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May 18 2010

Re-Update: France and the niqab

Just in case anyone is interested in continuing to follow this story:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered legislation that would ban women from wearing Islamic veils that fully cover the face and body in public places, the government said Wednesday.

Belgium has recently gone down the same road. Of course, I’ve had my issues with Belgium before, where I felt they were poised to infringe upon free speech and censor their own history. There’s a debate brewing up in Australia as well, although I am not entirely convinced that the robber in this story wasn’t trying to make a political point. I’ve never heard of anyone in Canada using a burqa as a criminal disguise, but I’ve only been paying attention to this issue for a short while.

There’s another side to this issue that I want to discuss, but I’m not sure how qualified I am to do so – the issue of women’s rights. Many people cite the burqa as a symbol of male repression, disguised in religious trappings. Muslim men are not exhorted to cover their bodies from head to foot (although modest dress is recommended for both sexes). Surely the sight of a good-looking Muslim guy inspires just as much lust in the women of the world as vice versa. The glaring double-standard reeks of hypocrisy. However, the counter-argument is that many Muslim women who are not required to wear the burqa (or the hijab, or the niqab, or any of the other permutations) choose to do so. Taking away their right to dress as they see fit, say critics, is just as much an abrogation of women’s rights as requiring them to cover up.

My feeling on this issue, as articulated by Sam Harris, is that “choosing” to wear a burqa is like a person “choosing” to remain celibate or “choosing” to give money to the church: religious teachings are drummed into you from birth, and it’s not possible to make a truly informed and un-coerced “choice” when the weight of your entire family and community is on your back. Again, this reeks of paternalism “you aren’t capable of making a choice, so I’m going to make it for you.” I believe that’s what they told black people in the Jim Crow era.

I have mixed feelings about this. I suppose this is precisely what I recommended, but I’m uneasy about the government passing bills that outlaw religious practice – I just don’t think we should make laws that encourage it. This one is a very difficult line to draw and I’m really not sure what side I’m on. On the one hand, it sends a clear and unequivocal message to the Muslim world that the secular world will not sit idly by and capitulate to their ludicrous demands to allow women to be demonized and exploited. On the other hand, any time a law is passed that targets one particular group rather than setting a standard for all, my hackles get raised.

I’d love to hear some feedback from you on this.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    Ian

    Education trumps marginalizing laws. I think we can legislate times when a face must be revealed to a government employee for identification purposes, but otherwise we can’t enforce clothing restrictions (on the flip-side I think public nudity laws are unnecessary infringements). If you use the law to enforce behaviour, it often pushes them further underground where they will have less exposure to the wider culture (which I hope would liberalize their views).

  2. 2
    crommunist

    Especially since the countries in question seem to have a very small number of people who actually wear the burqa. I don’t like it when laws target minority groups. Legislating that a face must be visible when conducting business with gov’t employees seems fair.

  3. 3
    Rene Najera

    Hey, thanks for the support over on “Insolence”. “Agustine” is getting out of hand, and doing a good job, like all trolls, of pushing my buttons. Anyhow, the law should be to protect women from having to wear the veil (by whatever name) unless they want to wear it. Know what I mean?

    On the one hand, you have Islamic fundamentalists forcing them to wear it, and now you’ll have the government forcing them not to. In either case, the law is a bill of attainder of sorts, because it is so narrow in its scope.

  4. 4
    crommunist

    Hahaha yeah I find the only way to deal with people like that is to have a bit of a chuckle at their expense.

    Luckily we already have laws that protect anyone from having to do anything for fear of abuse or reprisal. However, you have to be able to demonstrate that abuse before the laws kick in. If a woman’s husband threatens to beat her for not covering up, the only way to get the law to intervene is to leave the husband or get her ass beat. For many women, either of these is pretty close to a death sentence.

  5. 5
    Mona Alas

    When I chose to wear my headscarf, I did it because I felt is was right for me personally. I did not take into factor, society norms, or what my friends or family members would think of me. Many women who choose to wear the niqab feel the same way -they interpret the Quran verse as they see fit, and follow it.

    What will happen when this ban adds a simple headscarf to its list. You might say impossible, but if something as ridiculous as this is capable of happening, then it can happen again. Its never a win-win solution for women, that’s why I am supporting a ban against it.

    Also I’d wish people would do some research and maybe speak to Muslim women and get a full understanding about Islam, and cultural influences in many Muslim countries before making erroneous assumptions. Again people are entitled to their opinions and beliefs, but to see Muslim women subjected to punishment in the name of freedom is hypocritical [at its best], and isn’t going to help those women who are forced to wear such attire to come forward and speak.

    As for America, I do not think they want to damage their ties with Saudi Arabia, so I hope this could be a reason for the ban to never occur in the States. But I just don’t know!

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Forgive my prying, and feel free not to answer the question if you feel that I am being impertinent, but when you say “I did it because I felt it was right for me personally”, what specifically do you mean by that? Why was it right for you personally? I am not challenging your right to do as you see fit with your own life, I am simply trying to gain some insight into the reasoning – was it a religious decision or a cultural one? Was it both? Was it neither?

    This blog is actually Canadian, and we currently do have this debate happening in one of our provinces. Again, I share your sentiment that it’s better to solve the underlying problems of oppression rather than pass laws against specific manifestations of it.

  7. 7
    Mona Alas

    Islam is a way of life, very simple to follow, with specific rules. As a Muslim we submit our will to the creator whom is God. When I chose to wear the higab, it wasn’t really about just covering my hair – it was a change of lifestyle. Unlike many others who follow what is said w/o checking the facts, I like to read about religion, and make the choices that best represent who I am. Scholars are knowledgeable enough to provide the info, but ultimately the truth lies in the books, and I prefer it to a person’s ideology or opinion.

    In Islam, our purpose in life is to worship God, and in return we are promised heaven. I am a curious being, and I think about death and the afterlife a lot lately, so I pretty much gave myself a reality check: If I stop breathing right this instant, as a Muslim were would I end up? This question was something that really bugged me to death. Prior to this change, I had no relationship with Islam, and it was awkward being a Muslim without really acting like one. I had no problem believing in the creed itself, however I did not fulfill the main acts of worship such as praying which is the key. So I went through a spiritual journey to the holy cities of Islam – Mecca, Medina in SA. It was life-changing, in a sense where I started doing better things for myself without having to sacrifice my other activities. I still have the same friends, I go out social gatherings, travel, work – the only difference: I was more thankful to God for all the blessings in my life, so in return I started to pray 5 times a day-acts of worship which is highly-esteemed.

    It lead me to read about Islam – truly fascinating to learn about the history. I was inspired to cover up after reading about the women in Islam – independent, strong, beautiful, and knowledgeable. I wanted to join their ranks – how so, do as they did, and the hijab was something they valued, and cherished. Just like prayer, when God says to “the believing women” to dress modestly, they acting accordingly out of love and respect for the words of God. This did not stop them from achieving the level of power, and success they attained. So clearly the argument that women who choose to wear the niqab are oppressed is deceptive, and misleading. The verse is interpreted by many as they see fit, and for those who cover the entire body, that’s how they see it. As I said before, our actions are ultimately to please God who is our creator, and as Muslims in order to get the golden ticket to heaven, everything we do has to be sincere and righteous…therefore certain things that we do are a personal gain for us, because we are working towards the “afterlife” goal, yet it may seem weird to the public eye, which is why the miscommunication exists. I am not ultra-religious but lead a simple life. So I guess I’m playing my cards right, enjoying the best of both worlds.

    I am aware of the ban discussion here in Canada – Quebec. Then again, it saddens me to see people reacting in such manner. If security is an issue, then those who wear it must abide by the rules, however who knew I would see a day in which “the free and democratic republic of France” would punish someone for choosing to wear something that may not be accepted by the norm, yet not a threat. It would be much easier for such people not to even get a citizenship into the country, really what is the point?

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    So “religious”. Thanks.

    I’m glad that you have the power and ability to choose to wear your religious garment, or to choose not to wear it. I hope that this freedom quickly expands to the rest of the world. The issue of the ban, as I’ve heard it discussed in Quebec, France, Belgium and Australia, has to do with having one’s face completely covered in public, and in what a reasonable accommodation is when interacting with public servants.

    So clearly the argument that women who choose to wear the niqab are oppressed is deceptive, and misleading.

    That point is not clear to me at all. Do you deny that there are women in Canada who are made to wear the niqab against their will, or whose will has been coerced into believing that they, but not men, must cover themselves up completely out of obedience to God?

  9. 9
    Mona Alas

    When I decided to wear the hijab, is was a matter of choice. The beauty of Islam in my eyes is that God does not force you to do anything. The doctrine is there, therefore it is for whomever wishes to follow it.

    Again there needs to be a clear distinction between Islamic doctrine, and the interpretation made by Muslims.

    The Muslim – whether female or male- can choose to follow Islam as they see appropriate, as long as they follow the main tenets and abstain from sins that are harmful to oneself and to society. A woman wearing a niqab may choose to wear it – many scholars have voiced different opinions, however there is a consensus that if a woman chooses to wear it, than let it be, even though its not obligated in Islam. Muslim men are also told to dress modestly (the long white robe, worn in many Muslim nations is very common). All in all, the message is to dress modestly.

    I do want to note however, one of the major problems in many Muslim countries nowadays is the lack of diversity in their communities. Unlike the rich, and social inclusiveness of the past, many Muslim countries experience a very depressing socioeconomic state. One of the many reasons is that people are raised a certain way, as they mature it is unfortunately they only teachings they find appropriate or right. I do not want to throw around any false statistics, but a good percentage of these beliefs are culturally influenced.

    I have spoken to many Muslim people about honor killing for instance. A lot of them will refer back to their cultural background, yet when I try to bring to them an Islamic perspective, they will either find reasons to justify the act, or simply ignore the view as weak, or unacceptable. Its quite a challenge to see all these problems in the hub of the Islamic world. Usually humans work in a progressive state of mind, denouncing cultural practices that are irrational and wrong. As for Muslims, its almost like we have deteriorated from our initial state, when women rights and freedom was a reality 1400 years ago, and only dream in Muslim countries today.

    There are many Muslim women who are forced to wear the hijab- I do agree. These women are also likely to come from homes where the male is completely in control. I have met Muslim women on both ends of the spectrum: there are those who are forced to wear the hijab, and those who are not allowed to wear it at all – both indicate a sign of control from male figures. In certain Muslim states such as Tunisia, and Turkey (past), the hijab is and was outlawed. Here in Canada, there are ones who may be forced, I don’t know of one, however it shouldn’t be that way. Try explaining it to certain Muslims and they will accuse you of heresy [really]. The only way to fix this problem, is by putting sense into these males. However as I pointed out before, if there isn’t a strong support system for such women here in Canada, then its useless. We hear of crazy stories of set ups, in which poor girls are lured to their death bed, and murdered by their own father, or brother. As a Muslim and woman it’s just devastating to hear this.

    Many women from Muslim nations have learned to become helpless. They have grown to become fearful of even seeking the truth from Islamic and secular point of views. It will take courage, the right people and tools to bring back faith, and justice to these women. Many Muslim nations are under-developed, where war, poverty, political corruption and high illiteracy rates is the ill-fated reality. It comes down to two things: change for the better – if not the Muslim world will continue to stay in this mess for as long as they choose to stay ignorant. One can only understand something when they are rational and have the ability to read and write.
    Sorry for the babbling, but in order for one to understand certain matters in the Muslim world today, we have to go beyond the issue, and explore the many other factors that influence certain behaviors.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    I really appreciate your perspective on this issue, Mona, both as a woman and as a Muslim. However, there are several points on which I must respectfully disagree.

    To begin with, you cite your own interpretation of Islam as the ‘correct’ one, citing the difference between the doctrine and its interpretation. The problem with any religious doctrine (and I will do my utmost not to pick on any one religious tradition) is that it is fraught with vagueries that are open to any number of interpretations, each of which is equally “justified” by scripture. We see evidence of that in the number of different schools of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. etc. etc. They are all equally right in that they are all wrong.

    Second, the kind of freedom that you’re talking about is available only in countries that have secular control. When religious authorities have state power, they use it to force one specific view of scripture on everybody. You can look at Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Malawi, Uganda, Mali, any number of countries in the world (just poke around the archives, I’ve got posts on lots of them) for evidence of this. To say that religious freedom is an inherent part of Islam is incorrect, or at least is not borne out by the evidence. And yes, when the culture is so embedded in the religion, it is difficult to separate one type of prejudice from the other.

    I too bemoan the loss of the great Persian civilizations at the time of the beginning of Islam. I’ve read a bit of the history, and there were a lot of great things that came out of that era. All of that was lost when it came in conflict with religious authority. The dark ages of Europe happened for a similar reason.

    The answer, in my mind, is to reduce the influence that the oppressors have. They use religion as their justification to keep women subjugated. As long as people support their jailers out of obedience to a God (for whom there is zero evidence), the problem will not be solved.

    I realize my comments are a bit pointed, and I’m sorry if I have cause offense. I cannot, in good conscience, pretend that there is a ‘correct’ interpretation of religion, and if only people figured the one good way the problems would go away. The problem is religion itself.

    I agree with everything else you’ve said (minus the babbling part – I am happy to hear as much from you as you are willing to contribute).

  11. 11
    Mona Alas

    “own interpretation of Islam as the ‘correct’ one, citing the difference between the doctrine and its interpretation.”

    Many people who argue religion are very quick to claim their teachings as correct, and all else wrong. So I shall clarify just a bit- In Islam just like many other religions, there are fundamental principles that define what should and shouldn’t be followed. My interpretations of Islam is usually not directly from the Quran only, but includes sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (crucial), and the interpretations of scholars who have vast knowledge in Islam. There are many arguments and disagreements between many school of thoughts on issues that I wouldn’t consider too important. Some examples arise in praying posture, and moon sightings (Ramadan-fasting).

    As for the hijab, here is one direct verse from the Quran:

    O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their outergarments close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle.

    This verse underlines the importance of dressing modestly. Even though it doesn’t specifically mention niqab, or hijab, many Muslims will interpret it differently. So where does the niqab or higab come from? We look to the Muslim women of the past, and we draw from them the type of clothing which they wore. There were face coverings, as well as head coverings. I wear the head coverings and understood it that way, but I am not stating my way is the only correct way at all. In Islam, actions are only meaningful to God, when intentions are sincere. As a Muslim I thrive to do my best, and judgment belongs to God alone. However there is a consensus or agreement among major scholars of the past and today as to what is considered acceptable. If a woman chooses not to wear the higab for whatever reason that doesn’t mean she will be damned, she made the choice which is her right, and that is something that should be stressed to many Muslim men.

    “Second, the kind of freedom that you’re talking about is available only in countries that have secular control.”

    Nowadays, most secular nations do not mix religion with the state, which is the reason to their success. Most western nations are historically Christian, and the missionaries of Christianity were as active in those days as they are today , the only difference, back then there were wars between sects among the Christian faith which pretty much led them to the dark age. As for Muslims today, we are pretty much experiencing the same fate – that is why I prefer religion to be personal. Islam should not and could not work with other forms of ideological regime. Most of the gulf is monarch, the rest of the Muslim world is either authoritative or failed states.

    “In my mind, is to reduce the influence that the oppressors have. They use religion as their justification to keep women subjugated. As long as people support their jailers out of obedience to a God (for whom there is zero evidence), the problem will not be solved.”

    Hypocrisy is widespread in the Muslim world, where double-standards play out in every situation. The vast wealth, knowledge, and success of the Muslims in the Golden Age is something that is little known to people, including Muslims today. Even though society wasn’t referred to as democratic, the era exemplified the true characters of Muslims who worked together to achieve the best possible outcomes. Religion did not hold them back. Jews and Christians co-existed peacefully among Muslims, under Islamic rule. So the power of change is in the people. Religion is a very powerful tool. People will use it for good and bad, and the ugly. However the subjugation of women is unacceptable by all means and needs to come to an end. How?

    In SA for example, the Royal Family are exempt from the “Shraia Law” but applicable to everyone else, and most people that are subject to this are the poor, and non-Arab. So they altered the law for the own use, which doesn’t benefit anyone…why would they do such a thing? That’s the question and issues Muslim people should focus on, instead of the little differences that have put us at odds. We needs to find solutions to our current problems, and it needs to be a collective effort from every Muslim nation. We need to reinforce strength in women who lost hope, establish a support system that works, and send out a clear message to men that there is no justification for abuse and degrading of women in Islam, and if there is a proof, bring it forward and we shall fix it! Now that’s a revolution…long process, hard work, but achievable…hopefully!

  12. 12
    Daniel Schealler

    I don’t support burqa-banning.

    I do think that the burqa is a problem in that it is a widespread tool for the oppression and control of women. I think its a problem in need of a solution.

    I just don’t think that banning it will solve anything.

    Sarah (not her real name) was a Muslim girl I knew in Uni. I used to think that banning the burqa was a good idea. Sarah changed my mind.

    On days when Sarah couldn’t be bothered dressing up her hair or wearing makeup she chose to cover up.

    But on days when Sarah felt like getting tarted up to go out on the town, she’d do so.

    The key thing to her case was that it was a genuine matter of personal choice. She took her cultural background and reinvented it, making it her own.

    I don’t suppose that Sarah’s experience is at all typical – hence why my opposition to the burqa still stands.

    Sarah’s example caused me to re-frame the discussion of the burqa from a) to b).

    a) How can we stop the widespread use of the burqa as a tool of oppression?

    b) How can we move the widespread use of the burqa as a tool of oppression from the current reality towards Sarah’s reality?

    The primary forces that enable Sarah’s empowerment (in my view) are:

    1) New Zealand has a secular government that enshrines Sarah’s freedom of religion, conscience, and expression in law.

    2) Sarah is highly educated.

    3) Sarah was not under any social pressure to conform to wearing the burqa.

    While I agree that the burqa is a problem, it is a symbol that floats on top of a lot of other issues. I don’t think that banning the burqa will resolve any of them.

    To me this is equivalent to saying that banning the burqa won’t accomplish anything meaningful. If we accept this then it follows that a ban isn’t justified.

    This isn’t to say that something shouldn’t be done to address the forces that use the burqa to oppress women. Something very clearly needs to be done.

    But whatever the answer is going to be it won’t be a quick-fix like banning a style of dress.

    Which is unfortunate – if only it could be so easy! Because banning a style of dress is very easy.

    But resolving the issues that make that style of dress a problem? That’s harder.

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    Our supreme court is currently having a similar fight about the constitutionality of banning polyamorous marriages (cue grassrute to rage against marriage being anything other than two emotionally-stunted WASPS enjoying infrequent and loveless sexual intercourse). We know that a number of terrible consequences happen in polygynous marriages, but it’s a harder job to demonstrate that they are necessarily caused by the type of marriage, or if the husbands are just assholes.

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