A little over a week ago, France’s constitutional watchdog, the Constitutional Court, ruled that a recent ban on the wearing of veils in public was not in violation of the French constitution. This ruling effectively removed the last major barrier to the law taking full effect this coming spring. This should concern all those who believe in a more peaceful and harmonious world.
For those that haven’t been following this story, the ban in question would make it a crime to wear any kind of Islamic face covering in public. This includes both the burqa, a garment that covers the entire body with the eyes being obscured by a kind of mesh, and the niqab, a garment which covers the entire body with a small opening for the wearer’s eyes. Any woman caught wearing such veils will be punished with a €150 fine and may be required to take a “citizenship course.” Anyone convicted of forcing a woman to wear such a veil will be punished with either a year in prison or a €15,000 fine.
The punishments of those who force women to veil against her will is a measure that I actually agree with, though I would argue that it is criminal for any individual to force someone to do something against their will and is not limited to veils.
The actual ban of face coverings in public, however, is an outrageous mistake on the part of the French state. Muslim women all over the world wear different veils and head coverings. Just as Islam is not a monolithic religion with only one set of values, the women who choose to wear the veil or head coverings do so for a wide variety of reasons.
Some women choose to veil as a means of staying modest as mandated in the Qur’an (modesty for both men and women in dress and action). Some veil because it is a cultural practice that they find comfort in. Others wear the veil as a means of empowerment by forcing men to deal with their personalities and ideas rather than allowing themselves to be objectified or their ideas disregarded because of their looks.
Having said that, it is reasonable to suspect that some Muslim women have been forced to veil against their will. This is domestic abuse and should be treated as such. It is reprehensible, however, to strip the right to veil of the Muslim women who wear the veil by choice as a display of their piety.
The assumption of many supporting the ban appears to be that Muslim women are an oppressed minority who are stripped of individuality and denied an identity outside of their religious community. This is a convenient view for supporters of the ban because it allows them to speak for, and sweep criticism from veiled women aside, chalking it up either to a small minority or coercion by their male relatives.
As for those critics who cite the fact that the ban is only on public wearing of the veil, I ask this: how much time do you spend out in public in a day? If you’re reading this, I assume you attend university or at least work here. I also am inclined to believe that you spend a large chunk of many of your days here in this institution. For those women who choose the veil because of modesty, the exemption on private places and places of worship is of little comfort to them because a large portion of their average day is not spent in a place of worship or in their homes; but rather in public, the very environment where such modesty is most necessary.
These arguments, though valid, miss another important point in the context of a Western liberal democracy – the ability of the Muslim woman to define her own individuality in whatever fashion she chooses. It is not our place to decide how the Muslim woman should express her individuality and forge her identity. If she chooses to wear the headscarf, the niqab or the burqa, or if she chooses to forgo Islamic dress altogether, it ultimately remains her decision. Whether she wears it to force others to acknowledge her as an individual, to ensure a general anonymity or to identify herself with something larger than just an individual is irrelevant. It is, and should remain, her choice.
In light of all of these arguments I fear that the current backlash against Islam in Europe is rooted not in logic or sound decision-making, but in a fear borne of ignorance of a faith seen as alien and of the “other."
Islam is not monolithic any more than Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or any religion in existence. There exists diversity of opinions and views, some conservative and against Western values, some liberal and supportive of them. The fact remains that Islam cannot be seen as an alien faith in the West because Islam is here to stay.
Muslims live among us and contribute every day to our Western societies. To try to make the case that a non-threatening expression of their faith is dangerous is not only fodder for those who would use their religion to justify acts of hatred, but is a slap in the face to every Western Muslim who has ever given of themselves to help support the societies and countries that we all share.
I sincerely hope that the European Court of Human Rights acknowledges the error of this ban before France enacts a measure that is both harmful and unnecessary, and will only lead to the frustration of a minority.