Lifting the veil on faux-liberal point-scoring

Moroccan women wearing burqasI don’t know what to think about the French ban on face-coverings – aka the Burqa Ban.

This seems to be in contrast to most other people, who seem divided into outrage on the one hand and triumphalism on the other. Both viewpoints worry me somewhat – but the triumphalism worries me more.

The law is not a victory for women’s rights, nor is it a victory for common-sense security, which seems to be the fig-leaf justification for it in France. The list of exclusions to the law make it very clear that people who threaten security are not the target – it is veiled women who are the target.

The BBC News website, quoting Radio France International, lists the following exclusions to the law:

  • Motorcycle helmets
  • Face-masks for health reasons
  • Face-covering for sporting or professional activities
  • Sunglasses, hats etc which do not completely hide the face
  • Masks used in “traditional activities”, such as carnivals or religious processions

So, that would be pretty much everything except a Muslim veil, then? Yes, it just might be.

Those expressing satisfaction in the law suggest it will help “free” veiled women from the unjust tyranny of their religion (and then go on to point out that much of said religion doesn’t appear to require the veil for women anyway). This is a step towards the light, they say.

Like hell it is.

This is a state-mandated imposition, and will most likely be seen as such by those affected. True believers will either begrudgingly comply, remaining veiled within their heart, or else defy in the name of staying true to their religion. Either way, these true believers won’t see it as freedom – they will see it as oppression.

But this is where it gets tricky for me. The argument that supporters of the ban make is these veiled women are already being oppressed – by their religion, or possibly by a male relative who insists on female members of his family being veiled. (Mona Eltahawy discusses this in an interesting and strongly anti-“liberal” viewpoint in the Washington Post.)

They argue that no woman wearing the veil can be doing so voluntarily – or rather, if they are more reasonable, that the chances of wearing a veil voluntarily are very small.

Blimey, well – where to start?

My concept of a liberal society – which I believe at least some other people share – is based around a sort of social laissez-faire: people should be free to believe, think, say and do whatever they want, up to the point where it has a negative impact on other people and their same rights. (This seems to be a different liberal society to the one referred to by Ms Eltahawy.)

There is clearly a sliding scale here: some Jesus-freak with a megaphone may annoy you for five minutes while you walk down the high street, but that’s not going to be justification enough to have him silenced. And on the other hand, a particular religious sect may hold a very deep belief in the practice of female circumcision on its followers’ children – but that belief shouldn’t be allowed to permanently damage those who are unable to make a choice for themselves.

This is the grey area – because there are surely some (many?) women who ARE being oppressed by the veil, and CANNOT make a choice for themselves. They have been “indoctrinated” to believe that not wearing the veil is sinful and will lead to damnation, or other sub-optimal personal outcomes.

And maybe this ban can help them – maybe it can help them gather the confidence and the tools to question these requirements, help them literally to see further. Maybe they need this push to start on their path towards true personal freedom.


But if this is the case, why not extend this to other religions? I know of one particularly apocalyptic cult that originated in the Middle East, now spread to Europe and beyond, that demands its adherents practice the ritual cannibalism of their human-god saviour as part of a bizarre spectacle during which a magical transformation is claimed to take place, all to the background of chanting in an ancient, pagan language.

Frankly, this is disturbing – and I cannot believe that encouraging cannibalistic tendencies is healthy for young minds. Let’s crack down on these god-eaters too.

Well, as banning Communion in the Catholic Mass might raise some eyebrows, it is unlikely to happen; and more to the point, while the actual concepts behind Communion are somewhat worrying when presented as I have done above, the actual ceremony itself has been reduced to the mundane by almost two thousand years of practice. Is it harmful? Not nearly so much as some of the less mystical aspects of the Catholic Church’s dogma.

Ultimately, I feel that the French Burqa Ban is more about political point-scoring than anything else, and I do not believe it will have a particularly positive impact on the women it is trying to “help”. (Let’s not even get into the impact it will have outside France, where the ban risks becoming potent fuel for militant Islamist movements.)

France is supposed to be a liberal democracy that enshrines freedom of religion and basic human rights. It seems to me clear-cut that this has infringed both of these with this ban.

Unfortunately, the ban’s target is undeniably distasteful for many outside sects that mandate the veil – I personally find it abhorrent in concept (as I do for many religious practices in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc, etc, etc). But one’s personal dislike of something is not sufficient to have it banned, at least in a modern, supposedly liberal democracy.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Sometimes the state has to make the hard decisions on behalf of its people, when they are unable or unwilling to do so. Is this one of these? Maybe, if it weren’t for the blatant politicking.

Like I said, I don’t know what to think about this ban. But I do know it’s a mess.

One Comment:

  1. So if a woman wearing a veil is walking down the street, can’t she claim that the veil is a mask used in a “traditional activity” and that it’s a religious procession of one devotee?

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