As I’ve said before, the “burkini ban” passed (and enforced) by three French towns is ludicrous and counterproductive. It’s no different from wearing a wetsuit, though of course the motivations differ, and that was what the French, in their misguided way, were addressing. But what about other forms of veiling in Islamic women’s dress?
This issue comes up perennially, and surfaced once again with the recent notice that an 18-year-old Muslim student in Germany will not be allowed to wear the niqab (a full-face veil with an eyeslit; see below) in her school. Suing the school, the Sophie Scholl evening gymnasium (curiously, Sophie Scholl is one of my long-time heroes), the student lost. As The Independent noted:
The court in the north-west of the country rejected the teenager’s appeal when she did not appear in person to make her case following huge media attention. She herself was born and grew up in Germany, according to the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.
It is one of the first rulings of its kind in Germany to forbid the face veil in classes, in a clash between the country’s principle that each state may decide educational rules, and the principle of religious freedom. Both principles are signed into constitutional law.
The school had argued that it could not ensure the educational development of its student, who was admitted in April this year, when her face was fully covered. Clearly identifying the student was also a problem, it argued.
When the student suggested that a female teacher lift her face veil to identify her, the school said this measure did not solve the overarching problem of effective communication.
Another Bavarian school has also banned the niqab, and Germany (with Angela Merkel’s support), is now considering banning the burqa, the full-body garment that invariably includes a niqab on the head.
In 2010, France completely banned the niqab from being worn in public, and in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights upheld that ban. Their ruling was based on this: “The court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier.”
I support the German rules to ban niqabs (though a German teachers’ union doesn’t), but I wouldn’t go so far as the French. My view is that anyone should be prohibited from covering the face in public when viewing the face is necessary. And that means in schools, in banks, in government offices, in hospitals and doctors’ offices, and perhaps in shops (as a protection against robbery). That, of course, goes along with banning the burqa so long as it covers the face—as it always does. And this isn’t just true for Islam: insofar as anybody conducts public business, they should be prohibited from covering their faces, whether the motivation be religious or not. Revealing the eyes is not sufficient.
I was heartened to learn that Christopher Hitchens agreed, though I don’t know whether he ever wrote about the hijab (headscarf), which in my view shouldn’t be banned, though it’s not a clearcut case. (I always tell the story about the Muslim women at a Turkish school who told me they were in favor of the existing hijab ban because, if it were allowed, social pressure would devolve on them as “bad Muslims” to wear the scarf, too.)
In 2009, Hitchens wrote an editorial in the Daily News decrying covering of the face. I’ve put a bit of this excerpt in bold, as it brings up the relatively un-discussed question of how much of a “choice” veiling one’s body is—even in Western countries where there are no bans. And I’ve put the last sentence in bold, too, because we often forget (as I learned in Turkey) that allowing religious garments removes an element of choice from women subject to social pressure.
Of course you would have to be crazy to try to rob a bank while wearing a burka, even if you were a heavily armed man: The whole point of the garment is that it weighs you down, restricts your movements and abolishes your peripheral vision. It’s like being condemned to view the world through the slit of a mailbox.
But that observation – if you will excuse the expression – brings us to another and even more powerful objection to this mode of dress. It is quite plainly designed by men for the subjugation of women. One cannot be absolutely sure that no woman has ever donned it voluntarily, but one can certainly say that, in countries where women can choose not to wear it, then not wearing it is the choice they generally make.
This disposes right away of the phony argument that religious attire is worn as a matter of “right.” It is almost exactly the other way around: The imposition of burkas or even head scarfs on women – just like the compulsory growing of beards for men – is the symbol of a denial of rights and the inflicting of a tyrannical code that obliterates personal liberty.
. . . Thus the two questions – of rights and of security – actually merge into one and dictate that we must insist on seeing people’s faces. It’s an elementary aspect of civilized life: If you want to teach my children or be my doctor or even be the clerk on the other side of the counter at my bank, I demand, as my right, to be able to read your facial expression.
In France, the government already says that when you are in school you leave your religious identity behind. Many young Muslim women support this ban because it gives them legal protection against cruel and illegal pressure to wear items of dress that they have not chosen.
It’s important to remember the two points in bold in every discussion of Muslim women’s attire, discussions that are sure to multiply.