Facing Facts on the Face Veil

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Earlier this month, a British judge ruled that a Muslim woman must remove her veil while delivering evidence in court. In arriving at his decision, Judge Peter Murphy had to balance the interests of the state — which include a jury's ability to see the face of a witness, so as to assess the reliability of her testimony — with religious liberty. Allowing that a woman could cover her face at any time other than while she sat in the dock, Murphy ruled that, "Whether or not there is an obligation to wear the niqab [veil] is not a subject of universal agreement within Islam rather, it is a choice made by individual women on a personal basis."

Putting aside, for the moment, whether or not Muslim women actually have a "choice" in the matter, Murphy was right to acknowledge that veiling, far from being a baseline requirement of the Islamic faith as circumcision is for Jews (and Muslims), is in fact a practice enforced only by the most pious. The majority of Muslims don't subscribe to the notion that women must cover their faces, as evidenced by the fact that most Muslim women do not do so.

While France has banned even headscarves in public, Great Britain, owing to a more liberal tradition that places a high value on individual rights, has attempted to strike a fine balance. How does a society simultaneously respect an individual's right to religious conscience — which should include wearing a veil, if a woman so wishes — with its duty to protect women and girls from coercion? Amidst the good faith efforts of those trying to find an equitable solution, there has emerged a bizarre alliance of secular "progressives" and religious reactionaries who have hijacked the language of liberal values to endorse the dehumanization of women.

Take, for instance, the response of the UK's Ramadhan Foundation, whose leader was outraged by the remarks of a government minister to the effect that niqabs ought to be banned in schools to prevent the forced veiling of Muslim girls. "This is another example of the double standards that are applied to Muslims in our country by some politicians," Mohammed Shafiq complained.

Gary Younge, a columnist for the Guardian, opined on Twitter that, "Islam isn't unique in imposing restrictive, patriarchal dress codes on women. Most religions do. It's unique in being pathologized for it."

Even by the already low standards of the Twitter medium, this was breathtakingly stupid.

While it's true that some (not "most," as Younge claims) faiths (and here, only in their more orthodox strain) require women to adopt modest forms of dress, Islam is unique in that a sizeable and highly visible number of its practitioners insist that women cover their faces completely. The niqab is not akin to a headscarf, or the skullcaps and wigs that some observant Jewish men and women wear; by covering the face completely, the veil inherently subjugates the woman behind it and and robs her of individuality.

And so there is no "double standard," as Shafiq suggests, in expressing concern about the niqab. If sizeable numbers of Christian and Jewish girls were showing up at school with their faces covered, the reaction from authorities would be the same.

"We would expect these sorts of comments from the far right and authoritarian politicians and not from someone who allegedly believes in liberal values and freedom," Shafiq complained. Welcome to the bizarre world in which the people trying to prevent the religious compulsion of young women are "far right" and "authoritarian," while the misogynistic bullies who treat their wives and daughters like chattel are "liberal" and enlightened.

Great Britain's Deputy Prime Minister has stated that, while he believes it to be "very un-British to start telling people what pieces of clothing they should wear," he did think that exceptions should be made at airport security and in schools, so that teachers can "address [students] face to face."

But if veils are not "appropriate" in the classroom, why are they "appropriate" in any other setting in which human beings interact?

Muslim advocates and their allies on the secular left (whose concern for religious sensitivities, it's worth noting, seems only to apply to Muslims) insist that the veil is a matter of individual choice. I can conceive of situations in which a woman would freely choose to cover her face in public.

Most of the women who do, after all, come from societies in which they are second-class citizens ("citizen," here, being a dubious description for anyone born in the desert tyrannies of the Persian Gulf), so it is hardly a surprise that they would carry such retrograde values with them to Europe.

Even if these women are "brainwashed," as one British Muslim columnist recently claimed, into observing such a warped sense of modesty, they should be free to do so - provided that they are indeed freely doing so.

But just as a woman should be "free" to wear the niqab, the rest of us should be free to state our views about it, and mine can be summarized thusly: The veil is a repulsive garment that brands the person behind it a piece of property, and any woman wearing one — even if she has "chosen" to — has entered into a form of physical and mental bondage. Indeed, I feel greater pity for those women who do select the niqab, (many of whom, displaying the "zeal of the convert," are Western proselytes), as there is something especially pathetic about the person who has chosen slavery rather than been forced into it. Anyone who does not experience a sense of revulsion at the sight of a woman in niqab ought to question their commitment to liberal values and equality of the sexes.

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