Friday, 16 July 2010

Arguments on the veil

A couple of recent articles attacking the French ban on the niqab, one in the New York Times and one South China Morning Post.  What these non-Muslim apologists for the niqab never mention is the number of Muslim women in the west who hate the wretched things and who wish that the west would indeed make it illegal so that they’ve got something with which to fight peer and spouse pressure to put on their Darth Vader masks. 
[Postscript: article from British Muslim woman saying she would like the niqab banned in the UK. Here.]
Copies below with my comments in dark blue.

Veiled Arguments
By Ronald P. Sokol
Two years ago, France’s highest court denied citizenship to a Muslim woman on the grounds that she had not assimilated into French society. I agreed to defend her before the European Court of Human Rights. I could have emphasized religious freedom; I raised the argument, but there was an easier way to show that the court had gone astray.
French law gives two tests of assimilation: knowledge of the language and absence of a criminal record. My client spoke fluent French and had no criminal record. But reports of interviews by social workers said that she had showed up wearing a niqab. On that basis, the court concluded that she practiced a form of religion incompatible with equal rights of men and women.
In that statement the court is 100% correct.  Islam quite clearly, consistently and vigorously asserts the difference between men and women, assigning a clearly inferior status to women.  This is in the doctrine, theology and legal system (Sharia) of Islam.  And wearing the niqab is the clearest expression of adherence to that doctrine, either by the woman herself or the her husband who makes her wear it.
I argued that to allow an official to judge a failure to assimilate without providing criteria was to invite arbitrary decisions. The Human Rights Convention prohibits governments from acting arbitrarily. The case is currently pending before the European Court.
In 2009, the French equivalent of the FBI reported that the practice of wearing a veil was “marginal.” There appeared to be only 367 women in all of France who wore the niqab. A second police agency confirmed the initial report. Subsequent work increased the estimate to a maximum of 2,000 women.
With over 30 million women in France the phenomenon did indeed appear marginal. None of the reports said the women were a danger; no post office, bank or other institution complained that veiled women were a problem.
Yet the very marginality seems to incite a segment of the political class, including the president, prime minister and majority leader in the National Assembly, to protest further against veiled women. They advocated a law to ban the veil. In March, France’s highest court said that a general ban would violate French law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite that opinion, the government went ahead and proposed a law to ban the veil.
On Tuesday, the National Assembly passed the draft law by a vote of 335 to 1. It declares that “no one can, in the public space, wear clothing intended to hide the face.” The Senate is expected to pass the bill in September, when it will become law.
While the extreme marginality of the practice renders discussion somewhat ridiculous, the government’s insistence that the issue is vital makes it incumbent to show that its reasons do not resist analysis. Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly and a small town mayor, argued in an opinion article on these pages (May 6) that “face covering poses a serious safety problem” and that “visibility of the face in the public sphere” is a fundamental principle.
The first argument is easily disposed of. There exists no evidence that women wearing the veil pose a security problem.
Huh?  Aircraft, shoes and liquids did not “pose a security problem”, before they were used as missiles and bombs.  But in fact, crimes have already been committed by people – usually men – dressed up in the burka and niqab. (eg, the "Burka Bandits in August 09).  [oh, they don't count?  because they're men?  how wouldja know?]
Copé provides no evidence. The government’s own reports fail to show a public safety issue. In the total absence of any evidence, passing a law to provide protection where no protection is needed is either an exercise in absurdity or conceals a different agenda.
Copé’s second reason is more interesting. He asks, “How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance ... refuses to exist in the eyes of others?” For the majority leader, “the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others.” In this he may be correct. But if a woman has a duty to show her face in public it must be because someone else has the right to see her face. That is the pretended “right” that Copé asserts.
I know of no such right. Copé will not find it in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, nor in the European Convention of Human Rights. When walking down the Champs Elysées, I have no right to see the face of passersby. Nor do I want such a right. While Copé may want a passer-by to give him a glance or a smile, he has no right to demand it.
Yes, the veil may be antisocial, but, fortunately, in a democratic, pluralistic society there is no legal duty to be social.
Actually the UK – is it not still a “democratic, pluralist society? – has the legal duty to be “social” in the shape of the Anti-social behavior ordinance.   ASBO is often derided, to be sure, but gives lie to Sokol’s assertion that there is "no legal duty to be social".  Moreover, if any group in society fails to abide by the norms of society, then society certainly has the right to make laws to make it do so, if the case is sufficiently severe, which clearly these legislators think this one is.  We would not shrink, would we, from stopping families murdering their kinfolk (“honour killings”) just because they don't have a duty to be "social"?
Monsieur Copé may be right in calling the veil a “mask making participation in economic and social life virtually impossible.” He may be correct in thinking that participation is desirable. But he is profoundly wrong in thinking there is a legal duty to participate.
There may not be a legal duty to participate (though I’m not sure about that), but there’s surely a moral duty to participate.  In any case, with the passing of the law, there will indeed be a legal duty to participate, by the minimal requirement not to hide one’s face.   There ought not to have been the need to legislate, if niqab-wearers had had a modicum of politeness and common civility: that is, did not wear the horrid garment.  I recall here when I first went to China in the seventies.  There was no legal or even moral requirement to wear what were then known as “Comrade clothes” (Tongzhi Yifu), but I and many of my classmates, did so anyway. Sure, part of that was to seem “cool”, I guess.  But there was equally a strong desire to try to be sensitive to the local mores.  We wore local clothes – the baggy blue cotton trousers, the “Mao jacket”, the cotton shoes -- because that’s what the locals wore and it seemed only common courtesy to do so. 
What’s not addressed here by Sokol is that in donning the niqab, the wearer is making a strong political statement: of adherence to the most fundamentalist strain of Islam.  If they are not doing it for that reason, then they are doing it only because they are forced to.  In the latter case – and there are many that say that’s why they wear it – the fact that it’s illegal to wear it will liberate it.  In the former case, they don’t get to wear something that represents a grotesque vision of the way life should be lived.  Would we let Ku Klux Klansment to walk the streets with their conical white caps just because they had “no duty to be social”?
He is wrong as well to say the law aims “at no particular religion.” “The Koran,” he says, “does not instruct women to cover their faces.” Neither does the Bible tell Christians to wear a cross; yet no one would suppose that a ban on wearing a cross in public would be aimed “at no particular religion.”
Sokol is correct here.  It would have been better – but hardly likely, given the PC climate – if the connection to Islam had not been shied away from.  After all, Islam is sui generis. For example, Islam is unique among the religions of the world in having a developed doctrine, theology and legal system that mandates warfare against unbelievers.
The final irony of this fabricated problem is that the law’s proponents, who see women wearing the niqab as oppressed victims, propose to punish the victim rather than the oppressor. A nearly all male legislature under the guise of public safety and protecting women’s dignity will deny a minority the right to choose how to dress.
Ronald P. Sokol is a lawyer in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Veil ban uncovers paranoia and racism
Madeleine Bunting
Updated on Jul 16, 2010
It sends a shiver down the spine. France's lower house has passed a law banning the wearing of the full Islamic veil - covering the face - in public places. The hope has to be that this extraordinary decision never actually reaches the statute book. France's highest constitutional body, the Council of State, warned some months ago that a ban would infringe constitutional rights, and the measure could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.
We would ban, would we not, men walking down the Champs-Élysées with a woman behind him at the end of a leash.  Well, if not that, we would ban, surely, the public flogging of women by their husbands.  My point being that there is a limit.  We do have some standards; the argument is simply where to draw the line. What’s wrong with making that line right here, right now, with that medieval sartorial prison, the niqab, a symbol either of oppression of women, or a symbol of that woman’s hewing to a violent, supremacist strain of Islam.  For that’s all it can be: either subjugation or supremacism. (For sure it's not a symbol of fashion or comfort: see Maureen Dowd's report of her visit to Saudi, in the August Vanity Fair -- the abaya, she reports, "makes you look like a mummy and feel like a pizza oven" and a stinging critique of that admittedly trite article).
Maureen Dowd in Saudi, by some of the Camels called "Obama"

What makes the decision so disturbing is that it fits into a pattern emerging across Europe of a particular paranoia. The veil debate is making it entirely legitimate to pillory, mock and ridicule a tiny number of women on the basis of what they wear. In France there are only an estimated 2,000 women who cover their faces with the burqa or the niqab out of a Muslim population of 5 million. The response is out of all proportion.
The niqab and burqa are extreme interpretations of the Islamic requirement for modest dress.
As Pat Condell says: what’s “modest” about dressing in something, a tent, a Darth Vader outfit, that is thoroughly in-your-face?  It’s really sticking it to the rest of society and then having the temerity to call it “modest”.  Give me a break!
Few Islamic scholars advocate their use, and many have urged women not to use them. They are as alien to many Muslim cultures as they are to the West. Yes, some women might be encouraged or even forced to wear a full veil by their husbands or fathers. But increasingly, young women are choosing to wear the full veil, seeing it as a powerful statement of identity.
What, and this is supposed to be ok? That they wear it as a Salafist, or Wahabbist symbol of the supremacism of Islam.  That identity?
Invoking the full weight of the state to police dress codes in public is an extraordinary extension of state powers over an aspect of citizen behaviour that is largely regarded as your own business. Provided you are wearing some clothing, Western public space is a free-for-all, and across every capital in Europe this is strikingly self-evident.
It is not difficult to see the racism that permeates this debate. It is about the assertion of identity - under the sobriquet of protecting "our way of life". Crucial to that is forcing a choice: do you subscribe or don't you? Sign up or get out. But such choices are notoriously slippery. Who gets to decide what our way of life is, exactly?

What is racist about it?  Bunting fails to say.  The issue is not racist for precisely the reason that one cannot see the race of the niqab-wearer.  And Islam, for the umpteenth time, is not a race.  As for the assertion of identity: well those in France, for a start, “get to decide”.  The still-dominant culture “gets to decide”, lady.   The French people via their elected representatives, by a vote of 335 to 1 gets to decide, that’s who, lady. 
Such bans reveal a fixation on identity and the face at a time when, ironically, more people spend more time than ever interacting online with complete anonymity. Most people navigating urban public spaces studiously avoid each other's eye. Yet many of those advocating bans have insisted that exposure of the face is crucial to interaction.
It is not too hard to understand that some women - a small minority - might find the pervasive sexualisation of Western culture offensive, and might want to signal by their clothing their disengagement. Yet this is a choice that the largely male politicians in France have chosen to remove (less than 20 per cent of the French lower house are women).
This is ridiculous. What’s it to be: a choice that women make for their identity (ie Salafist), or because of the pervasive sexualisation (by drawing attention to themselves).  Or is it just that they have to wear it because the men make them.  In all cases, not on.
French politicians insisted last week that women need to be liberated from the full veil. Forcing people to be free has a long and undistinguished history - well described by many, including George Orwell. Yet, too many times an age is blinded by its own prejudices and forgets that liberation can never be imposed.
Madeleine Bunting is a Guardian columnist and associate editor. Copyright: Guardian News & Media

BTW: it seems Ms Bunting is a Muslim, at least according to the link where the above photo came from, which is the first one to come up on Google.