France's faceless women

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

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

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.


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