The United Nations saw the 27th Regular Meeting of the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council
Lithuania, just beginning their presidency of the European Council, opened discussions with a general statement of the EU position on Human Rights. The delegation from Ireland put forward a draft motion about maintaining pluralist civil society.
The delegations began to grow more adversarial Allegations of forced sterilizations of Tamils were issued against Sri Lanka. Myanmar was criticised for its discrimination and the violence against Rohingya Muslims.
Then a representative of Human Right’s Watch began accusing Egyptian human rights activist, Mona Seif, of not being eligible for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA), Egypt raised point of order that it was not relevant to the agenda. America disagreed, Cuba backed up Egypt as did China, UK went with the US then Pakistan supported Egypt. Human Rights Watch went on to call Mona Seif a “terrorist supporter”.
This was not unexpected as the last few months have seen increased controversy over Seif’s nomination following the publicising of Tweets where she celebrating the sabotage of the Egyptian pipeline bringing gas to Israel and the burning of an Israeli flag. Seif defended herself by saying:
“One of the rights that we, the young people of Egypt, have succeeded in seizing is the right to insult our own government and to insult anyone whose policies are bad for our people. We insist on this right.”
Another NGO raised the issue of the Falun Gong in China and their persecution. China objected calling the Falun Gong an “evil cult” which had been outlawed and denying that this was relevant to the agenda. While supporting this point of order from China, Cuba wandered from the point to criticise Israeli violence against Palestinians using the word “genocide” for which the Americans and UK delegations criticised the Cubans.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known frequently as the Tamil Tigers were rebels who fought in nearly 30 years of civil war before being defeated by the government in 2009. Ethnic Tamils claimed they faced, and still face, much discrimination from the Sinhalese ethnic majority. The goal of the Tigers was to create an independent Tamil state. A UN report says that up to 40,000 people were killed in the final days of the conflict.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, just concluded a week long visit to Sri Lanka which followed a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling on Sri Lanka to investigate civil era war crimes committed by its government forces that passed in March.
“I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction…the fighting is over, the suffering is not”.
“This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced…the United Nations takes the issues of reprisals against people because they have talked to UN officials as an extremely serious matter.” – Pillay
But Rajapaksa claims that these ideas are created by ex-LTTE propaganda and the Sri Lankan people must choose whether to trust in their government or not rather than being “caricatured by external entities influenced by vested interests.”
Pillay will brief the UN Human Rights Council on her findings next month and a full report is due to be published in March 2014.