The West Vs. The Veil

How women or any one in general, dresses themselves is a very intrinsic part of their identity. To veil or not to veil is a women’s choice. We need to stop fighting cultural wars on the battleground of women’s bodies. There is something wrong with any law that either dictates women to remove their clothing or forces upon them any form of clothing.

On March 14th 2017, The European Union’s highest court passed a judgement that allows companies to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols. This was a joint judgement by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg in the cases of two women, from Belgium and France, who were dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarves.

The judgement stated that religious garments could be banned, but only as part of a general policy barring all religious and political symbols. Also, customers cannot demand employees to remove their headscarves if the company has no policy against religious symbols.

European Court of Justice’s judgement has been followed by a proposal for EU-wide ban of full facial veils put forward just yesterday by the European People’s Party, the largest political party in the European Parliament.

The EPP cites “both for reasons of security and because seeing one another’s faces is an integral part of human interaction in Europe” as reasons for this proposal. This comes in lieu of increased policing around the world of what women can and cannot wear.

From banning leggings in a few schools in United States of America to the mandatory veiling of women in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, policing what a woman wears is not new in our society. Just a few months back, France had caught the world’s attention, with more than 30 beaches along the southeastern French coastline, calling for a ban on burkini, a type of women’s full-cover swimsuit with an attached hood designed in accordance with the Islamic traditions of modest dressing. A burkini however can be used by any women who would prefer to wear a modest swimsuit or just require more protection from the sun. In fact, according to Aheda Zanetti, the designer of the burkini, almost 40 percent of her customers are not even Muslim.

However, this didn’t deter proponents of the ban who considered the burkini non-secular and some also going so far as claiming it to be against women’s equality. Both former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and president of National Front and forerunner in upcoming French Presidential elections Marine Le Pen, called for a nationwide immediate burkini ban. French minister for women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, also criticized burkini as a tool for hiding and controlling women’s bodies and therefore hostile to women’s emancipation. The present French prime minister Manuel Valls, also defended the ban declared the burkini a part of “the enslavement of women,” adding that the wearing of the burkini is “not compatible with the values of France and the Republic”.

Amidst international condemnation and scrutiny over the ban, France’s highest Administrative court, the Conseil d’Etat, overturned the burkini ban in Villeneuve-Loubet just a few weeks after, setting precedent for other beaches.

France’s burkini ban however is not the first time that France imposed restrictions and laws on women’s choice of attire, especially Muslim women. In fact, France was the first European nation in 2011 to ban the full-face veil in public. Under the ban women, foreign or French, faced a 150 Euro penalty if they left the house covered in a full veil. France also has had a law forbidding wearing of ‘conspicuous’ religious emblems, like burqas, niqabs and hijabs, to schools and colleges since 2004. French politicians justified the ban on veils by trying to portray them as non-secular and thereby violating the 1905 French constitution that separated the Church and State and declared French laïcité (secularity).

However, France’s problem with clothing of its Muslim women is much deeper than burkini or veil as only 2000 or so Muslim women wore a veil when the 2011 law passed.

In the eyes of the French mainstream society, media and political elite, Islam is believed to be a hurdle in France’s progress and women’s rights and at odds with its modernity and republican laïcité values, as evidenced by the views of various French ministers on Burkini.

While France passed it’s ban in guise of secularism similar bans have been discussed and passed around Europe for security reasons. Just recently, on 30th January 2017, Austria’s ruling coalition agreed to prohibit full-face veils in courts and schools and pledged to investigate banning headscarves for women in public services.

Islamophobia, defined as fear or hatred for Islam, has being growing rampantly in the west since 9/11 and is only fueled further by the constant stream of terror attacks happening on the western soil in the past few months and the rising vitriolic populist narrative against refugees.

We see the same narrative of veils as impediment to women’s equality and state cohesion all over Europe. Now very close to the elections, one of the forerunners to the French presidential candidacy, François Fillon, spoke highly favorably of the ECJ ruling. Fillon said the ruling was “an immense relief, not just for thousands of companies but also for their workers.” He added that the judgment would also become “a factor in cohesion and social peace.”

The ECJ ruling is particularly contentious as it not only tries to police what women can and cannot wear but will also make it much harder for Muslim women to secure employment. A recent BBC report found that securing employment is already three times harder in Britain if you have a Muslim or minority ethnic name. The UK’s Women and Equalities Committee’s study into Muslim employment last year also found that Muslim women suffer a triple penalty in the workplace, for being ethnic, Muslim and female.

This new ECJ judgement then will only give “greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women — and men — on the grounds of religious belief” according to John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia programme.

The Conference of European Rabbis, with a membership of more than 700 Jewish leaders across Europe, has also condemned the ECJ judgement in it’s statement that Europe was sending a clear message that its faith communities were no longer welcome.

Researchers Milly Williamson and Gholam Khiabany, who investigated into objection to face veils, observed that while banning of the veils has been expressed as a way to ‘liberate’ veiled Muslim women from the ‘oppression’ of Muslim men; on closer observation, it seems that the face veil must be removed because it is the key symbol of Islam in the West.

Researchers Nasar Meer, Claire Dwyer, and Tariq Modood in their paper ‘Embodying nationhood? Conceptions of British national identity, citizenship, and gender in the “veil affair” have also argued that social constructions of gender are central to the imagination and reproduction of national identities. Women are reproducers of ethnicities and thus also come to signify ‘the national differences in the construction, reproduction and transformation of national categories’. Thus, while men monopolize the political and military leadership around the world, women by the virtue of giving birth, come to ‘embody’ the nation and nationhood.

Therefore by targeting the Muslim women and their veil and modest attire, symbols of their Muslim identity, European states, attempt to delegitimize the Muslim identity. For all its talks about secularism, Europe it seems has a homogenous view of nationhood, where multiculturalism, especially Islamic culture embodied by the Muslim women’s modest attires and veils, is not welcome to its national identity.

Louis A. Cainkar in his book on Arab American and Muslim American experience post 9/11 also concludes that Muslim women are seen to represent a threat to the local moral order that the attackers are seeking to defend.

This is observed in the citations by the French police to burkini-clad women during the burkini ban, often citing a fine for not wearing “an outfit reflecting good morals and secularism”.

The veil has become a representation of all that Europe believes is wrong with Islam. Ratna Kapur, law professor and and Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research in India, notes that the presence of the veiled Muslim woman in the public space typically fails to go unnoticed. Muslim women who wear visual identifiers like a hijab, niqab, burqa or a burkini are instantly more recognized than men and are thus easy targets for Islamophobic people and politicians.

In fact, studies have found that women in hijab rather than men are the principal targets of anti-Muslim attacks. Data collected by the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, shows 80 percent of the anti-Muslim acts from 2013 to 2015, involving violence and assault were directed at women, most of them veiled.

Researchers Neil Chakraborti and Irene Zempi in their study of veil and its relation to gendered Islamophobia found the veil being seen as a constant reminder of the view that Islam dehumanizes women. According to their research, the veil has become a symbol of Muslim women’s powerlessness, vulnerability and oppression by Muslim men. Those who carry out attacks motivated by Islamophobia on veiled Muslim women employ a very similar logic to justify and thereby legitimize their actions.

Europe, in its quest to ‘liberate’ the Muslim women, like the individual, then also demonizes Islam and propagates stereotypes of Muslim women and men while taking away agency from women. Enforced dress codes, such as the ban on veils inexplicably affect women and girls, denying them the ability to make an autonomous decision of how they desire to dress and clearly discriminate against those who choose not to adhere to the what such laws declare as the norm.

How women or any one in general, dresses themselves is a very intrinsic part of their identity. In the case of hate crimes, because hate crimes on Muslim women wearing a hijab directly target the victim’s intrinsic identity, it targets their notion of self and being and of who they really are. Researchers also noted that veiled Muslim women cannot take comfort in knowing that such an attack could have happened to anyone, particularly when they are aware that it is their veil and by consequence their identity as Muslim that is the prompt and also the focus of such a crime. Thus such a crime has greater impact on the victims.

Studies conducted post 9/11 have indicated that Muslim women felt more more vulnerable to harassment and becoming the victims of violence. As a result, studies show that these women may change their routines, avoiding public places they may have earlier felt comfortable going to and that veiled Muslim women were feeling increasingly unable to walk unnoticed in public spaces.

Researcher Emma Tarlo building on these studies further observed that Muslim women were reluctant to visit certain parts of London as they felt over-conspicuous because of how they looked and dressed. This feeling of insecurity in public also produces a dependency on family members for which the Muslim women are often criticized in the first place.

Laws like the ban on a specific piece of attire, like the veil, which is commonly associated with a certain race of people might also in a way legitimize crimes against that racial group.

Bans on their identity, similar to hate crimes because of gendered Islamophobia, also target Muslim women’s intrinsic identity and thus force these women to reconsider their place in society. It also sends them a message that they do not belong, causing them to rethink their visibility in public. For example, a woman who has undergone chemotherapy may wear a headscarf, or a West African woman who isn’t Muslim may wear a headscarf as a part of her traditional attire but it will be the Muslim woman with a headscarf who will be punished for her religious identity.

This decreases public participation of women. Some women left work in France after the French parliament banned wearing of headscarves or other garments or insignia that displayed religious allegiance by those delivering a public service in 2007, soon followed by many private companies also opting to do the same.

Lastly, quoting Muneer Ahmed, an international human rights and immigration lawyer, who wrote in his study of racial violence post 9/11, “In the same moment that we decry the Taliban’s cruel restrictions on the mobility of Afghan women, our racial oppression confines women in the United States to their homes as well. We have engaged in our own form of purdah.”

In banning the burqa and clearly targeting the women of one particular faith, the West is sending a message to the world that their standards of human rights, of freedom of religion and expression, are only applicable to certain types of people.

By taking away a woman’s right to her body and mind, it is oppressing them and pressuring them to conform to the objectification of their bodies and abandon their religious and cultural traditions. Europe in its desire to ‘liberate’ Muslim women has thus puts more restrictions on them in the name of secularism and security, just the way the Islamic fundamentalists that it condemns restrict women in the name of religion.

References:

Ahmad, M. (2002) ‘Homeland insecurities: Racial violence the day after September 11’, Social Text, 20(3 72), pp. 101–115. doi: 10.1215/01642472–20–3_72–101.

Cainkar, L.A. (2009) Homeland insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American experience after 9/11. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=P75WAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA244#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Chakraborti, N. and Zempi, I. (2012) ‘The veil under attack: Gendered dimensions of Islamophobic victimization’, International Review of Victimology, 18(3), pp. 269–284. doi: 10.1177/0269758012446983.

Kapur, R. (2002) ‘The tragedy of victimisation rhetoric: Resurrecting the “native” subject in international/post- colonial feminist legal politics’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 15, pp. 1–38.

Meer, N., Dwyer, C. and Modood, T. (2010) ‘Embodying nationhood? Conceptions of British national identity, citizenship, and gender in the “veil affair”’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 84–111. doi: 10.1111/j.1467–954x.2009.01877.x.

Spalek, B. (2013) Islam, crime and criminal justice. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=dEa4AwAAQBAJ&pg=PA64#v=onepage&q&f=true.

Tarlo, E. (2007) ‘Hijab in London: Metamorphosis, resonance and effects’, Journal of Material Culture, 12(2), pp. 131–156. doi: 10.1177/1359183507078121.

Williamson, M. and Khiabany, G. (2010) ‘UK: The veil and the politics of racism’, Race & Class, 52(2), pp. 85–96. doi: 10.1177/0306396810377003.