Two points to begin. First we’re talking about the niqab, the face covering or veil that is often part of a hijab (a head covering), but is not the hijab itself. (A hijab can be worn without a niqab, but not vice versa.) Do not confuse either of these with the burqa, the entire enveloping outer garment that is worn with both face and head coverings (I’ve never seen a burqa-clad woman with an uncovered head or face). Here is a niqab worn with a hijab:
A hijab without a niqab:
Second, although one rule of writing is that when a title is in the form of a question, the answer is invariably “no.” But that’s not the case today. I’ve come around to agreeing that both the niqab and the burqa should be banned everywhere, though perhaps not the hijab. And I do recognize that this is not an easy issue, because there are arguments worth hearing on the other side.
Though I’ve been on the fence on this issue, worried that prohibiting some dress violates religious freedom, I’ve been swayed by a new post of Maryam Namazie called “Britain should ban the niqab.” Namazie is a women’s-rights activist, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and for the One Law for All campaign, and she writes meaty and thoughtful posts. Her activism is palpable and productive. Sadly, she doesn’t get nearly the readership she deserves since attention is often diverted to unproductive drama elsewhere in her vicinity.
The piece involves an introductory mini-essay by Namazie followed by her interview with Marieme Helie Lucas, described as “an Algerian sociologist and founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.” There are many points made, and some are confusing to me (e.g., Lucas’s statement that “millions of women in predominantly Muslim set-ups have been assassinated for standing for their right NOT to be veiled”). Is that really the case? Millions assassinated for going unveiled? And I’m not sure about Lucas’s stand on other garments, or where banning should be done.
Nevertheless, both Namazie and Lucas are both in favor of banning niqabs—though Namazie seems to want them banned mainly the UK, and Lucas seems to want them banned only in schools and civil offices everwhere. Both women make good points that have swayed me. They include the following:
- Veiling is not ancient “traditional” dress in most Muslim countries, but is a fairly recent innovation.
- Veiling of the face is not mandated in the Qur’an; arose later as a Muslim custom
- Veils have been banned in several Muslim countries or places in the Muslim world. As Namazie notes:
“This is not about East versus West. In Egypt, the Ministry of Health has prohibited the wearing of the niqab by nurses in hospitals. Egypt’s top Islamic school, al-Azhar, has issued a ban on wearing the niqab in classrooms and dormitories of all its affiliate schools and educational institutes. Al Azhar also obliges women to show their faces in court via a decree issued in 1880. In Iraq, the niqab has been banned by a fatwa. In Kuwait, women wearing the niqab have been banned from driving. In Azerbaijan and Tunisia, veils are banned from public buildings and schools. In Syria, until recently, teachers were banned from wearing the niqab…”
- Many women wish to go unveiled but cannot: in some places it is illegal, and in other places they face murder, beating, or opprobrium of they try. Veils are, in many places, mandated even for young schoolgirls, which is hardly a “choice.” It is indoctrination that persists into adult life. As both Namazie and Lucas note, veils are symbols of the oppression and subjugation of women.
- The right to practice one’s religion publicly has limits. One cannot practice polygamy in some places where that is religious tradition, for instance. Likewise for withholding medical care from children on religious grounds (a crime except in many places in the U.S.) If public religious practice creates social problems, as in making women second-class citizens, one must consider that religious “rights” should be curtailed.
- Where veils are made “optional” in some public places, there is still social pressure for the unveiled to conform. I saw this in Turkey with respect not to veils but to headscarves, which are banned in Turkish universities and government offices. When I talked to some female college students in Ankara, they were grateful for the headscarf ban because, they said, if they didn’t wear them others would accuse them of “not being good Muslims”. That could produce a slippery slope of social opprobrium that leads to all women being veiled or “scarved”.
- As Christopher Hitchens noted in his Slate article on the issue, covering the face causes problems in schools, banks, courts, and in the civil service. He further emphasizes that the idea of wearing burqas and niqabs is hard to see as a free choice:
“But, in fact, we have no assurance that Muslim women put on the burqa or don the veil as a matter of their own choice. A huge amount of evidence goes the other way. Mothers, wives, and daughters have been threatened with acid in the face, or honor-killing, or vicious beating, if they do not adopt the humiliating outer clothing that is mandated by their menfolk. This is why, in many Muslim societies, such as Tunisia and Turkey, the shrouded look is illegal in government buildings, schools, and universities. Why should Europeans and Americans, seeking perhaps to accommodate Muslim immigrants, adopt the standard only of the most backward and primitive Muslim states?
. . . Religion is the worst possible excuse for any exception to the common law. Mormons may not have polygamous marriage, female circumcision is a federal crime in this country, and in some states Christian Scientists face prosecution if they neglect their children by denying them medical care.”
In the end, trying to formulate my own views on the issue, I used John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” argument (the pun is unintentional). It works as follows. If we are trying to decide what laws to make, or what distributions would be just, we should envision ourselves in what Rawls calls “the original position.” In this situation we see ourselves as a group of rational minds who know about humans on Earth but don’t yet live there. These law- and moral-makers would, however, eventually become randomly-chosen humans on earth, but you make the rules not knowing which person you’d become. In such a situation you’d dispense laws and justice from behind the veil of ignorance, and this would would prevent you from giving yourself an advantage. So, for example, you wouldn’t want laws that oppress gays, women, or blacks, because you could become one of those. (Rawls also favored a completely equal distribution of goods and legal rights, with the exception that if inequalities are permitted, they must work to the good of the least advantaged people.) Based on Rawls’s idea, in which I am to make rules assuming that I could come back as anyone, including a Muslim woman, I favor the following:
- All mandatory wearing of niqabs, hijabs, and burqas in Muslim countries must be rescinded immediately. There is no justification for such laws.
- The wearing of niqabs and burqas should be outlawed everywhere—and everywhere in public—not just in the West and not just in schools and government offices. That won’t happen in Muslim countries, of course, but such garments should be outlawed in such places because the garments (and, actually, hijab as well) are symbols of women’s subjugation. If they are not outlawed everywhere, at the very least they should be outlawed in schools, in banks and places where they pose a security risk, in courts, on bus drivers and taxi drivers, and in official state offices such as the civil service.
I decided this because, in the “original position,” and given the social and religious pressure to wear such garments even when they’re optional, I would not want to experience such pressure. In fact, were I a woman (and, granted, I’m not one, Muslim or otherwise), I would not want to cover my face in public or experience pressure to do so. (I take that pressure as a given, not something that can be controlled in the “original position”). One of the most odious things I’ve seen—and I’ve seen it in airports throughout the world—is a man in western dress followed by a woman completely shrouded in a cloth sack and with face fully masked, inevitably with children in tow. It reeks of oppression.
- I’m of mixed mind about the hijab. Although wearing it should never be mandatory, I’m not quite ready to say it should be banned everywhere, though I favor its banning in universities and public offices. By not covering a woman’s face or body, it’s harder to rationalize the hijab as a way to avoid tempting men—and thus denigrating women as temptresses. Nevertheless it, too, is a symbol of sexual oppression, but its effects on society are not as harmful as those resulting from covering the face. So here arguments about “freedom to dress as one wants” have more logic.
As always, I invite readers to join in, fully aware that many won’t agree with me.