If you’re like me, you feel quite uncomfortable when you encounter women wearing these garments. As we can see from this mildly absurd photo, these ‘veils’ deindividuate the women who wear them in public, and likely raise in your mind some alarmed questions. Are these women forced by their male family members or shamed by their community into covering themselves literally from head to toe? Are these women ‘brainwashed’ by an intimidating ideology that teaches them to hate their bodies and to fear human sexuality? If the answer is yes to these questions, then as humanists we should be concerned by this oppression and degradation. And many humanists are concerned.
Many of these concerned humanists are also not entirely familiar with Islamic veiling practices, and should educate themselves a bit more, if only to avoid sounding ignorant by confusing their terms. Bear in mind that those who claim ‘this isn’t Islamic, it’s cultural’ are presenting a false dichotomy in which religious interpretation is seen as separate from cultural practice.
The hjiab is in common parlance a type of headscarf and possibly a long gown, covering at least the hair, and is common to many Muslim communities worldwide. Some women wear colourful and loose hijabs which allow for an enormous variety of fashion, while others wear conservative and tight hijabs around the head while covering the rest of their body save their hands with a shapeless plain gown. In Iran, the ‘cowl and gown’ combination is often called a chador. The hijab is banned in French schools (along with other ostentatious religious symbols) and in Turkish state offices and in universities (though many do not enforce it) while mandated in other countries such as Iran.
The niqab is a veil that covers the face, leaving the eyes visible. When worn together with a gown, it is often called a burqa. It is common in conservative Arab and African Muslim communities. The Southeast Asian version of it covers the eyes as well, and is the typical version of burqa worn by Afghani and Pakistani women. Often (such as in this article on France’s ban of it) the term ‘burqa’ will only be used to refer to this version, with the term ‘niqab’ referring to the form worn by the woman at the top of the post and to the form you’re by far most likely to see on the street. This can lead to some confusion, and so it helps to clarify by asking, if possible. It is banned in France and Belgium, and though it is unlikely to be banned in the UK or Canada, there is much public hostility towards it from non-Muslims and Muslims alike in some cases. It is obligatory in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
There are other garments which you can examine, but which aren’t really the subject of the same level of debate.
There is a wide diversity of religious debate over whether some form of veil or hijab should be worn and what form it should take. If you assume that a woman wearing a veil does not herself fully believe that it is obligatory as an act of piety, or that she will face exclusion from her community if she does not wear it, there’s a good chance you are wrong. That said, one should also recognise that social pressure and illegal enforcement does occur in some places (Gaza, for one) and probably occurs here as well.
What objectives might some type of public or situational ban on the niqab and the burqa serve? Here are all the ones I can think of:
- Render illegal a tool of oppression, in order to advance the rights of women here
- Discourage the immigration of radicals by making society less comfortable for them (Hi, Sarkozy et al!)
- Ensure the equal and effective application of public security laws as befits a fair and democratic state (ie no covering of the face in banks or other locations where concealment correlates with threat)
Let’s address these arguments. Argument 1 is problematic on two grounds, I think. First of all, women should have the right to dress as they like. Engaging in the oppression of women to reduce the oppression of women is both contradictory and unlikely to be effective. Second, rather than seeing women reluctantly take off the veil, a ban is more likely to see women avoiding any place where the ban is likely to be enforced. Reza Shah in Iran banned the hijab for a while, and I recall my lecturer on Iranian history telling me that rural school enrollment dropped by half. More accessible as evidence might be this passage quoted on wiki:
Many women refused to leave the house in fear of being assaulted by Reza Shah’s police…this move was welcomed by Westernized and upperclass men and women, who saw it in liberal terms as a first step in granting women their rights…However, for regular, non-activist women, it amounted to torture and desecration of their religion and themselves.
If we want to advance the rights of women, excluding them from public spaces is not the answer. While referring to a ban on the veil as torture and desecration may possibly be hyperbole, it still captures the distress that many women would feel. Nor is using this ban as a tool to deny some immigrants access (as though they wouldn’t come anyway while simply keeping their women indoors), if in the end we believe that by including women in our liberal and diverse society we support their freedom to think and choose.
As for the ‘public security and fair application of law’ argument, I think that while legitimate to some degree its application in the form of a ban would probably cause far more harm than it would prevent. There have been recorded incidents* of Islamic veils used as concealment for criminal or terrorist acts. A compromise by which veiled woman must reveal their faces to female security officers in situations where their identity should be verified is one good option. Another option is simply not being all that fussed when security personnel in some high-risk places pay extra attention to the cloaked figure of indeterminate sex who could be concealing some serious weaponry, and ignoring the cries of ‘Islamophobic profiling’ that some will issue. Both these compromises will need to be explained through good public relations and monitored through some system of accountability to discourage abuse and allow for allegations thereof to be investigated. There is a far deeper and better discussion to be had on these sorts of compromises than the token I offer here, but the point we should to take away from it is that a ban is certain to be the worst of all evils.
In other words, whether your interest is in woman’s rights, security, or secularism, your interests will not be served by making these things illegal.
*Note that Daniel Pipes isn’t the most credible or nuanced commentator on Islam