On the Banning of Niqabs

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but last year France started fining women who wear the niqab in public, in defiance of a recently passed law banning religious face coverings in public. From the article, other countries (Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland) are planning similar legislation.

The article is noteworthy, not only for the content, which is informative, but also for the handy reference at the bottom explaining the difference between hijabs, niqabs, burkas.

(According to the article, hijab is a generic name for a headscarf, a niqab is a veil the covers the face but not the eyes, and a burka covers the the entire face and body, leaving just a mesh to see out of)

Even more interesting than that, however, are the posted comments. They run the entire gamut from full support of the French law to complete disagreement, though I do get the sense that a lot more people are in favour of the law than against it.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably just come right out and state my own opinion on the subject, and you can make your own judgements. I think what France is doing is, at best, wrongheaded and, at worst, absolutely disgusting. I like to think of myself as an objective person, not prone to holding opinions born of knee jerk reactions, but there it is.

Also in the interests of full-disclosure, this essay will ramble a lot. You have been warned.

Anyway, the comments also run the gamut between the well-thought-out, to the self-deluding, to the idiotic, and it's sometimes hard not to sputter when reading some of these things.

For example, some commentators (not many, thankfully) tried to make the ban a security issue. It's not about religion, so the argument goes, it's about the fact that hiding your face in public is (allegedly) a security risk. Aside from the fact that no one ever needed to hide behind a burka to bomb a building or an airplane, the notion becomes laughable when you read the number of legal exemptions (motorcycle helmets, carnival masks, etc.) listed in the article. Not even France pretends that security was ever the reason for the ban.

Another theme that crops up again and again is the idea the niqab doesn't have any actual basis in Islam. They are a cultural artifact, the argument goes, with no basis in the Koran. It disturbs me how many people think this claim is actually relevant to these kind of debates. Niqabs are not prescribed by Islam so that means...you can safely ban them? If the Koran did prescribe niqabs for women in public, I would hope that it would be blindingly obvious that this wouldn't be a justification for foisting them on unwilling individuals. On the other hand, if the Koran has nothing to say on the subject, I would hope, once again, that it would be blindingly obvious that this wouldn't constitute an argument for banning them. Classifying the niqab as a religious or cultural artifact might make for an interesting sociological discussion but it has exactly zero to do with the question of whether the law needs to concern itself with these articles of clothing.

Force, and When it Counts

Another common concern orbited around a couple of related points:

  • some women are threatened with violence or even death if they don't wear the niqab
  • any woman wearing the niqab is obviously being forced to do so.

The first point is undoubtedly true in various parts the world - certainly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and even, occasionally, here. It's hard not to be sympathetic.

So yeah, no argument from me, a lot of women face violence from the men in their lives if they don't wear the niqab. But in cases like these the niqab is a red herring - a distraction. If you take it out of the equation, it becomes obvious what we're dealing with. We have a name for it: it's called an abusive relationship, and it takes lots of different forms including, it must be said, that of a Muslim man forcing certain articles of clothing on his wife/daughter/sister. Such unfortunate situations are not, however, solved by fixating on the particular form of the abuse. It doesn't get solved by fixating on the niqab. We have ways of dealing with abusive relationships that don't involve banning articles of clothing. Or at least we should. If we don't, we have much bigger problems than niqabs.

So, of course, forcing a woman (or anyone) to wear a niqab (or anything), needs to be against the law. I feel weird having to spell this out. But I also need to be clear: it's not the niqabs that need to be against the law. It's force that needs to be against the law. The situation is no different from, say, a Christian woman being physically threatened by her father over wearing a bikini at the beach. One would not, presumably, solve such problems by banning one piece suits at the beach.

Of course, a one piece bathing suit is a far cry from a niqab, which leads to the second point: a lot people simply take it for granted that a woman would never, ever choose to wear the niqab. Who in their right mind would choose to be oppressed?

It's interesting, in this vein, to read this in the BBC article:

Divorced mother Hind Ahmas, 32, a mother-of-three, was fined 120 euros (104 pounds) by the court...Ahmas's parents were not strict Muslims. She told the BBC she put on the niqab for the first time six years ago as an educated single woman. She claims she once wore mini-skirts and liked to party before she rediscovered her faith.

And this:

Another high-profile niqab-wearer, Kenza Drider, has said she will stand for president in the 2012 election.

It doesn't seem like they're being forced to wear anything. Is it a ruse? Is there a hidden threat of violence somewhere that the article isn't mentioning? I'm not being facetious - it's a definite possibility. A lot of women do face violence if they don't wear what the men in their lives consider appropriate clothing. There is, however, no hint of that in the article.

But why on earth would an otherwise mentally healthy woman choose to wear such a thing? I don't know, but I suspect human psychology is more complicated than a lot of people think. Maybe notions of oppression aren't necessarily identical from culture to culture.

I consider myself an atheist. But I do wear a crucifix, a relic from a more religious time in my life. I can count on my fingers the number of times I've taken it off in 20 years. I don't know why I keep wearing it. Maybe I've worn it for so long that it feels like it's a part of me. Maybe I'm being sentimental because it was my grandmother's. Maybe I'm a more devout Catholic than I care to admit (very doubtful).

Or...maybe I wear it because I find it funny to say "I'm an atheist, but I wear a crucifix".

Off the top of my head I can come up with several semi-plausible (to me) reasons why an otherwise sane lady might choose to don the niqab:

  • she doesn't want to be judged on her looks

  • she comes from a culture where a woman's face, like a woman's breast in certain other cultures, is hidden for modesty's sake

  • she thinks she's so incredibly beautiful that the merest reveal of her face will cause a man's blood to boil

  • it has sentimental value

  • she thinks it's the height of hilarity to say "I'm a confident, professional woman who just happens to wear a niqab"

  • she just doesn't think about it (probably a lot more common than you imagine)

But honestly? Who knows? It's very possible that the reasons I've come up with are nonsense. Trying to ferret out the reason is a distraction. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the only reason she wears it is because she's chosen to.

Of course, there is one more possibility:

  • she chooses to wear the niqab, not because she's being forced in the strictest sense of the word but because if she doesn't she faces social ostracizing within her own community.

This one, unfortunately, seems very plausible to me, but I do have to point out that lots of people face the same sorts of choices in their lives. I'm sure there are at least one or two Jews in the world who only wear the yarmulke to please their parents.

The Law, and When it Doesn't Matter

There's another line of reasoning that goes something like this:

The niqab ban is now a matter of law. Everyone is subject to the law, right? Immigrants are no different, and they don't deserve special treatment. If there's a law banning niqabs, well then that's the end of the debate, isn't it? We also have laws banning honour killings and female circumcision; presumably you don't think immigrants should be exempt from those? Don't western societies have the right to pass their own laws and don't they have the right expect newcomers to follow them?

It hard not to be at least a little bit sympathetic to this line of reasoning as it is literally written, wouldn't you agree?

Nonetheless, that paragraph basically misses the point of the whole debate. Yes, the niqab ban is now a matter of law, but the debate was never about that. That would be a very short and uninteresting debate - all you have to do is look at the law book and it's settled. I'm not a lawyer, and this isn't a legal debate. This is a philosophical debate over whether the niqab should be banned.

People who make arguments like this tend to treat the law as if it existed in some sort of sociological or moral vacuum - as if laws were somehow magicked out of the void and our only duty as good citizens is to obey them once we're told what they are.

Also, these kinds of arguments tend to get applied only to laws that the debater agrees with. Imagine trying to apply the above logic to the Tiananmen Square protests. Would you find it convincing? Or what if you were a homosexual living in Georgia prior to 2003? Would you find the logic convincing then? Even if you weren't gay?

I don't really feel like getting into a discussion over the when's and where's and why's of civil disobedience. I am simply making the point that a statement like "it's the law" is usually irrelevant to morality debates.


Other comments were more worthy of serious notice. Some people pointed out, for example, that wearing a burka renders a passport or driver's license photo useless. This is a legitimate and obvious concern and it's hard not to agree with this one, but you do have to wonder, if this was the principle worry, why a complete, blanket ban on objectionable headgear in public was deemed necessary. France could have passed a law forcing women who insist on wearing the niqab to remove it if they want to obtain a passport, for example, or any other government issued photo id. In other words, the law could have been much less pervasive. The fact that it was as all-encompassing as it was leads me to believe that this is about much more than wanting everyone to have a legitimate passport.

Final Thoughts

I'm not really sure how to end this rant, so why don't we try this: I am not pro-niqab, nor am I pro-Islam. I am pro-wearing-whatever-the-hell-you-want. A lot of people don't seem to get the distinction, and it's sad. I would have thought that grasping the distinction was part of Western Liberalism 101, but apparently I'm mistaken.