To Veil or Not To Veil

France has upped the ante and opened the debate once more on the legitimacy of Islamic women-covering apparatus on their soil.  Leader of the centre-right party UMP, Jean-François Copé, wants to ban burkas and niqabs and to fine any seen wearing one €750 (£620/1,060$). The debate is hugely important to women world-wide yet it is tremendously complex so any rash decision like Copé’s could be very damaging.



In his New Year’s speech, Sarkozy claimed that the full-covering veils are an affront to French ideals of liberty, egality and fratenity. Indeed, the logic behind why women must cover their bodies so completely makes a mockery of the concept of equality as we know it. The meaning of words from the Qu’ran like  And tell the faithful women … not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it … (Surah an-Nur verse 31) have evolved over centuries to mean women cannot be seen at all. Claims are made about protecting women’s modesty, preventing rape and saving their physicality for the enjoyment of their husbands only. The latter reduces women’s beauty to something that is owned by the husband, not her, and all of these mean the reality is a culture of shame surrounding women’s bodies that’s unnessesary and harmful not helpful to dignity. As for preventing rape, it pins responsibility for sexual abuse on women’s behaviour, exempting men from blame. And reducing women to walking mummies means men enjoy massive liberties of movement and dress, further instilling outdated social hierarchies, and possibly means women are juged even more on their physical beauty if seeing their face is so rare. To my mind, it’s deeply shocking that such practice exists and is tantamount to aparthied, socially excluding massive numbers of people based on a simple biological nuance.


But my opinion as a Western feminist is toxically subjective. Yet is forcing a woman to remove something not just as bad as forcing her to put it on in the first place? It is tantamount to ideological imperialism, saying my European values are worth far more than your foreign ones. Surely to a 21-yr-old who wears a burka in, say, Afghanistan, is just as horrified and outraged by the idea of bikinis as I am by her choice of dress.


Sarkozy’s issue with the veil and personal liberty is the question of whether wearing a veil is a free choice for Muslim women, but it’s not a simple matter of does she want to; aside from Western nightmares of tyranical fathers, husbands and clerics, if the veil is part of cultural heritage and identity, the “choice” becomes somewhat pre-determined and is never really free. In turn, the Western circus act of feminine beauty (bucketloads of time and money spent on hair, make-up, body pampering and fashion) for which Sarkozy’s wife and model Carla is a pin-up,  is accepted as women’s choice, yet opting out is as socially and culturally unacceptable as probably unveiling for a Muslim is. Sarkozy also said the veil is an affront to French views on women’s dignity, but in a culture with (male-perspective) pornography widely available and consumed, big gender pay gaps and 400 women dying each year from domestic violence (that’s more than one a day), France and indeed the West at large is hardly the haven for women’s lib the right make it out to be. Women are constantly judged on appearence here, though covering their faces isn’t the answer, a radical change in attitudes is still needed.


Finally, the fact that the Right is supprting the ban in France and not the Left shows that while these Tories are posing for the cameras with a Barbie-doll of Western “femininst” values, the loaded gun of racism is probably the very ugly and metal-cold reality of the debate. In November 2009, the good people of Switzerland voted overwhelmingly to ban mosques on an architectural basis, as the minneret towers would be a blight on the landscape of otherwise low buildings, but said it was not an affront to Islam. I mean, who the hell are they kidding?! They don’t seem to have a problem with tower block banks in Geneva or, indeed, church steeples. In France, Traditionalist Catholic and Jewish women cover their head fine, but Catholicism is as old as the hills in France and, essentially, a white religion, and noone wants to upset Jewish people because we had to have the Holocaust before we learned that’s not cool. But Muslims? Seems they’re fair game. Unfortunately, these are the issues at the heart of the debate, and ones surrounding the position of women and their rights will be left once more by the roadside.


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Filed under Fashion, Feminism, Style News

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