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Archive for July, 2010

Veiled Threat

Over the past few weeks, I have rededicated myself to working out and staying fit. It is pretty easy for me because I don’t have any children to take care of or a garden to tend to after work, and the gym in my building is literally an elevator ride away. I don’t even have to go outside to get to it. While I was working out the other day (and turning red and dripping with sweat), I noticed another girl on the elliptical machine who was wearing a headscarf and was fully covered except her hands and face. I thought to myself, “Wow. If I had to wear all that just to exercise…,” let’s just say I would not be exercising.

Many Muslim women in the United States wear the headscarf (or hijab) in public because modesty is important in their faith. Women may show their hair, arms, and legs up to their knee in front of other women; however, our building’s gym is a co-ed facility. But this particular woman was not wearing the face veil that some Muslim women wear. I can only imagine how difficult working out would be in that case.

I raise this point because in Washington, DC, Arlington, and basically all of northern Virginia, I see Muslim women in all levels of cover all the time. I was in Subway a couple of weeks ago, and of the seven people eating there, I was the only one not wearing a headscarf.

But in Europe, governments in Belgium, France, Spain, and Switzerland are cracking down on which Muslim coverings are allowed in public. Most of the laws being discussed focus on the face veil, sometimes referred to as a burqa. (The word is also used to describe the full body covering, but Afghanistan uses burqa to mean full-face veil, while North Africa uses the term naqib.)

Today, France’s lower house of parliament is supposed to vote on banning any veil that covers the face, including the burqa. The measure, if passed, would still need to go to the French Senate for a vote in the fall. A survey found that French citizens back the ban by more than four to one. Similar majorities in Spain, Britain, and Germany support a ban. Italy and Turkey have had bans on the face veil for quite some time.

According to France’s proposed bill, wearing the full-face veil in “public places” (schools, hospitals, restaurants, public transit, and so on) would be punished with a fine of 150 Euros ($190) plus a citizenship course, presumably on why the veil is unfit for French culture. Forcing a woman to wear the veil, however, would be punishable by a year in prison or a $19,000 fine.

In May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, “We are an old nation united around a certain idea of human dignity, and in particular of a woman’s dignity, around a certain idea of how to live together…. The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values, which are so fundamental to us, so essential to the republican compact.”

Arguments supporting the ban are numerous. The most common seems to be that the face veil is a security issue. If you can’t see someone’s face or facial expressions, it severely affects communication and understanding. It also hides someone’s identity, and in a world of security cameras, I can certainly appreciate this concern. And surely a woman should be required to show her face in a driver’s license or passport.

A second common argument against the burqa is that it is a symbol of male domination and religious oppression. In some Muslim cultures, a woman is not even allowed to leave the house without a male relative to escort her. The French seem to be most affected by this notion, and Sarkozy even said in 2007 that “France will not abandon the women who are condemned to the burqa.” Many people find it so difficult to believe that any woman would voluntarily wear such garb, and they therefore write the burqa off as something a woman must be forced or coerced to wear.

In an op-ed for the May 4, 2010, New York Times, mayor Jean-François Copé of Meaux, France, defended his country’s proposed ban:

The visibility of the face in the public sphere has always been a public safety requirement. It was so obvious that until now it did not need to be enshrined in law. But the increase in women wearing the niqab, like that of the ski mask favored by criminals, changes that. We must therefore adjust our law, without waiting for the phenomenon to spread. …

In both France and the United States, we recognize that individual liberties cannot exist without individual responsibilities. This acknowledgment is the basis of all our political rights. We are free as long as we are responsible individuals who can be held accountable for our actions before our peers. But the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility. (Full opinion here)

Do you agree with France and the other European nations banning the face veil? Do you think the arguments made here supersede a person’s right to wear what they choose? Copé made another interesting point that people are not afforded the right to walk down Fifth Avenue in the nude; that is illegal for reasons Americans have accepted. But are we willing to make the exact opposite—full-fledged modesty and covering—illegal in the United States? You tell me.

My gut reaction is that I don’t feel comfortable with someone walking the streets whose face I cannot see. But when it gets cold in Wisconsin and Maine and people walk the streets in enormous coats and hats and have their faces covered with scarves, we are perfectly fine with that. We as a culture understand that. And why should my discomfort affect someone else’s wardrobe?

And I for one am not ready to conclude, or even remotely suggest, that all women who wear the face veil or full-body burqa are doing so because they are required to by the men in their lives and by the religion in which they have grown up. Religion is a slippery sucker, and if a woman believes that her god wants her to dress that way, and it harms no one else to do so, then who is the government to say that belief is false and unworthy of following? Nobody is up in arms about the yarmulke or the habit worn by nuns. And what about the bonnets and long skirts worn by the Amish? Are they next?

As sad as it is to say, I think it’s only fair to admit that discrimination plays a major role in Western culture’s desire to eradicate burqas on its soil. Ever since the September 11, 2001, attacks, many Americans have viewed Muslims as dangerous and out to get them. There is little, if any, trust there, not to mention feelings of loathing, warranted or not. It’s the classic binary of “us versus them” and the Other. And discriminating against the Other simply because they are different has constantly proven immoral and unjust.

Besides, these women don the burqa so that they may go into the public sphere and participate in public life. If we take that option away from them, it would likely push most of them into deeper hiding and isolation. And if it’s supposed to be all about how the burqa is such a stain on women’s equality, I can think of a few other areas to tackle first. It’s not as if male domination, domestic abuse, or the objectification of women is a particularly Muslim problem.

How do you feel about it? What do you think are the compelling security issues with wearing the burqa, and how is it any different from other baggy clothes or accessories that disguise someone’s identity? Do you think the United States will ever enact such a ban on face veils or full body burqas? Please share your opinion, whichever way it might lean!

** Update: France’s lower house of parliament voted today overwhelmingly in favor of banning the veils. The vote was 355 to 1.

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