The Great Veil Debate

Since today is the first day of the French Niqab ban , I wanted to share this piece appearing the in 50 Women Project blog last July about this issue and women's religious freedoms. Here it is- enjoy and feel free to share your thoughts!:

The Great Veil debate 

There is an increasing amount of talk among news and blogging circuits regarding the Muslim niqab veil in recent months. I have absorbed so much of these discussions I finally decided to address the buzz circulating among human rights groups and within the walls of governmental entities worldwide.

In fact, it is not necessarily the veil itself that has people talking, but the recent bans being enforced concerning it and its display in public venues. Women in the western world are mortified by its presence, often because I believe they do not understand the cultural or spiritual significance of it.

The recent controversy began with French president Nicholas Sarkozy after he proposed a ban on covering ones face in public places. The new legislation would forbid face covering Islamic veils worn to public venues. The bill also aims at husbands, fathers and sons by forbidding them to force women to wear them. They risk up to 30,000 Euros in fines or one year of prison if accused and convicted of forcing a woman to wear the niqab or burqa.

The bill is cited as “non discriminatory” because it forbids all individuals from public face covering, not just the Islamic population. Reportedly in Islam, face covering veils are not required. It is a cardinal rule that women dress in modest apparel. The definition of what is “modest” has many interpretations. Sometimes, they can be quite extreme.

Recent polls show Americans to strongly oppose the ban, but on the opposite end, Europeans strongly support it. The French especially overwhelmingly endorse it in addition to Germany, United Kingdom and Spain. An estimated 1,900 women in France currently wear them. I strongly believe the American opposition stems from the “anti-democratic” nature of this law. We are children of freedom of choice and very limited cultural restrictions. In fact, women in the United States choosing to wear them are not even required to remove them for state issued identifications such as Driver’s License or ID cards. Some states have recently changed these laws…

The same situation can be observed in Syria where teachers and students in universities are barred from wearing the niqab. Scholars report this to be reasoned by Syria’s position regarding secularism and coexisting religions. It is believed that the niqab represents very strict Islamic values and that it will undermine the ideas of coexisting religions Syria is attempting to forge.

I have had many female friends who cover themselves by choice. This has never bothered me in any way because they appeared to be content with their spirituality. What matters most to me above any accusations and controversies is contentment. If a woman feels she must do this and is satisfied by this- I am not one to demand otherwise.

I don’t have a problem with anything provided it is a free choice. What I do have a problem with are when women are coerced into wearing them. This deeply angers me because it is not just and it is oppressive. It is degradation to a woman’s personality and self-esteem in this case. It is an oppressive way of erasing her- her face and her ability to speak freely and interact with the world. I would like to see these women receive a choice in the matter instead of threats or other violence.

Soon to be finished, the 50 Women logo does include the silhouette of a veiled woman next to other women who are unveiled. I have met slight criticism for this representation as I believe it is common for western women to feel that the veil is harsh, oppressive and strictly imposed. This is not always true. Many women choose to wear them as an exercise of faith. I have always been a champion of freedom of choice, and honestly, who could blame me being raised in the United States.

I chose to include a silhouette of a veiled woman in the new “50 Women” logo because I wanted to represent the diversity of this project, including women of different faiths. If the veil is part of one’s spiritual life, then it is necessary that I include this iconic representation. I am proud to include this because I feel it speaks to diverse populations of women and acknowledging this diversity is crucial. We cannot REACH out to those who can potentially feel LEFT out of the whole equation.

That said, I have often wondered why more Muslim women are not featured in western media, films and television programs. They virtually have no representation whatsoever- no role models by which to admire within the mainstream. It’s almost as if the veil itself poses some kind of barrier to contact between women who choose not to cover and women that choose this. Islam is the second most prevalent organized religion in the world- with roughly 1.5 billion followers worldwide. Many of my female Islamic friends have suffered some form of emotional detachment from society because they feel people shy away from them simply because of their veil. We must consider the aspect of choice in this matter as well as the principles of the religion themselves. We must respect our choices within our individual lives instead of making assumptions or placing blame.

I have been accused of trying to be too “politically correct”. The point of “50 Women” is to help us all, through shared life experiences, find a common ground. Maybe the cultures, languages and religions are different but the human element in the shared experiences prevails. It is through our most difficult experiences that we are able to find empathy and compassion. When we find we share common emotions, whether now or through past experiences, we immediately are able to better understand each other.

Are these bans something I support? I suppose the only answer I have is that I support the right to choose depending on the individual.


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