Thursday, 28 April 2011

Veils and Freedom

As the readers are no doubt aware, France recently banned face coverings in public places. This law, in effect, bans the Muslim Burqa - the full-body covering with a veil that exposes only the eyes. Naturally, Muslims in France have protested the law as racist and deliberately targeting Islamic dress.

So what can be said in defence of the burqa? Firstly, by allowing Muslim women to wear the burqa, they would thus have freedom of choice to wear whatever they chose. Western women are permitted to wear miniskirts and low-cut tops, so, why, the question arises, should Muslims not be allowed their preferred form of attire? Secondly, remember that France, like many Western nations, purports to allow freedom of choice, freedom of association, equality, and freedom of religion. Surely, by banning the sartorial requirements of a particular religion, France is effectively disavowing her commitment to these values? Third, it may be argued, by showing that the French government officially condemns Islamic dress, will this action not foster Islamophobia?

Some Muslim women argue that the dress code is not imposed by patriarchal figures, such as Imams or their husbands. Some state that they choose to wear it. One Western response to this is to argue that there is no scriptural justification for the dress. But Muslims recognise that. That does not mean, however, that it is not an important facet of their religion. Consider, by comparison, the various rituals of Catholicism. Almost none of those rituals are prescribed in the Bible, yet they define Catholicism. So who, then, are Westerners to prohibit some aspect of Islam? Furthermore, Muslims argue, nuns are allowed to wear their severe clothing in Western society, and yet they are tolerated - so why should modest Muslim women’s dress be prohibited?

These arguments all seem sound, however, there are some responses which seem equally legitimate. Firstly, in some cases, the veil is sometimes imposed on a woman against her will. In a Western nation, this would be illegal, since it would be a restriction on her freedom. Secondly, it may be argued, the burqa promotes Islamic extremism and separation, with its refusal to identify with the secular values of the West, and hence, a failure to properly integrate. Like the 16th-Century arguments in England about Catholics being loyal first to the Pope, this argument aims to show that a Muslim is loyal first to Islam. Thirdly, the burqa prevents identification and allows for fraud; for example, one could pass a driver's test by getting a friend in a Burqa to do the test. It also represents a security problem, akin to balaclavas or motorbike helmets. Westerners are not allowed to wear such things in public, as they may commit crimes thus disguised.

I believe that I can see both sides of the argument, however, I'd like to add the following considerations:

If a Western woman goes to Saudi Arabia, is she allowed to wear a miniskirt? Of course not. So the people who oppose the burqa argue that people who wish to wear Islamic dress do not wish to integrate. Shariah states would not tolerate Western female attire, so why should we tolerate theirs? While I can see the point here, I do feel it is rather petulant. We should at least be leading the way in tolerance. The question of course, is how tolerant should we be? What if practitioners of sadomasochism decided that freedom of expression entitled them to walk around in their preferred subcultural gear? Would we tolerate such a public display? Or what about gimp suits that conceal the entire body? Probably not. So I don't quite see that tolerance needs to be indefinitely extended. The question is one of whether it should be extended to the burqa.

As to the question of whether tolerance should be extended to the burqa, for me, the deciding factor is security. We do not know who is under that veil, and whether or not in just this particular case, the person might actually be a man disguised - and that he's either a suicide bomber, terrorist, bank robber, or some other kind of villain. If we can at least see his face, then we can have a record of who performed whatever act it may be. As for the nun argument, it fails on the score that nuns do not cover their faces, and as such, are not perceived as threatening.

I saw a photo of a woman in her veil holding up a poster demanding Shariah law in France. And the question occurred to me: What benefit is there to her living in France rather than a country which has Shariah law? I can only imagine that she's in France either because she was born there, or that she was taken there unwillingly in some other manner, because she can't, surely, have come to France voluntarily, knowing that France did not implement Shariah law. It strikes me as a bit of having your cake and wanting to eat it too. Either you want the benefits of democracy and freedom of expression that is permitted in the West, which logically entails the absence of Shariah law, or, you want to not have freedom of expression and not have democracy, in which case you should live in a country that implements Shariah. It's really as simple as that. I do not understand the hypocrisy of calling for Shariah law and freedom of expression; the two are not compatible, since Shariah entails that one may not refuse the burqa. Freedom of expression is not just permission to wear a burqa, it's also permission to refuse.

I must conclude, therefore, that although both sides have legitimate arguments for and against, that the question of accountability and visibility trumps all the other arguments, and that the ban ought to be implemented.

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