And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards God, that ye may attain Bliss.
– Qur’an 24:31 “The Light”: The passage most often interpreted to require the hijab for women.
So today the French Senate has voted in favor of a bill to ban face-covering veils in public, approving the measure overwhelmingly: votes went 246 to 1, with most opposition abstaining to vote in protest. This comes a month after the Lower House of Parliament also approved the measure. Now the measure is very carefully worded, called “Forbidding the Dissimulation of the Face in the Public Space”, making no mention of “woman”, “veil” or “Islam”.
This is, to say the least very problematic and most certainly the wrong move. (For the purposes of the post, I will not be differentiating between burqa, niqab, hijab, etc. though I certainly acknowledge that there are fundamental differences among them, mainly because I feel the issue encompasses all of them. )
The most common objection to the veil is that it is a form of oppression to women. Men force their sisters, wives, daughters, whoever, to wear the veil as a sign of modesty because they are objects that are supposed to remain chaste. This is what supporters of a veil ban use a justification.
Now I don’t think it would be wrong to say that this does not occur. I have no doubt that some women who wear a veil wear it out of a forced obligation. But this is no basis for a ban on a the veil because it ignores several factors.
Firstly, if a woman is being forced to wear a veil, banning it doesn’t help her. She’s just getting punished for wearing the veil, or punished for not wearing the veil. Moreover, government studies show that many women do not fit the stereotype of marginalised, oppressed women.
But more importantly what this ignores is that some women CHOOSE to wear a veil.
So this, to me, reeks of Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly. It is essentially the government supressing muslim culture, exercising what could be considered instituitonalized racism and disguising it as a fight for women’s rights.
It does nothing for women’s rights. The issue was presented as one where women weren’t being allowed to wear what they wanted. And to remedy that they are telling women… you still can’t wear what you want. Furthermore, implicit in the argument that the ban is for women’s rights is that the West itself has resolved all it’s issues with sexism. It presents itself as the epitome of equal rights, and now it’s time to go liberate the rest of the world from its barbaric sexist tendencies. A laughable notion. Less than 15 percent of seats in French Parliament are held by women. If France really wanted to confront sexism, it would do some self examination before calling out other cultures.
The bill comes from a place of fear. Fear of Muslim culture, fear of those who don’t share French & Western values, fear of people who are different. It’s racist as far as I am concerned.
Moreover, more and more women, especially in the west, have been wearing the veil as a form of fighting western cultural hegemony. They choose to war it because it links them back to their cultural heritage especially in a world where the west actively seeks to force its views and cultural markers on others. In response to the legislation many women have mentioned that they will go outside in veil anyway because that is their choice.
Muslim women shouldn’t be forced to wear the veil, nor should they choose to wear the veil because men imply they should, or old scriptures say they should, or they fear rape or retribution; they should choose to wear it because it’s what they damn well want to wear, and for no other reason.
Now France is an exceedingly secular society. In 2004, headscarves and other “ostentatious” religious symbols were banned. Religious symbols are not displayed in government buildings. However, speaking as an atheist, I think secularism can be taken too far. I also believe in freedom of religion. If in a private building, head coverings are banned, I think there should be no exceptions. No kids in hoods, no people in hats, no nuns in habits, no head coverings period. And I don’t think belief in a certain deity gives you the right to ask for an exception. But in a PUBLIC space, on the street, on the way to the grocer’s or a worship service, or even in the park, banning religious symbols quashes freedom of speech and freedom of religion. France prides itself on its “free” society, but this undermines the notion of freedom, period.
The legislation still has to reach the constitutional council who have the power to overturn it which they absolutely should do. Banning the veil is just quite simply a poor idea.