Revisiting the question of the veil

The question of the veil has become a heated debate in the British media. In this debate some fundamental principles seem to be at stake: individual freedom to practice one’s religion, freedom of choice, freedom of clothing and discrimination against a particular community, that is, the so-called Muslim community. Islamists and some human rights activists maintain that the so-called Muslim community is being stigmatized and has been under racist attack since September 11th. They argue that the latest attempts to ban the burqa or the niqab are a violation of individual freedom and another racist attack on Muslims. Let’s examine these issues more closely.

Two events following one another brought up the question of the Islamic veil in the British media: Jack Straw’s comment on the women wearing the niqab, and the case of Aishah Azmi, a 24 year old support teacher, who was ordered to take off her full veil, including the niqab, when teaching. She took the school to court and the court decided in the school’s favour, and so she appealed against the court’s decision.

In my opinion defending the right to wear the veil in any form or shape and in any circumstances as freedom of choice is fallacious. It overlooks other, just as important, rights recognised by modern civil society. In unconditionally defending the right to wear the veil, one comes, at best, into collision with other set of rights, i.e. children’s rights, women’s rights, societal rights, and the principle of secularism. In debating about the freedom of wearing the veil, one must take different circumstances into consideration. 1. The age of the person wearing the veil. 2. The extent of the veil and 3. Where the veil is worn.

Why are these factors relevant in the discussion?

First and foremost it is important to define what the veil is. Is it only a fashion item, a mere clothing style? The argument that classifies the veil as a style of clothing is totally misleading. The veil is a religious ritual, a religious costume. Moreover, nowadays the veil has become the political banner of a political movement, namely, political Islam. The veil has become the symbol of Islamic power. Wherever Islamists gain power, they force the veil on women, as a sign of their victory and supremacy.

Why is this argument relevant to our discussion? It may be argued that irrespective of its religious or political character and significance, one must be free to wear any “political or religious symbol” one chooses to wear. My response, and I believe many others’, to this is a categorical NO. It must be said that in most countries, including Western democracies, there are certain dress codes at workplaces and wearing different political or religious symbols is not allowed in the workplace. Therefore, the veil must also be viewed in this light. We should tear out all this romantic falsification surrounding the veil. The veil is a religious and political symbol of a religion and movement that degrades and deprives women.

The veil as a symbol of women’s subjugation

The veil is both the symbol and the tool for women’s subjugation. Islam, like all other religions, is a misogynist ideology. Islam is a direct product of patriarchy. Islam, particularly, due to its earthly characteristics, penetrates every aspect of the private and social lives of men and women. A woman, according to Islam, is an extension and subject of a man. She does not have an independent identity, and is defined by her master. The veil has been prescribed to hide men’s property from potential violators. A “free” woman, according to Islam, is considered an open and free target.

It is absurd to regard the veil as a fashion item, or a dress style. We should define the veil as it really is, and as it really functions in the lives of many women under the rule of Islam: a symbol of servitude and subjugation.

Nevertheless, it may be argued that, if one chooses a life of servitude, one should be free to do so. Modern civil society has a different answer to this argument. In a free, modern civil society, when safeguarding human rights, children’s rights or women’s rights, there are laws limiting individuals’ right to harm themselves or to deprive themselves of certain rights and privileges. By the same token, there must be some limitations imposed on the use of the veil. This is perhaps where some disagreements arise. This is where those above-mentioned circumstances come into the picture.

The veil must be banned for underage girls

One of the achievements of the modern civil society is the recognition of society’s responsibility to safeguard children from any kind of abuse. The society must be responsible for children’s safety, happiness, health and their normal growth and development. Past decades have witnessed a great struggle by decent, human-loving individuals to establish the concept of children’s rights, to recognise children as an individual and not the property of their parents. This is a landmark achievement, which contradicts the essence of religion. According to Islam, the child is the property of the father or grandfather, who even have the right to take the child’s life. Therefore, modern children’s rights charters are in basic contradiction with religious laws and customs. They, in fact, nullify certain religious or “divine” rights. This must extend to girls living in Islamic communities.

The veil is a pure discrimination against girls. It hampers their physical and mental development. It segregates them from the rest of the society. It restricts their growth and future development. It assigns to them a prescribed social role according to their gender and a division of labour. Therefore it must be banned. Society is duty-bound to safeguard free, healthy and normal development of these girls. It is a crime to ignore this obligation. Freedom of choice is purely nonsensical regarding the veil for underage girls. “A child has no religion.” It is the parents’ religion that is imposed on the child. Society must respect the child’s right to a free development. Just as modern society recognises the undeniable right to education for all children, bans child labour, and regards physical abuse of children as a major crime, it must also ban the veil for underage girls. This must be added to all international children’s rights charters. The veil is a physical, mental and social abuse of girls and it must be recognised as such by the international community.

Secular society verses the veil

In a secular society, religion must be a private affair of any individual. The state must be separated from religion and stay away from promoting any religion. A secular society can better defend individual rights and civil liberties. Contrary to the commonly held belief, religious hatred or communal stigmatization can better be avoided in a secular society. In a secular society, wearing or carrying any religious symbol at state institutions and in the place of education must be prohibited. By doing this, the state and the educational system avoid promoting any particular religion. Religion remains in the private sphere, and clashes between followers of different religions are somewhat avoided. Therefore, I believe that the recent legislation in France regarding the banning of wearing any religious symbols in state institutions and schools is an appropriate step in the right direction.

However, I believe that its main shortcoming is to still allow private religious schools to operate. This leaves the girl’s fate in the hands of religiously-fanatic parents to send her to private religious school and ghettoize her life completely. This is not respecting individual freedom and civil liberties; this is discrimination against a group of girls who are isolated from the society at large and their lives are ghettoized by their parents and so-called leaders of their communities. The society must defend the right of children; girls living in Islamic communities are no exception. The society and the state have responsibility for their normal, healthy and happy development.

The burqa or the niqab, an individual right or a societal right?

The veil comes in different forms and shapes, from a scarf, to a robe-like loose garment that covers the woman’s whole body (it looks somewhat different in different countries, or according to different Islamic sects’ rules) and finally the burqa or the niqab. The burqa has become known as the symbol of theTaliban, the most severe restriction imposed on women’s appearance.

Must a woman be allowed to cover herself under this most severe form of the veil? In my opinion: NO. The banning of the burqa or the niqab can be argued from two angles, 1) the societal right and 2) the women’s right.

Firstly, in my opinion, when dealing with the burqa or the niqab, we surpass the sphere of individual rights. Here, we enter the sphere of what I call societal rights. The person under this kind of veil has no identity in the face of fellow citizens. The society cannot work with faceless humans. At a workplace, and I mean any workplace, it is the right of the fellow workers and customers to see the faces of colleagues and personnel. There is also the issue of trust at stake. You cannot trust the person who has covered their face. Eyes and facial expressions are the key to communication; if you hide these, there can be no real communication. Therefore, wearing the burqa or the niqab must be banned at the workplace.

I believe that the question of trust and identity goes further than the workplace. It is just as important on the bus, in the park, in the recreation ground, and so on, that you can see the face of the person in your immediate surroundings. Here it is the question of individual rights verses the societal rights. There are instances where the society rightfully decides to deprive certain individuals of certain rights for the benefit of society as a whole. For example, banning smoking in public places and imposing severe restrictions on smokers, limits the individual rights of smokers, but it is defended on the basis of health benefit for the whole society. The burqa or the niqab must be banned for the benefit of society.

Secondly, we argued above that the veil is a symbol and a tool for women’s subjugation and degradation. This is one of the main reasons for demanding that it be banned for underage girls. Nevertheless, we agreed that in a free society an individual has the right to choose servitude, if he/she chooses to do so. However, we also argued that there are certain limitations imposed on self-harming practices by individuals. Female circumcision, which after a long and hard battle became known as what the practice really is, being female genital mutilation, is now banned by many Western governments. Women’s rights activists had to fight vigorously in order to bring consciousness about this brutal practice and to ban it in many countries. There are many different religious sects and not all their practices are permitted by the law. Therefore, religious freedom does not mean freedom to practice just any religious command or custom.

I believe that the burqa or the niqab should also be categorized as those religious practices prohibited by the law. The burqa or the niqab deprives a woman of any identity. By allowing its use, we recognise the existence of some identity-less women who walk around in a ghost-like shape. This is a real insult to human dignity. The society should not permit such a degree of degradation and humiliation of humans. This must fall under the category of the limitations society imposes on self-harming practices. I add in passing that I doubt deeply the nature of voluntary and free choice regarding the veil, particularly in this severe shape. But we will not get into this debate here.

We should redefine the veil. We should debate this question widely and openly. Hopefully, we come to the agreement that certain limitations must be imposed on the veil: banning of all shapes of the veil for underage girls; the use of the veil at public workplaces and educational institutions; and a total ban on the burqa and the niqab.

Email Azar Majedi

Organisation for Women’s Liberation Iran

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