Tuesday, July 6, 2010

France and Veiling

It's been a parliamentary debate well over one year in the making, and this week, the French Parliament is finally set to discuss the issue of the niqab (face veil) and its permissibility in public areas in France. Last year, I wrote a blog which highlighted the situation in France, and the rising tide of Islamophobia that was accompanying cries to ban the niqab entirely. In May, the French cabinet approved a bill dealing with the niqab in public places, however before it can be enforced as law, the French Parliament must also approve the bill. The debate is set for this week, and should the French Parliament pass this bill, it will change the face of France, and potentially ignite a domino effect in the rest of Europe.

Should France outlaw the bill, it will join Belgium as the only other country in Europe to have banned the face veil, but the trend will surely not end there. Spain has already expressed a rising interest in banning the niqab in the country also, and were France to make this ruling, it will spur forward the notions of other nations who have mentioned they may take the same action.

So what does this really mean?

Firstly, many people greatly misunderstand what the Islamic veil really is, and why women wear it. There are many variations of veiling, while the two that people are generally most familiar with are the hijab, or head scarf, and the focus of debate in France, the niqab. The BBC has provided a great article detailing what the hijab is and its history in Islam, as well as advocates for and against veiling. The niqab is interpreted as a more extreme version of veiling for women, whereby the entire face save the eyes is covered. The Burka is even more extreme, with women covering their entire face, with a small netted area for her to see through. The question often raised by scholars and individuals alike, is whether or not Islam actually call for a woman to cover her face entirely; for that matter, does it even call for a woman to cover her hair?

The answer is unfortunately not a case of Yes or No. Islam, and therefore Muslims, does not have a ruling religious figurehead such as the Vatican for Christianity. This leaves verses (surahs) in the Qu'ran open for individual interpretation, and various interpretations of the versus dealing with women exist. There are Islamic advocates that believe the Qu'ran explicitly directs a woman to cover at least her head and neck to conform with the Islamic requirement of modest dress. More extreme interpretations see that the Qu'ranic surahs direct women to cover their entire body's, including face, when in the presence of men that are not directly related to them or their family. For many women raised in the West, the mere idea of covering one's entire face seems extreme. However, for women that choose to wear the niqab of their own volition, they truly believe that they are following the will of God, and abiding by Islamic doctrine. A simple explanation for this reasoning can be found here.

Now this brings us to France, and Muslim women in France.

France has always boasted about being a secular nation, and one that respects an individual's freedom of expression and human rights. Despite this, France has previously ruled that religious
symbols and iconography should not be explicitly displayed, lest it offends those of different believes or secular ideology. This seems fair enough, no outright religious iconography. But does the niqab fall under this umbrella definition? Many would disagree, however French President Nicolas Sarkozy sees the niqab not as a religious symbol, but as a symbol of the segregation and suppression of women. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon even went as far to say that Muslims who wear the niqab are "highjacking Islam,"while providing a "dark sectarian image" of the religion. Quite an extreme statement to make, and certainly an assertion of the underlying French views on the niqab and full face veils on women.

Having lived in an Islamic country for four years now, I still cannot wrap my mind around a woman's decision to wear a niqab of their own volition, but I still advocate that as a Muslim woman, it is her right to make that choice, particularly if she believes it strengthens her commitment to God. There is no doubt that the Islamic religion advocates modest dress, but does this modesty extend to entirely covering your body and face? I don't believe so. It should, however, remain a choice that Muslim women are free to make.

The self-proclaimed secular state is preparing to pass a law that will strip women of the right to this decision. The legislation will also include fines for brothers and husbands found to have forced women in their family to don the niqab. All well and good, a woman should never be forced to wear something, but isn't forcing her NOT to wear something essentially the same thing?! One party that opposed banning the niqab in public places, the opposition Socialist Party, has now announced that they will abstain from voting this week, meaning the one party that opposed this grievous violation of a woman's right to free expression is sitting back and keeping their traps shut. Congratulations on solidifying your government's efforts to hinder free expression and right to religious doctrine.

Studies in France document that there are approximately 5 million Muslims living in the country, and of this, only 2000 or so wear the full face veil. Is it really so offensive to the "open minded" European nations to permit these women to wear the niqab? Now I understand that one point for banning the face veil is a level of security, as if a woman has her entire face concealed, how can her identity be verified, or how is it even possible to know that it really is a woman hiding underneath. For these cases, such as when re-issuing ID cards, or employment and security checks, by all means outlaw the face veil. But to do it merely because of the belief that it is further segregating women shows an arrogance that far supersedes security.

It would seem, particularly if this bill passes this week, that secularity is out, and Islamophobia is in. Only time will how if this trend will continue to spread throughout the rest of Europe, and how long it will take for governmental officials to finally realise that this is not a matter of protecting the rights of women, it is a matter of stripping followers of one religious doctrine of their human rights, and right to free expression. A right, that many in our history have died to preserve, upset by the ruling of the elite in France for the "greater good."

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