The progressive case against the face veil

If opposition to the face veil is bigoted then my grandmother and great-aunt are bigots for describing their own experience of wearing the burqa in the 1930s and 40s as "physical and mental slavery".

Lejla Kuric is an independent artist interested in social justice, secularism and gender equality

The burqa and niqab, face veils worn by a minority of Muslim women, are often misrepresented as something harmless, something we should be comfortable with.

This narrative assumes that all women choose to wear the face veil of their own free will; that this is not oppression but merely sign of deep devotion; and that veiled women are not isolated from the society.

Any challenge to these assumptions is unjustly branded as a sure sign of racism, orientalism and Islamophobia.

If opposition to the face veil is bigoted then my grandmother and great-aunt are bigots for describing their own experience of wearing the burqa in the 1930s and 40s as “physical and mental slavery”.

Despite the best effort of many to present face veiling as harmless, it depersonalises women and assigns them an existence different and separate from men, burdened by social norms such as a woman is the custody of her male guardians, strict gender segregation, non-essential conversation with men is prohibited etc.

It is, by design, a device of exclusion and apartheid.

Assuming that the face veil is a choice, many liberals conveniently forget to mention how this choice comes about and what the rationale behind it is. It is fundamentally different to any other type of clothing, an embodiment of a misogynist worldview that perceives a woman’s body as harmful.

Unless women are covered up, men will be compelled to fornicate and rape them. Islamic cleric Sheik Taj Aldin as-Hilali puts it like this:

If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside… without cover, and the cats come to eat it… whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”

The “immodest” woman is also an “unwrapped lollipop” irresistible to flies; an “unwrapped sweet” covered in dirt, an evil temptress and so on – a rationale based on dehumanising rape apologia and victim blaming.

Lollypops

The lollypop on the left represents a veiled woman; the lollipop on the right a woman without veil. Flies represent men. The copy translates as: ”
You can’t stop them.
 But you can protect yourself.
Your creator has your best interest at heart.”

Lollypops 2

This type of meme is also popular on the social media: Pure veiled women go to heaven, while immoral temptresses go to hell.

Bina Shah, a Pakistani writer, notes:

“Many people use blackmail to convince women to wear hijab or niqab: you won’t be a good Muslim, you’ll go to hell, you’re pleasing God, you’ll be subject to harassment and molestation if you go outside without a veil. By playing on women’s vulnerabilities, by bringing up the imagery of women being sexually violated or bringing shame upon their families by walking around unveiled, by implying a woman’s morality is linked to how she dresses, women are coerced into believing they are making a free choice in the thousands and millions, every day of their lives.”

Assuming that males are sex-obsessed beasts, with no control over their animalistic instincts, is also demeaning to men, and arguably leads to a rape culture in which women are blamed for their own violation and sexual abuse. Men are afforded no agency or responsibility. “We’re all rape accomplices”, as Kunwar Khuldune Shahid bluntly puts it in this brilliant piece.

The face veil should be opposed because it is an inherently sexist and misogynist concept at odds with all precepts of an egalitarian society. The ability to critically address certain aspects of Islamic culture that are sexist does not, however, imply a blanket rejection of Islam or Muslims.

There is no explicit scriptural justification for face covering in the Quran, however Salafis, an ultra-puritanical movement, demand it.

Backed by Arabian petrodollars, the Salafi movement has gained significant influence in mosques, schools, Muslim organisations and communities. This has led to increased pressure on girls and women to cede to regressive patriarchy – from vigilante “Muslim Patrols” enforcing dress codes on the streets of London, to gender segregated events at our universities, and a school in Tower Hamlets forcing girls young as 11 year old to wear the face veil.

The goal of religious zealots is to carve out increasingly larger areas of public space where they set their own rules.

Some women wear religious clothing not as an expression of piety, but as political statement against ‘Western Imperialism’. Spurred by Islamist organisations, their intention is to deliberately provoke a culture war.

A blanket ban on the face veil would be wrong – based on a liberal principle that adults can make lifestyle choices that are self-restrictive and that state should interfere as little as possible.

However limited, context based bans are right and justified, based on the following egalitarian principles:

– the state must assert gender equality within its institutions

– religious freedom is not absolute, other concerns such as security or identification must be taken into consideration

– the state must protect those coerced

– the state must protect children not old enough to make an informed choice

Civil right activists, concerned about oppressive notion of ‘telling Muslim women what to wear’, should first look to an army of proselytisers, preachers and self-serving community leaders who do exactly that: telling us what we must and what we must not wear down to the tiniest detail.

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53 Responses to “The progressive case against the face veil”

  1. Mark

    Because no names are mentioned, this piece might have got past Vicky Beeching’s force-field, and would have been a terrific addition to her “feminist” site, which has been far too apologetic on face-veiling so far.

  2. CharlesCrawford

    What’s ‘progressive’ about this excellent piece? It is common sense liberalism and decency.

    Ms Kuric gets towards the heart of the issue, namely that the veil exists only because women are being defined by men in terms that suit certain men. They are the doomed objects of greedy male desire, and that unqualified desire alone has to define society.
    This attitude is trivially objectionable and odious, the more so since it usually has suited the male members of Parliament from all parties to ignore the oppression of women in their respective constituencies to keep in with the male ‘community elders’. I recall vividly how a brave woman Labour MP told me all about her hopeless battle to get the Party leadership to take up the forced marriage issue seriously.

    I made the apartheid comparison myself back in 2008: http://charlescrawford.biz/blog.php?single=475:

    “In most ‘Muslim’ countries women have no vote and diminished civil rights. Is their acceptance of the fact that they cover up but men do not in any sense capable of being accepted as a fair choice?

    In Western countries too, how far in fact are Muslim women free to choose to dress in a way unlikely to please their local ethno-religious community’?

    Free choice? Or a pseudo-choice defined by their false-consciousness imposed by systemic patriarchal gynocidal repressed male violence?”

  3. CharlesCrawford

    What’s ‘progressive’ about this excellent piece? It is common sense liberalism and decency.

    Ms Kuric gets towards the heart of the issue, namely that the veil exists only because women are being defined by men in terms that suit certain men. They are the doomed objects of greedy male desire, and that unqualified desire alone has to define society.
    This attitude is trivially objectionable and odious, the more so since it usually has suited the male members of Parliament from all parties to ignore the oppression of women in their respective constituencies to keep in with the male ‘community elders’. I recall vividly how a brave woman Labour MP told me all about her hopeless battle to get the Party leadership to take up the forced marriage issue seriously.

    I made the apartheid comparison myself back in 2008: http://charlescrawford.biz/blog.php?single=475:

    “In most ‘Muslim’ countries women have no vote and diminished civil rights. Is their acceptance of the fact that they cover up but men do not in any sense capable of being accepted as a fair choice?

    In Western countries too, how far in fact are Muslim women free to choose to dress in a way unlikely to please their local ethno-religious community’?

    Free choice? Or a pseudo-choice defined by their false-consciousness imposed by systemic patriarchal gynocidal repressed male violence?”

  4. Erin Van Der Maas

    are we going to tell other women not to wear ‘sexy’ clothes using the same argument – ‘they are peer pressured’ ‘community/society forces them to wear it’ – we can’t look at this issue in isolation from all the other garments people wear to express identity – its nonsense – while some are ‘forced / pressured’ to wear the veil others i am sure wear it cos they want to – it is not the job of the State to police what we wear – the world is going mad when people equate progressive liberalism with the State prescribing what we can and can’t wear.

    Women wear ‘sexy’ clothes cos they are defined by men and society blah blah – its madness – where does this argument lead to and to what end?

  5. ThisIsTheEnd

    I’m against a ban but I wish women didn’t feel the need to make a choice
    to cover themselves from the head to foot. And I don’t buy this idea that the state shouldn’t dictate on clothing as the state already interferes, it’s illegal to wear political uniforms on marches for instance.

    People should have the right to express themselves and society should, where
    possible, make accommodation. But children wearing the veil is child
    abuse.

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