{Tue 20 July 2010}   On banning face veils
Thoughts on banning face veils

After reading about the French ban, I was interested to see in Ha’aretz yesterday that Syria has banned face veils at universities in order to protect the secular nature of the state. The article also reports that hundreds of niqab-wearing primary school teachers were transferred to administrative jobs.

I agree with the banning of face veils, for practical reasons related to identification and communication, yes, but also because I believe that face veils are shaming of women and womanhood in general.

In the UK we tend to believe that tolerance involves tolerating everything, especially the behaviour of the weak and disadvantaged, so as not to add to their burdens by shaming them. But, paradoxically, this attitude can entrench that weakness, allowing an extreme intolerance to grow amongst us that threatens the very society that tolerates it. Damian Green says that Britain is unlikely to follow France’s example because banning the burka would be “unBritish”. I agree with him, but not because I believe that being “British” in this particular respect is a Good Thing: The French approach is an attempt to engage with the problem. In Britain, “tolerance” is often shorthand for ignoring both issues and people and disengaging from them.

I believe that a woman who wears a face veil is participating in a declaration that womanhood should be effaced from public life… its message to me is that women are dangerous, require restraint and should not be allowed to participate equally in the world with men. It is an intolerant, insulting and disrespectful message which challenges all the gains women have made in the slow and still-incomplete battle for freedom that has cost many their lives over centuries. It is also aggressive, or, at the very least, insensitive, as it creates fear and discomfort in non-wearers who feel threatened and weakened by what it represents — women at the mercy of men.

The veil also insults and weakens men. It assumes that men cannot control their sexual urges in the presence of a woman. It reduces men to the level of instinctive beasts and removes from them any responsibility for learning to respond appropriately.

In Western societies, even the wearing of just a headscarf (rather than a niqab or a burka), when it is clear that the purpose is total covering of the body and hair, conveys similar messages.

While I say this, I am aware that millions of women have no choice but to wear the veil — they face ostracism or death if they do not. These women are damned (by the West) if they do and damned (by their cultures) if they do not. Their plight is terrible and I have deep compassion for them. They are being used as human shields to draw the fire of negative responses to extremism in the same way that some terrorists use their own civilians as human shields. While extreme displays reveal extreme distress, the causes of which should be investigated, understood and addressed, this does not mean that terrorism should be tolerated.

I actually think the terms of the French ban recognise the problem very well — the fine is only €150 for the woman wearing the veil but €30,000 or a year in jail for the man who forces her to do so. This recognises that the woman does not deserve further shaming and attempts to go to the source.

Of course, the man too may suffer shaming and ostracism by his culture (although likely not death) if “his” woman is not covered, so truly “going to the source” requires a much deeper and wider educative approach where men and women are encouraged to find ways of affirming their identity and their honour without shaming or degrading each other.

P.S. After writing the above post, I found this wonderful article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown which eloquently and fervently expresses some of the same thoughts and many more… I so admire her stance as a Muslim woman and I urge anyone who is interested in the implications of the veil to read her too: “Stand up against the burka” (The Guardian, 17 May 2010).

P.P.S. 04 April 2011. The wonderful Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has again written a great piece on the dangers of the veil. She says that banning is too extreme a response, but urges society to consider sixteen reasons why Muslims themselves should oppose it: Sixteen Reasons why I object to this dangerous cover-up.

Ben says:

Wonder how many burqa-wearing women you’ve asked about this? Some that I have met in Leicester find it quite liberating. Should we ban crucifixes just because *some* christians feel pressured into wearing them?

Tia says:

Hi Ben, thanks for commenting. I haven’t spoken to any burqa-wearing women in Leicester, but I have lived in the Middle East and experienced firsthand the oppression of women there, which takes many forms, but it often focused around clothing. My own experiences, as well as reports I’ve read of women being ostracised, stoned or otherwise punished for exposing an ankle or an arm or their hair, lead me to believe that many women do not have a choice about covering. Of course, I’m glad to know that they have a choice, when they do. However, the main thrust of my post is not to attempt to delineate any particular burqa-wearing woman’s feelings about the burqa, but to talk about the message it conveys to others in the society around her. She may feel liberated (privately, inside her burqa), but she does not in any way convey liberation. Communication is a two-way street. It requires not only that the “hearer” (in this case, broader society) attempt to listen well, but also that the “speaker” (in this case, the burqa-clad individual) attempts to speak well. Just as a word or a sound may have a positive meaning in one language and a negative meaning in a second, and we would be careful to avoid using it when amongst speakers of the second language, a symbol may have a positive meaning in one and a negative meaning in another. Certainly in our society, the burqa has an overwhelmingly negative meaning and by choosing to wear it in our society the wearer is choosing to communicate negatively, whatever she may be feeling on the inside. This is particularly the case because the burqa is not only symbolically but actually practically a separator and a barrier to communication. There are absolutely no clues as to what the wearer may be feeling. For instance, before initiating a conversation, I cannot make any of the “blink” assessments that normally and instinctively precede speech on meeting a new person. I must take an enormous risk in order to talk to the person (how do I even know that the person is female, for instance?). S/he on the other hand, can see my emotions and even guess at my thoughts and my personality from my expression, gestures and clothing.

Ben says:

Stripping away the oppression argument (and I think you’ll find it is often not relevant to Leicester Muslims) and arguing purely on the basis of whether you can communicate with someone who chooses to wear a burqa is a big step.

Aside from security situations like passport control, etc, don’t you think people have the right to be anonymous in the street (even if you don’t like it)? Should we ban fancy dress parties or halloween masks? If you find it awkward you are perfectly entitled to refuse to speak to the person. To use your analogy, we do not ban words that mean something negative in a different language.

Considering a positive aspect, if a women freely chooses to sacrifice her visual identity to show love for her husband or her faith isn’t that actually rather romantic? To me (provided it is done freely without coercion) it is a not unlike getting a tattoo, piercing or, dare I say, a wedding ring.

I was once flirted with by a burqa wearing woman in Leicester – kind of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?!

Tia says:

Ben, thanks for your thoughts again. You are helping me to consider the issues related to covering even more deeply than I have before. I wondered if you could answer a few questions to help me understand where you’re coming from on this?
– On what basis do you think it’s valid to “strip away the oppression argument”?
– Do you have any experience of the covering of women in any place other than Leicester, or from any community in Leicester where they do not feel free to make a different choice?
– Do you think that burqa-wearers in Leicester do not identify in any way with burqa-wearers in other places?
– Do you think that people covering themselves completely to hide their appearance and make themselves unattractive whenever they leave the house is analogous to people wearing a mask once a year for a Halloween party or occasionally for a fancy dress party to draw attention to themselves?
– Do you think it would be equally romantic for a man to show love for his wife or his faith by sacrificing his visual identity on a daily basis? Do you know any man who does this by hiding himself completely under a covering (rather than by getting a tattoo, piercing or wedding ring)?
– – Can I check what you understand a burga to be? I have seen a lot of veiled women in Leicester on the few occasions I’ve been there, but I don’t remember seeing anybody in a burqa (if I had, of course, I couldn’t have been sure that it was a woman).
– If the woman you saw was wearing a burqa, how did you know she was flirting with you?
– And if she was flirting with you, don’t you think that rather contradicts the spirit of the burqa, so possibly should not be taken as typical behaviour of wearers (who are sacrificing their identity to show love for their husbands or their faith)?
– Do you think that this woman’s flirting possibly suggests that she does not agree with the restrictions on the expression of her sexual self imposed by the burqa?
– Does it worry you that you might put her at risk of censure by her family or faith community by flirting reciprocally?
– What is it that the burqa-wearers you know who feel “liberated” inside their burqas feel that they need to be liberated from?
– How do you see the relationship between individual and society? Are there reciprocal rights and responsibilities? If so, which measures do you use to determine what these should be?

Sorry it’s such a long list! Feel free not to reply if you don’t want to – the questions are still useful to me for stimulating further thinking!

Ben says:

Hi Tia,

I ‘strip away’ the oppression argument because i think the comparison between Saudi and Leicester Muslim women is very dubious. This is a free country and Islam does not require full cover-up anyway. I would suggest that a high proportion of burka (or niqab) wearing women in Leicester are confident young women who were born here and choose to dress that way of their own free will. Many appear to use it as a way of expressing their faith rather than it being something they are forced to do.

I can well believe the situation might be different elsewhere in the UK but I have no experience of that.

I don’t agree with the premise of your question about comparisons with Halloween – does covering up make you unattractive? I think it just makes you anonymous which is a different. But from a legal point of view if you distinguish between the two then you’re clearly picking on Muslims. You cannot ban people’s feelings or desires.

I’ve never heard of a man covering himself up (though comparisons with goths and extreme piercings are interesting). I think men and women are different though. Culturally and biologically women are far more subject to being appraised by their appearance. You cut out all that crap if you cover yourself complete so it must be pretty liberating I should think!

Re the flirting woman, I think you’re making the common misconception that burka wearers (or indeed any Muslims) are all pious devotees who never step out of line. They’re not – they are human like everyone else and flirt, have affairs, etc.

I suggest you take a walk around Spinney Hills (where I used to live) and have a chat with the people you see round there. You will be pleasantly suprised at how normal people are once you talk to them. Its true that a lot of Muslims don’t agree with completely covering up but those that do are perfectly normal individuals in my experience.

Tia says:

Hi Ben,

Are you particularly interested in the experience of Saudi women? I haven’t made any comparison with them, although I do think that the laws that control them are pretty extreme, as are those of the Taliban in Afghanistan. My personal experience of veiled women has been while living in South Africa, Israel, Turkey and the UK (London). As an international citizen, I tend to see these issues in terms of global phenomena, rather than just local ones. My concern is for women worldwide and I believe that our actions in the UK have an impact on other cultures in other places, as theirs do on ours, especially because of the enormous cross-pollination of ideas that now occurs via new media and the Internet in particular.

Regarding the veil making one unattractive, I think you will find that that is its purpose if you study the religious basis of it. The idea is that a women should be attractive only to her husband (who is allowed to see her). I think you also misunderstand my intention and my point if you think that I think burqa-wearing women are not normal and not human and can’t or don’t want to flirt or be attractive. Rather, my point is precisely that I believe that they are normal in every way and that all their womanhood and humanity is unnaturally hidden from the world under full covering. I don’t understand your point about picking on Muslims. On the contrary, I stand with Muslims like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown who believe that full covering is a regressive step for women.

Contrary to your next point, I am absolutely convinced that NOT all covered women are pious devotees – many women, particularly young women, in Iran, for instance, cover up only to avoid being stopped by religious police but wear Western clothes underneath which they are happy to sport in company when they feel safe behind closed doors.

Regarding the perceived cultural bias toward appraising women by their appearance more than men… that might have been the case when all women had (were allowed) to offer the world was their ability to make and raise babies and provide sexual favours to men, but in the modern world, where we (women) can contribute in all the same areas that men do, this imbalance is far less extreme. Presumably, you are straight rather than gay and so would naturally be drawn to evaluating women by their appearance rather than men, but I can assure you that women and gay men are very interested in the appearance of men! And there are many people, both men and women, who feel very insecure about their appearance and would probably find it “liberating” not to have to present it to the world, at least some times. Not covering up takes a great deal more courage and confidence! Regarding a biological bias… I disagree completely. As a woman, I can confirm that many of us are deeply interested in the appearance of men on a very instinctive, primal level.

I really do think you completely misunderstand me if you think that my goal or purpose is to target or denigrate any women anywhere. Perhaps you might browse some of my other posts on this blog to gain a wider perspective on my approach?

Ben says:

I should read you other posts and will try to when I get the chance.

It just struck me that some of your perceptions of the women in question might not be correct. You will only answer that question by meeting some of them yourself.

“A man falls in love through his eyes, a woman through her ears” – rightly or wrongly I think there is truth in that (and I think also some science to back it up.) That doesn’t of course mean we should all acquiesce to our animal instincts!

For what it’s worth I’m not a huge fan of people covering up either – I like to see faces as it helps communication. But I can’t possibly agree with banning burkas on the back of some popularist backlash based partly on myths about Muslims. Bans are a blunt instrument and this is a complex issue.

Tia says:

Ben, I think your point about perceptions about “the women in question” applies equally to you, doesn’t it? ;). But in relation to those you know, it is heartening that you as a man in Leicester can step forward and speak up on behalf of women whose motives you feel may be misinterpreted.

Falling in love through her “ears”!? I’ve never heard that. An interesting concept, though I have no experience of it myself. Perhaps that’s a cultural peculiarity of Leicester women? Or perhaps just the cultures I’ve lived in prioritise other indicators of love besides words?

There doubtless are some people who advocate “banning burkas on the back of some popularist backlash based partly on myths about Muslims”, but I hope it’s clear from my post and comments and from my whole blog that I am neither popularist nor one who easily believes in “myths” (I take it that you are using the term here in the modern colloquial sense of “untruths”).

For instance, I don’t believe in the myths that women who don’t cover themselves are to blame for either men’s lack of sexual control or for earthquakes, as was reported to be the case for at least one Iranian cleric: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8631775.stm

In my opinion, the sight of anything attractive may stimulate desire (a natural, positive, evolutionarily valuable process), but what the person who sees it chooses to do about it is his (or her) own responsibility.

Ben says:

Do you support a ban?

I worry that recent (bad) publicity, especially as a result of the French ban will head us in that direction.

Here’s what happens when ignorant scum jump on that bandwagon: http://bit.ly/axK6CW

What is needed most of all is for Muslim women to stand up and be counted otherwise everyone else is trying to second guess what ‘they’ want. The thing is, I’d suggest the average Leicester Muslim would rather be left to get on with their life than having to be an representative for their whole faith.

Tia says:

Hi Ben,

Yes, I do support a ban, as is clear from my original post. However, if you read my post to the end, I think it is also clear that I support the French line precisely because I believe that its purpose is to liberate rather than to oppress women.

I do also agree that Muslim women need to stand up for themselves and I believe that increasingly more of them are, particularly to voice their own support for a ban or at least their opposition to the concept of full covering! If you continue to google on the subject you will find several examples of this besides the one that I give in my post.

I think it is contradictory for those who choose to wear something that is visually striking and offensive to so many people to expect people to take no notice of what they’re wearing. In our society, a far more successful strategy for being “anonymous” as you put it and for not drawing attention to oneself (which I believe is the religious purpose of the burqa) would be to dress modestly and simply but without full covering.

I do understand the impulse to dress similarly to one’s community in order to demonstrate one’s willingness to belong and to commit (a friend sent me this great article from The New Statesman which discusses this: http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2010/07/secular-church-britain-faith), but I think many women also recognise that their community does not exist in a bubble but is part of a wider society in the country and the world to which both the individual and their community have responsibility.

Ben, I’ve tried hard to explain that the issue I raised (about the individual’s impact on and responsibility to society around her) is not exactly the same as the one you are concerned about (the individual’s feelings inside her burqa). If, after all this, you still need to class me with “ignorant scum” who perpetrate violent attacks on women, then I confess that my intellect is not up to the challenge of explaining any further. But thanks for the conversation anyway. As I said earlier, it has helped me to go deeper and I do appreciate this.

Ben says:

I don’t for one second compare you with the haters – sorry if my last post could be read that way. Just saying that some people (not you) are using the current debate as an excuse to perpetrate abuse.

Regarding responsibility to society and living in bubble, I just thing that isn’t something that a ban is a suitable tool to address. You could argue that trappist monks live in a bubble.

My final question is whether a ban would have the effect intended. If burka-wearers are, as you maintain, repressed women will they be any less repressed after a ban? Isn’t the a likelihood such people might not then leave their houses at all?

Tia says:

Hi Ben,

There is of course a question over what all the effects of a ban might be, but as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says in her article, http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/yasmin-alibhai-brown/yasmin-alibhaibrown-stand-up-against–the-burka-1975108.html, “resistance, not acquiescence, gave us our past freedoms and will preserve our present ones.” I believe that resistance now will make it less acceptable for women to be covered and will reduce the total number of women who might (by choice or not) ultimately be effaced from society.

Earlier in the same article she says,

“even those Britons who patently detest the black shroud have tried, sometimes convolutedly, to defend religious choices made by citizens in the name of their faith. Real liberalism means accepting illiberal choices, they say. Though full of moral intent, these views lack guts and sense and are based on, at best, infrequent and limited contact with European Muslims.

What of the fact that millions of us are against the black covering? And that many supported the French school-uniform proscription? We know there is no Koranic injunction to cover the face, and we watch helplessly as organised brainwashing is leading to the blanking out of female Muslim presence and individuality from the public space. ”

Essentially, she, as a Muslim, is asking anyone who has the power to influence these developments to speak up on behalf of those Muslim women who strongly oppose the burka and feel threatened by it.

Because of the range of opinions that are allowed to exist in a democracy, there is always someone negatively affected by a political choice. In my opinion, we should do our best to be conscious of these people and to try to help, protect and support them as much as possible, but this should not sway us from doing the right thing in order to minimize the total number of people that could ultimately be negatively affected.

Ben says:

Interesting. My ‘views’ were based on having quiet a lot (albeit incidental) contact with European Muslims. I think I would be far more against covering up if I hadn’t lived for four years amongst Muslims.

Tia says:

Ben, I think you probably have more of an insight into Muslims as ordinary humans than many people do in the UK.

But even when we do have contact with people who are culturally or religiously different from ourselves, the often casual or accidental nature and circumstances of that contact, our own cultural reluctance to “pry”, our desire to portray ourselves as open-minded and accepting rather than biased and judgmental, and our instinct to avoid challenge on potentially difficult topics (politics and religion in particular), can mean that we never actually find out what a particular person really thinks on issues like this.

And in cases of repression they may not feel free to tell us anyway, even in response to a direct question. I don’t say this to suggest that we shouldn’t enquire, but just to point out that we may not find the truth easily.

In any case, while not dismissing the perspective of the person inside the burqa, I’d like to stress again that what I am on about here is the impact of the burqa externally – on me as a non-wearing woman in a society where even the most extreme definitions of modesty don’t include covering the face.

I stand in a tradition of women who have fought long and hard to be acknowledged as the equals of men. We are very conscious that this has still not been achieved in many areas (continuing gender inequalities in pay in the UK is one example) and that regressive steps are being taken in others (such as the recent Catholic declaration that ordaining a woman is a crime of similar status to sexual abuse of children and should result in the excommunication of both the woman and the person ordaining her – see my previous post). The rate of female infanticide in India and China still far outstrips the male rate (not that either is OK!), forced genital mutilation of women is still prevalent in some parts of Africa, many faiths still see women as “unclean” when they menstruate and segregate or restrict them as a result, and the education of women still lags far behind that of men in many parts of the world. And these issues affect millions and millions of people. The fact that we are relatively comfortable and progressive in our little corner should not blind any of us (Muslims included) to the inequalities that exist elsewhere (and perhaps next door).

Wouldn’t it be a great gesture of solidarity with oppressed women everywhere if those women inside a faith where all the rules are made by men, but who believe that they have the freedom to wear full covering by choice, were to make a public statement of their freedom by eschewing the covering at least until their sisters in faith have similar freedom?

Ben says:

I agree with your second paragraph but I think the onus is on you (as the person supporting a ban) to find out what a particular person really thinks. I don’t pretend to have huge experience either but I am very suspicious of potentially misguided legislation on complicated things like this.

And re your final question, I suspect there is a certain degree of “taking back the burka/niqab” going on where women are deliberately wearing a symbol of repression to demonstrate their power to chose. If so, it somewhat moves the goalposts don’t you think?

Tia says:

I don’t think there is any more onus on those of us who support a ban to understand the perspective of those who oppose it than there is on those who oppose it to understand the perspective of those who support it. Otherwise, the implication would be that it’s ok for those on one side of a debate to be less informed than those on the other. That would disadvantage the less-informed!

I think you’re probably right about some people deliberately wearing a symbol of repression to demonstrate their power to choose. But I don’t think it moves the goalposts. For instance, lots of kids carry guns and knives to demonstrate the power that they believe parents, authorities or society in general don’t want them to have. We should attempt to understand what drives them and to address it, but that doesn’t mean we should just let them do it. I believe that the burqa is a symbol of violence against women and should be resisted in the same way.

Going back to my final point in my original post, though, I strongly believe that an educative approach which presents other options to men and women for asserting their power is the best one for effecting long-term change.

Ben says:

All I’m saying is until you can say you’ve spoken to and properly understood the people whose clothing you seek to alter I say you’re not really arguing from a very strong position.

Tia says:

Oh dear, Ben. You keep going back to the same point, which misses my point.

I’m sorry you feel that I haven’t heard you and so have to keep on returning to your concern about what the wearer feels inside the burqa. You keep insisting that I should investigate the perspective of burqa-wearing women in Leicester, which is clearly impractical for me to do. I have, however, read various articles such as this one which give the positive opinions of women in the UK who wear various forms of covering (although none of them wear the complete covering of the burqa): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/the-many-faces-behind-the-veil-1865772.html. Nevertheless, knowing that a few individuals feel “liberated” inside the burqa does not change my conviction about the external message of the burqa: that this separator both practically and symbolically removes femininity from public view and that agreeing to this perspective threatens all women everywhere.

I would contend that I am fairly well informed as to the religious and patriarchal implications of covering as I have a great deal of fundamentalist religious experience in my own history and have read extensively (and more than most people I meet) on Christianity, Judaism and Islam which all have roots in very similar cultures in the Middle East. I also know the perspective of other Muslim women who are against covering, having spoken to some of them about it while living in Turkey and having read and thought a great deal about it over the past twelve years.

But since you feel so strongly about your issue (which is a valid one, although not the point of my post), why don’t you post an article about it on your own blog and encourage people to discuss it there? You could title it something like “What it really feels like inside a burqa” and subtitle it…”The liberation that the burqa can bring if you are a modern Muslim woman living safely in Leicester who can freely choose either to wear the burqa or not to wear it, without fear of rejection, ostracism or condemnation by your own community, no matter what you choose”. (I would suggest that you be specific about what you mean by a burqa, though, as some people who do not particularly object to a veil or even see it positively would have completely different feelings about the total obscurity effected by a burqa.)

Maybe once you get this off your chest, you’ll be able to hear my point!

For now, I’m going to close comments on this post as I fear we’re at the point where we’ll start covering ground again that we’ve already been over and I really need to move on to other things! Thanks again for a deep and thoughtful engagement.

Comments are closed.

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: