In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving
This post was also published on The Seeker blog.
I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the recommendation in France to ban, if only partially, the full face veil, or niqab. Clearly, there is barely concealed disgust for the niqab – and hijab, for that matter – in France. Yet, rather than completely ban the practice, which would fly in the face of the Republic’s national motto of Liberte, egalite, fraternite, the parliamentary committee recommended a denial of public services to those women who choose to wear the niqab. Indeed, President Sarkozy said that the veil is “not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman’s dignity.”
That is very interesting because, there are many billboards in France and elsewhere around the world with scantily-clad women used as props for product advertisements. How is this not also “contrary to the ideals…of a woman’s dignity”? It also seems quite draconian to refuse treatment at a hospital, for example, for a gravely-ill Muslim woman simply because she is wearing a face veil. Many see this as a political ploy by the party of President Sarkozy to gain votes ahead of upcoming elections, riding the rising tide of anti-Muslim hysteria that is occurring all across Europe. Furthermore, I agree with the New York Times editorial
which said, “People must be free to make these decisions for themselves, not have them imposed by governments or enforced by the police.” The editorial went further saying that the “Taliban would be pleased” with such a ban, and “the rest of the world should declare its revulsion.”
At the same time, however, it must be clearly emphasized that religion has nothing to do with the niqab. Yes, the women who wear it cite their religious beliefs as the motivating factor behind their choice to don the face veil, but there is nothing in Islam that mandates the niqab for women. The niqab is a cultural practice of several parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Central Asia. Personally, I am against Muslim women here in America or in other parts of the West wearing the niqab, on the basis of the fact that the face veil is not part of our culture. In fact, there must be a way to strike a balance between fidelity to the Qur’an principle of modesty and fidelity to the cultural norms of our people. Many Muslim women have struck this balance here in America quite well, wearing hijab with a distinctively American twist.
Yet, should we ban the face veil altogether? Who am I to say to a Muslim sister, “You cannot wear the niqab“, even if I personally do not like or agree with it? If a woman wants to be covered completely except for her eyes, by what authority do I – or my society and government – deny that woman her personal choice? Isn’t it the same as someone wanting to wear their hair orange? What about Lady Gaga’s sometimes outrageous outfits which I strongly detest? If I was President for a day, would it be right for me to say she can’t wear them? I am very hesitant to go this far.
“The niqab a special case,” I am told. It is, according to French parliamentarian Guy Geoffroy, “contrary to a woman’s rights” and “contrary to public order and security.” Well, what about the right of a woman to choose what she wants to wear, whether it be burqa or bikini? Indeed, what if a man wore a woman’s robe with a niqab? He could be hiding a suicide bomb vest underneath that robe, hiding his identity behind the veil. Yes, but that very same man could hide that very same suicide vest under a winter coat and wear a ski mask. So, should we ban winter coats and ski masks for men? Many people would think this preposterous. Yet, a majority of people in France support a ban of the face veil. Is this anti-Muslim bias? Perhaps partly. I am against the veil, but it cannot be cogently argued that I harbor an anti-Muslim bias.
At the same time, however, what if a man walked into a bank wearing a ski mask in the middle of summer? I suspect many people, myself included, would find this suspicious, even if the man said he likes to wear ski masks as a personal choice. Would it be unreasonable for the bank employees to ask the man to take off his ski mask? Hardly. Would it, then, be unreasonable for bank employees to ask a Muslim woman to reveal her face while in a bank? I think a reasonable right of society upon the citizen is to positively identify the citizen upon any transaction. So, what to do with the veil?
It is easy to avoid all these complicated questions and dilemmas by simply banning the veil altogether. But if this is allowed to happen, what would be next? What if a particular segment of the population has fallen out of favor, and the government issues a ban on their manners of dress? Or their particular foods? Or their language? It is a slippery slope toward oppression and denial of freedom. In many parts of the world, the rights of Muslims are being actively curtailed or are under threat of curtailment, with hardly a peep of protest. A prime example is the highly “un-neutral” Swiss ban on the construction of minarets. Muslims are the canaries in the coal mine: be silent on the denial of their rights, and any other group is vulnerable to the same usurpation.
So, the French should stop and think again about the ban of the veil and think these issues through. Not because of the fear of anger or violence from fundamentalists or terrorists, but, rather, because Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite are at stake.