law banning the burqa and niqab.
How is it that European leaders, in such difficult times, have invested such energy in the matter of women’s facewear? Why was a Spanish schoolgirl who insisted on wearing a headscarf so fascinating as to draw the media’s attention away from government cuts? Why such detailed discussions on the intricacies of Islamic veils? Newspapers feature pullouts on the different forms of Islamic veil, and commentators explain why the niqab is so much worse than the shayla or the chandor, and indeed how the hijab is fine and even liberating for Muslim women.
The burqa-ban laws were introduced with such displays of speechmaking that anybody would think the fate of these countries hung on this single point of principle. One Belgian deputy admitted that ‘the image of our country abroad is more and more incomprehensible’, but said this near-unanimous vote banning the burqa and niqab rescued ‘an element of pride to be Belgian’. A French commission on the veil said the veil was ‘contrary to the values of the Republic’ and the parliament should make it clear that ‘all of France is saying “no” to the full veil’. The Spanish work minister said this clothing ‘clashes fundamentally with our society and equality between men and women. The values of our society cannot go into retreat.’
Lawmakers have competed to find words to describe the outrage of religious face-coverings. A French Communist deputy said veils transform women into ‘phantoms’, ‘walking coffins’ and represent the ‘barbarism’ of Muslim extremists. One Belgian deputy called the niqab ‘a mobile prison’ and ‘medieval practice’. Nicolas Sarkozy said veils keep women ‘isolated from social life’ and ‘deprived of personality’ and are a ‘sign of servility’ that ‘denigrated the human essence’.
Politicians have also competed to describe the grandeur of their decision to ban these mobile prisons. A law banning the veils ‘will be a law of liberation’, said a French Communist deputy. A Belgian politician judged that ‘we are the first to unlock the bolt that has kept a good number of women in slavery’.
So how many women in Belgium wear these face-coverings that engaged the whole national parliament at a time of near-dissolution? Nobody knows for sure. Perhaps ‘a few hundred’; perhaps ‘30’. France has studied the matter and judges that there are 1,900 women in the country wearing the full-face veil. When Denmark passed a law in January limiting full veils in public spaces, there were 200 women wearing the niqab and three women wearing the burqa. One blogger on the Le Monde website judged this to be ‘a lot of fuss about nothing’.
Of course, the niqab is objectionable; it is indeed a mark of women’s oppression and isolation from the public world; it obstructs women’s communication with others, not to mention their vision and general mobility. And yet, at base, this is a piece of cloth. The cloth does not cause oppression, but merely reflects it. The corset and wired skirts did not cause the marginalisation of Victorian women, nor did foot-binding cause the oppression of Chinese women. When English women started to enter the public world, to demand votes and to do jobs, they soon swapped their corsets for the loose-fitting simplicity of 1920s dresses, and then, finally, for trousers.
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As Muslim women become liberated, they take off their burqas. A programme for the liberation of Muslim women – or immigrants in general – would be a fine thing, and yet this would involve changing their conditions of life and aiding their full participation in Belgian or French society. To ban the burqa is to take on the question of marginalisation at the most superficial level; it is to attack the symbol, to tear off the niqabs and to believe that this is liberation.
Some French and Arab feminists have pointed this out. ‘I am against this item of clothing, but it shouldn’t be legislated against’, said one Moroccan human rights activist. ‘[Politicians] should instead tackle the situation of Muslims in France and try to help them overcome unemployment, poverty and racism.’ The French paper Liberation observed that this supposed process of freeing women would actually amount to victimisation, as they would be arrested and fined in the street. Indeed, some women would conceivably stop leaving the house – then they really would be marginalised.
And yet, these burqa bans do not really ring true as genuine efforts to liberate Muslim women. The measure is less for the benefit of the woman than for the gallant state posing as her protector. In all those high-faluting speeches about their values, politicians reveal the real reason for these laws, which is to create an occasion for their own performance. What a shoddy state the Republic must be in if liberty, equality and fraternity amount only to this: not the burqa! The draft French law also includes a new crime targeted at Muslim husbands, of inducing somebody to cover their face, which bears the penalty of a year in prison and a €15,000 fine. And so the state poses as the chivalrous knight rescuing women from their husbands…
There is a new and coercive element to these bans, too, which is the idea that citizens should be visible to the state at all times. It is because of ‘public security’ that Muslim women must show their faces, politicians said in both the French and Belgian parliaments. Who knows what they could be plotting behind those niqabs? When an Italian woman was recently stopped and fined €500 for wearing a burqa in public, an official said she posed a ‘security problem’. The Netherlands broached a ban on veils because ‘the Cabinet finds it undesirable that face-covering clothing – including the burqa – is worn in public places for reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens’. A French opinion piece observed that a ban was necessary since the police cannot go around asking women to lift their veils to identify themselves.
Here, we can see that the reason for banning the face veil is illiberal through and through: we must show our faces so that we can be scrutinised by state security. For all the fine talk of openness in social relations, welcoming Muslim women into society and so on, the bans are also a cry of ‘Show your faces!’. A person must show their face so that they are identifiable and scrutinisable. In this sense, the burqa bans share the same impulse as proposed bans on hoods or face coverings in the UK. Imperial College in London banned hoods on campus on the basis that they might be a ‘security risk’, and the Sunday Express ran a ‘ban the hood for good’ campaign to stop criminal attacks. A man dressed as a Jedi knight was ejected from a branch of Tesco by security guards for refusing to remove his hood.
Human rights groups – including the Council of Europe and Amnesty International – have said that these veil bans go against people’s rights to freedom of expression. Indeed they do: the niqab is illiberal, but how much more illiberal is it that the state should tell a woman that she cannot wear one? ‘Women should be allowed to wear what they like’, said a spokesperson for the Assembly for the Protection of the Hijab, sounding more the heir of the French Revolution than ban-happy politicians. A woman should be able to go out in a bear costume if that is what she wants. There are probably more Danes in bear costumes than there are in niqabs.
There is a final issue, though, which is that Muslim women could be keeping their veils on for longer than they ought to. The only time I have seen women in France in full veil was in a DIY shop, earnestly discussing types of outdoor paint with the shop assistant. DIY is not one of the traditional duties of a Muslim woman. The only niqab-clad woman I met regularly in London was a member of staff at the British Library, who spoke from behind her veil of cloth in a broad London accent. The Spanish schoolgirl expelled for wearing a veil was urged by her father and her non-veil-wearing mother to take it off and get back to school.
This covering of one’s face is not a traditional but a very modern retreat from public life. One young British woman who wore the veil said: ‘I’m not deeply religious. I drive, I work full-time. I go to the gym. But I felt like guys, Muslims and non-Muslims, were staring at me. After I wore one, they would move out of my way. I walk down alleyways at midnight and I feel safe.’ For young Muslims, putting their veils back on is a way of saying: ‘I am not really here; stay away from me.’ Indeed, British teenagers are almost in niqab, too, with their caps, hoods and bike masks that mean that only their eyes show. They also become ‘phantoms’ in public space.
But again, banning is not the answer, to ailments that are either modern or traditional. Banning is never the answer: it is just an excuse for grandstanding and self-justification on the part of the state. Sarkozy may pose as the defender of liberty and equality; in fact, opposing the ban on the veil is the proper libertarian and republican position.