The Veil and the Complexity of Freedom

There are discrepancies between how we define freedom and how we perceive it.

Freedom is defined by most as the ability to make your own choices but freedom is often perceived as choosing to be like you.

Not specifically you obviously but ourselves in general. If you consider yourself to be free then you are more likely to recognise freedom in others if their lives resemble yours.

This problem presents itself particularly strongly when ‘western’ ideologies of ‘freedom’ attempt to reconcile with choices they do not understand. Head-scarves and veiling of Muslim women has become the symbolic battleground of cultural ideology in the west. But behind the rhetoric are the realities of personal freedoms in our societies.

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When discussing legislating against veiling in Europe, discussion usually returns to France and ‘The Scarf Affair’ when three scarf-wearing Muslim girls were expelled from their school in November 1996. Then in March of 2004 a law was passed in the French National Assembly banning the bearing of all “ostentatious signs of religious belonging in the public sphere”.

It is interesting to note that quickly the word scarf (foulard) was replaced by veil (la voile). The choice of words is significant as a scarf is a fairly ordinary piece of clothing in France but a veil is more ceremonial and conjures up orientalised images.

More recently, in 2011 a ban on face-veiling in any public space came into effect in France which threatened monetary fines or “citizenship” courses to anyone in breach of this law. Of the 5 million Muslims living in France fewer than 2,000 women wear a veil that covers their face (burqa or niqab). This begs the question of why this became the focus of the debate. A similar ban was discussed in the Netherlands in 2012 where of 1 million Muslims only a few hundred women cover their faces.

These questions are more explicable if the debate on veiling has more to do with European, and by extension “western”, identity than it does about the realistic impact of veiling.

There are many reasons used to justify the banning of headscarves and face veils, the most common of which being security and fighting the oppression of women.

There is an academic feminist argument against veiling that acknowledges its long, traditional roots far outside any one religion but rather as part of patriarchal history of humans as a whole. Ancient Greece, early Christianity, Judaism and the Assyrian Empire all had veiling as a marker of a respectable woman which, like their chastity, added to the commercial value of women as the property of their male relatives. I am a historian and a feminist so I acknowledge this argument.

However, patriarchy is a fact of the majority of history and if we were to ban everything that had once had a hand in the oppression or objectification of women we would have to ban all sorts of things, including but not limited to; wedding rings, corsets, high heeled shoes, wigs and men.

Also my feminism is that which says that women should be allowed make their own decisions (radical I know!) and so ultimately as interesting as the history of veiling I don’t believe it should play a role in decision making regarding modern legislation. Not only that but I believe that the objectification of women is best typified by the fact that our bodies remain political battlegrounds for the ideology of political systems.

The idea of freedom is opposed to any law that regulates the clothes of women and treats them as ideological tools. So regimes like Saudi Arabia are a different discussion. But I would also like to point out that veiling is the least of women’s problems when living under regimes like this. But if we agree that a law enforcing veiling is wrong then how can we support a law banning them when that is the same control from another perspective?

I also think there is a patronising element to the assumption that veiled, Muslim women are simply incapable of making their own decisions.

And then there is the security argument. That covering your face in public should not be allowed regardless of religion.

A recent high-profile decision by Judge Peter Murphy that a Muslim woman who wears a niqab (a veil that covers the face but not the eyes) must unveil while giving evidence. At previous hearings the woman, who cannot be identified to the public, verified her identity with a female police official before giving evidence. Judge Murphy has said she can remain veiled while sitting in the dock and have a screen to block public view but that he, the jury and the lawyers must be able to see her while giving evidence.

There is no set procedure for situation such as this and Judge Murphy called on parliament to “provide a definite answer” saying:

“If judges in different cases in different places took differing approaches [to the niqab] the result would be judicial anarchy.”

Reuters/Mohsin Raza

But the decision that she only had to unveil to give evidence was not enough for some observers. Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said he “regretted” the judge’s decision.

“We will be complaining to the Office of Judicial Complaints and also be asking senior legal officers to make visibility throughout court hearings mandatory, and not subject to judges’ discretion.”

This is part of a culture that removes the right to privacy and the right to anonymity in public. Am I cynical in thinking these bans coming just as facial recognition software becomes more efficient as a tool of surveillance and law enforcement is not a coincidence? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make me wrong.

— Orla-Jo

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