"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 20 September 2013

Time to ban face veiling: Equality first.

Back in 2010 I wrote about France’s intention to impose a Burqa ban in all public places and at the time I was equivocal about the merits of such an action vs. the imposition on the human rights of those who see veiling as an expression of their cultural or religious identity. However as the subject has now come up in the U.K, at least in the limited contexts of court appearances and Muslim health workers, I have been re-evaluating my position.
I am rapidly coming around to the view that arguments about identity, public safety and cultural cohesion, valid though they are, are not the primary problem with face veiling. The issue is the prima facia one of sexual equality. In a progressive and egalitarian society we should not allow a particular subsection of it to impose restrictive dress obligations on its women just because they adhere to a particularly patriarchal cultural or religious ideology. The Burqa and Niqab are symbols of repression and the male ownership of female sexuality and as such should not be condoned or encouraged. As Maryam Namazie said recently
”…whilst the niqab or burka are often framed within the context of “a woman’s right to choose”, it has to do with much more than mere religious identity and religious beliefs. Apart from the fact that it is a symbol of women’s subordination, it is also a tool of Islamism. The increase in the burka and niqab are a direct result of the rise of the far-Right political Islamic movement and part of that movement’s broader agenda to segregate society and impose sex apartheid. To ban or not to ban the burka? Ban it, of course. And not merely because of security matters or for purposes of identification and communication as is often stated but in order to protect and promote the rights of women and girls – all of them – and not just the few who wear the burka and niqab…”
The “right to choose” argument is appealing but slippery. While it is quite possible that a number of Muslim women do freely choose to wear the Niqab, as claimed recently by a 14 year old student on BBC Radio’s World-at-One program, by protecting their right to veil we are failing those who are coerced. The un-named girl in the interview linked above said
…it was her own choice to wear the veil and neither of her parents had encouraged her to do so [..] it meant she avoided the pressures to keep up with the latest trends and look a certain way.
which is fine for her and I have some sympathy with the problems faced by young women in what is still a very sexist and over sexualised world especially if they come from a culture that idealises female purity and modesty. But a better and more admirable response would be to join the fight for women’s equality rather than hide behind a veil and perpetuate the problem.
In fact even the idea that face covering is about modesty is disingenuous. There is no requirement for anybody, male or female, to flaunt or emphasise their sexuality in public and nobody is arguing for restrictions on traditional Arabic or Asian clothing or even the Hijab as a hair covering, but veiling is dehumanizing to an unacceptable extent.
I am more than conscious of the fact that I am not from an Islamic background and, along with most people in this country, have no idea of the extent to which Muslim women are compelled to wear the Burqa or Niqab by their parents or husbands. But coercion does not have to be explicit or accompanied by threats of violence, it can simply be the result of living up to other people’s expectations or not wanting to offend or distress those you love. Banning the Burqa would provide an escape into greater equality for those women, possibly the majority, who would prefer to integrate with wider society with their faces exposed.