France’s faceless women

Seldom do we object when people wear less in public. Why are the French so riled when some women want to wear more?
Abdullah Saeed | 14 April 2011
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The French ban on face veils came into force this week. Based on this law Muslim women who wear a face veil in public places will be fined. Men who force women to wear a face veil may also be fined or face imprisonment.

I am no fan of the face veil. But I do support the right of women who don’t want to wear a face veil as much as the right of those who want to for whatever reason.

I have argued elsewhere that from a mainstream Muslim point of view it may not even be an Islamic obligation. The vast majority of Muslims do not see it as such -- most Muslim women in France and elsewhere do not wear one. It is only in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan that it is a prominent form of dress. In France, reports suggest that only about a couple of thousand Muslims (out of 5 to 6 million) wear the face veil. So what is the fuss all about?

In a free society such as ours people should have the freedom to express themselves in various ways -- through words, the way they dress and by other means. The key thing that should be taken into account when exercising this freedom is, perhaps, widely accepted societal norms. For instance, in the case of clothes, both men and women are expected to cover to some extent, at least in public, although the boundary between what is considered appropriate or inappropriate “uncovering” isn’t specifically defined. Still, it would be unusual to find people going around shopping centres wearing a bikini or in their underwear.

So while we do have some understandings about dress, as free societies we have been reluctant to prescribe the kinds of clothes that people should wear, except where there are public interest or safety and security issues at stake. The law requires certain types of clothing to be worn around construction sites, for example. There are also guidelines provided by institutions such as schools, hospitals, laboratories and factories as far as appropriate clothing is concerned. The face veil, on the other hand, is not an analogous item of clothing, nor are public spaces such as parks, roads or shopping centres the equivalent of public institutions or workplaces.

Fighting against the face veil is often presented as defending the weak and oppressed women against patriarchy and injustice. Those who support the ban argue that it is simply a symbol of a woman’s oppression by her male family members, who want to isolate her from the mainstream community and limit her freedom to function as a full member of French society. While it is true that there may be cases that involve compulsion, it is not clear how many women wear the face veil for this reason. Many women perhaps choose to wear the veil because of their personal conviction that it is a religious obligation, notwithstanding the mainstream Muslim view to the contrary. Of course, in cases where force has been used we, as a society, should provide assistance to those affected.

Could the furore over the face veil be because it is so confronting? Any outfit may be perceived as ridiculous by others from a different society or cultural or religious group. But just because our sensibilities are affected it does not mean that we should take the step to ban them. On the whole those who wear the face veil are not asking society for special privileges, like working in contexts where this is inappropriate for safety or security reasons. So even if it is confronting, why not argue in favour of these women’s right to freely express themselves through dress, even if we may not like what they wear?

Wearing the face veil in public is often considered  as a security issue as well, although it probably has little to do with security. Terrorists who bomb market places or shopping centres do not use the face veil to commit these acts, at least in the West. Usually they try to be as inconspicuous as possible which, in the West, is more likely to involve dressing like the majority. If there are safety and security issues involved in places where by law one is expected to show one’s face such as at airports, I doubt that many women  would have problems with removing their veil for the necessary security procedures. Veiled women from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, for example, have been travelling internationally for decades.

More than anything else, the veil is often viewed as a symbol of the incompatibility of “Islamic” values with the fundamental values of French society. In countries like France the veil appears as a challenge to the assimilationist policies of the state. The face veil stands in contrast to the French laïcité which does not leave much room to recognise religiously-based subgroups or cultures there. All vestiges of “foreign” or migrant culture are expected to disappear in favour of French norms.

By wearing a face veil these Muslim women are simply rejecting something that France has very strongly maintained for much of its recent history -- that foreigners, when they come to France, must assimilate completely and behave like the French. By adopting the face veil these Muslim women are making the point that they want to maintain their deepest cultural identity, and in the process they are challenging French values and norms.

At the end of the day, how little or how much one wants to cover their body should be a personal choice, especially in a free society. A certain minimum is generally expected in public places, but what if one wants to cover a bit more? Should we have rules about how much is too much? Is it, in fact, the state’s responsibility to dictate this? If a person, aware of the expectations of minimum coverage in public, wants to cover up a bit more, no matter how ridiculous the outfit appears to us, should the state intervene?

Perhaps not, because when the state gets into the business of people’s dress there are no rules about where it should stop. Today we ban the face veil; tomorrow it may be raceday hats or too revealing fabrics or red shirts. Societies that prescribe particular dress, for instance Saudi Arabia or Iran where women are forced to cover their face or hair, are not very different to those who prohibit the veil. In both cases women become the target.

Will this ban improve the lot of marginalised, disenfranchised and unassimilated Muslim women in French society?

Unlikely. The ban will probably further marginalise these women. Even if they have been forced to wear the veil, at least they had a degree of freedom to function outside their immediate family and homes in the public square. Now, thanks to the ban, they cannot even go out without the threat of a fine hanging over their heads. One wonders how far the state can go in “protecting” these women from themselves and their families.

Moreover, by banning the face veil the French are actually unwittingly popularising it. More and more women are likely to take up the face veil not just in France but elsewhere in the Muslim world, as they increasingly see it as an Islamic symbol to be “defended”. If you want to popularise something, the best strategy is to ban it. At a time when the religious fervour of extremists of all shapes and colours (not just Muslim) is increasingly threatening the fundamental values of our relatively free societies, what we don’t want to do is provide extremists with further ammunition or give them more opportunities to create havoc in our societies.

In a free society, as long as some basic minimum standards of covering are maintained, people should be able to wear whatever type of clothing they want. The state should not be in the business of regulating what we wear. If women want to cover their body, either partially or fully, it should be their right to do so. Their human dignity demands that.

Abdullah Saeed is Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne and director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies.  www. abdullahsaeed.org

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