Burqas, Niqabs and Liberalism

I personally find niqabs and burqas abhorrent. When I see a woman wearing one, I worry about whether it is her choice to do so, about the ideology that leads to such practices and about what other compromises that she may have had to make in its name. And yet, despite having these concerns, if it is her choice, I would defend unequivocally her right to make it.

An interesting juxtaposition. Copyright Darryl Harris 2011.

An interesting juxtaposition. Copyright Darryl Harris 2011.

In 2010, France became one of the first countries to ban the practice, when it passed a law making it illegal to wear anything that covers the face in public, including garments like balaclavas, burqas and niqabs. Generally speaking, face coverings were banned because they were considered antisocial and a security risk. However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy also stated that burqas and niqabs went against the country’s secular values and were a symbol of the oppression of women.

The argument has three premises. The first is that niqabs and burqas go against France’s secular values. The problem here is that secularism in France is only concerned with the separation of the Church and the State. It does not deny people the right to practice their own religions; indeed, secularism is now considered recognition of France’s multiculturalism and the diversity of religious beliefs held by its people.

The second is that it is a security risk: people should not be allowed to cover their faces because it prevents them from being identified. We don’t go into a bank wearing a balaclava, so why should burqas and niqabs be any different? The difference is that the latter two are perceived as religious requirements, whereas balaclavas are not. I say ‘perceived’ here in order to leave aside the question of whether they actually are religious requirements: deeming the practice as not part of Islam does not mean that people should not be able to choose to wear them. There is nothing preventing staff at a bank from asking the woman to discretely uncover her face so that she can be identified. There are also plenty of ways to obscure one’s identity other than the face coverings proposed to fall under the ban: a pair of sunglasses and a hooded jumper can easily serve the same purpose. As far as it applies to the presence of women wearing burqas on a public street, the security argument does not make sense. Since when has it been the case that we must be identifiable at all times? It seems to me that as long as we can be identified when we need to be, there isn’t a problem.

The third premise, and perhaps the most convincing of the three, is that the burqa is a symbol of oppression. In an opinion piece for The Age, Virginia Haussegger writes, “The burqa is not just a garment. It has become a weapon in a war of ideology: a war in which women are the battleground and their rights and freedoms are at stake.” Her argument is thus similar to the one made by Sarkozy, i.e. the burqa should be banned due to what it represents: an oppressive ideology, in which, as Haussegger puts it, “women are inferior sexual temptresses, whose female form is a problem and must be covered.”

The problem is not the assertion that burqas and niqabs are symbols of oppression – they most certainly are – but rather that it has nothing to do with the question of banning the practice of wearing them. The very act of denying someone this freedom of choice is a form of oppression in itself. I think it is highly unlikely that those that choose to wear them find them oppressive. If anything, wearing them could be experienced as a freedom that makes the individual in question feel closer to God.

On the subject of women that choose to make such a choice, Haussegger offers the following:

“There is no doubt that women who don this ostentatious costume in the West are proud of their piety. One such woman told me, “the niqab is submission and servitude to my Almighty Creator” and that I had no right to question her choice to wear it. Well, I do. What God demands men roam free while women wear a sackcloth that restricts their movement and dehumanises them? What God wants to punish women in this way?”

I cannot help but wonder here about what Haussegger asked to elicit the woman’s reproach… While I think we do have the right to question people’s decisions more broadly speaking, it should be in the spirit of understanding. I don’t think that Haussegger questions were asked in this spirit: she is clearly someone who has very rigidly made up their mind about the matter. Her argument stems from a sense of cultural superiority. She infers that the women that choose to wear them have been brainwashed in some way, or otherwise, that their judgment has been obscured by their own cultural immersion. However, are we not all immersed in such a way? It can be argued that ‘the west’ (as she calls it) is not much better when it comes to the treatment of women. We may not wear burqas in our liberal and pluralist societies, but we do use women’s bodies as sexual objects in order to sell things – is this not also to treat them as ‘inferior sexual temptresses’?

For Slavoj Zizek, banning a free choice like wearing the burqa is a contradiction inherent in liberalism itself:

“Women are permitted to wear the veil if this is their free choice and not an option imposed upon them… However, the moment women wear a veil to exercise a free individual choice… the meaning of wearing the veil changes completely. It is no longer a sign of belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of their idiosyncratic individuality.” – p. 124, Violence

The argument here is that liberalism has changed the way in which we experience cultural practices. He argues that while we continue to observe these practices, we are no longer immersed in them or see them as a matter of belonging; they become choices that we make on the basis of our own individual preferences. The nature of liberal societies now is such that we do not have to adhere to a certain set of cultural practices in order to feel a sense of belonging.

However, even if we are not immersed in these practices and traditions in the same way, I would argue that we are nonetheless immersed in liberalism itself. In the debate over the burqa, this immersion has meant that we have obscured and conflated separated issues. The result is a situation in which, if the burqa is banned, we will have abandoned liberalism, rather paradoxically, in order to uphold it.

If we could begin the debate anew, we would do well to identify the real issue: women being forced into the practice and coerced into saying that it is their choice. If we took this as a first principle, it becomes evident that banning the practice will not help the women in question at all. It may indeed worsen their predicaments. Who knows what further measures those who have been forcing women into the practice will implement in the case of a ban? Moreover, if we want women to speak out against those that are oppressing them, then they must first feel comfortable enough to do so. We are not going to achieve this by criminalising the practice they are being forced into and further marginalising them in the process. There is evidence to suggest that this is exactly what is happening in France. An article in The Guardian by Angelique Chrisafis looks at the situation faced by women there following the ban:

“Muslim groups report a worrying increase in discrimination and verbal and physical violence against women in veils. There have been instances of people in the street taking the law into their hands and trying to rip off full-face veils, of bus drivers refusing to carry women in niqab or of shop-owners trying to bar entry.”

Chrisafis spoke to Hind Ahmas, one of the first women facing a fine under the new laws. Ahmas stated that her quality of life had deteriorated since the ban, that she was frightened of being attacked in the street, found it impossible to find work and generally felt less a part of society.

The idea of banning burqas and niqabs may be, in some cases, well intentioned. They are certainly a great many women around the world that are forced into the practice and we should do whatever we can to help them. The problem is that a ban will not help them, and it certainly will not help those that choose to wear them either. As Chrisafis suggests, it will only serve to further marginalise women, only make them feel less a part of society, and even invite violence and discrimination towards them. This is not the message that we want to be sending those that we are trying to help. The only way we can help is through further engagement. The women themselves that wear burqas and niqabs are often stunningly absent from the debate. We need to talk to these women and attempt to understand their decisions. In the end, we don’t even have to understand them, we just have to respect them.


References

Slavoj Zizek, Violence: six sideways reflections, Picador, New York, 2008