Europe has finally come to its senses and taken a stand in favor of the Western Enlightenment enterprise.
On July 1, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the 2010 French burqa ban, a religion-neutral piece of legislation which eliminates face masks. By a “majority” vote of seventeen judges with two dissents, the Court found that the ban did not violate “Article 8 [the right respect for private and family life of the European Convention on Human Rights] and [there was] no violation of Article 9 [the right to respect for freedom of thought, conscience and religion].” No further appeals are possible.
As the author of Ban the Burqa? An Argument in Favor, I applaud this decision, on the grounds of security, and as a matter of women’s human rights. The obliteration of female identity is not a Western value.
Criminals and terrorists wear masks. Men have been known to dress in flowing burqas in order to rob jewelry stores or to escape after committing a terrorist act. In an interview, scholar Daniel Pipes said:
“France leads the way in banning a repugnant garment from the public square that restricts young women’s rights, poses a criminal and terrorist danger to the society, and does yet other forms of damage. In this, Americans should emulate the braver and wiser French.”
In addition to the very real danger of terrorism and ordinary crime, there is also a human rights violation involved in face-masking.
Women who wear niqab (face veils) and burqas (face veils and body bags) are utterly removed from social interaction. Veiled women are confined to a sensory deprivation isolation chamber; isolation and sensory deprivation are forms of torture and health hazards. Anxiety, claustrophobia, extreme discomfort, lowered self-esteem, walking accidents, often accompany wearing such clothing. A face veiled woman is a ghostly, moving prison, an absent presence. It is hard to speak with her or understand what she is saying.
Imagine a court room witness, a judge, a lawyer, a surgeon, a pediatrician, a nurse, a university student, a stockbroker functioning while wearing such muffling, and unfriendly garments.
I also understand that the matter is tricky and usually poorly understood.
First, Westerners have little knowledge of the long struggle which took place in Muslim countries to abolish the Veil.
For example, Muslim feminists and anti-colonial nationalists in Muslim countries campaigned hard for open faces in public. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, kings, shahs, and presidents unveiled their female citizens. Both these rulers and activists were successful in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran, to name but a few countries. Two Afghan Kings unveiled the women, first in the late 1920’s and again in the late 1950’s. By the late 1950’s, a foreign journalist visiting Egypt wrote that “the veil is unknown here.”
Second, Westerners naively believe that face veiling is an Islamic religious requirement and thus, under our belief in freedom of religion, that we must permit whatever someone says is true of their religion.
However, Muslim religious scholars and intellectuals, as well as feminists, have explained, over and over again, that the Qu’ran only requires that men as well as women dress “modestly” and that women cover their bosoms. Some say that in the 7th century, Mohammed’s wives wore veils and that veiling therefore signifies status.
In October 2009, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, perhaps the foremost, formal spiritual authority in Sunni Islam and grand sheikh of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious learning, was reportedly “angered” when he toured a school in Cairo and saw a teenage girl wearing niqab. Asking the girl to remove her face veil, he said, “The niqab is a tradition; it has no connection with religion.” He then instructed the girl never to wear the niqab again and issued a fatwa (religious edict) against its use in schools.
Third, so many formerly cosmopolitan societies have, in the last fifteen-twenty years, been conquered by radical Islamist Jihad. Today, the face veil is being used as the flag and symbol of radical Islam, Jihad, and the most extreme misogyny. It sets Muslim women apart who are living in the West. It sets up parallel, non-integrated communities. It reinforces the tribal and ethnic customs which discourage Muslims from be-friending infidels. Most importantly, if women refuse to face veil, or if their headscarf (hijab) comes undone, they may be beaten or ultimately “honor” killed for such disobedience.
The head, face, and full body “veil” is cruel to women. Arab Muslims live in very hot climates. Women wear heavy shrouds; men wear light-weight white sparkling garments (thobes) and their faces are free. In the West, I have seen Muslim men in summer wearing light-weight western-style pants and shirts or tunics. Behind them are their female relatives, shrouded in heavy black garments, under which I know they are sweating profusely and through which they have no peripheral vision and can feel no sunlight on their faces.
Here is what makes the matter tricky. Sociologist Marnia Lazreg, in her book Questioning the Veil. Open Letters to Muslim Women implores them to voluntarily refuse to veil. Lazreg views this as a far better alternative than having the government tell women what to wear and what not to wear.
But realistically, women who are subjected to normalized beating and stalking and who are expected to obey in all ways may not be capable of “resisting” this oppression. In these times, Resistance=Death.
Where the matter is at its most tricky is in terms of western views about individual liberty and religious freedom.
Religious Muslim and feminist activist, Raquel Evita Saraswati, wears hijab (a headscarf) and her scarves are exceedingly glamorous and friendly. She fully understands how face veils (niqab) and burqas are “tools being used to render women invisible.” Nevertheless, Saraswati views such a ban as an “affront to Western values and women’s liberty.” Her main point: “Compulsion in matters of religion and expression works against both the promise of secularism and the best parts of faith.”
In my view, as long as one woman in the West is “horror” killed for refusing to veil, the West has a duty to remove this as a temptation to murder.
It is impossible for Western governments and international organizations to prevent the acid attacks or honor killings of women in Muslim countries who refuse to cover their faces, but why tie society’s hands on Western soil? Why would Western countries prize the subordination of women and protect it as a religious right at a time when many Muslim women in the West refuse to face veil? When it is understood that the burqa is not a religious requirement but rather a political statement–at best merely an ethnic, tribal, and misogynistic custom–there is no reason whatsoever for Western traditions of religious tolerance to misconstrue the covering of women as a religious duty.