I’ve just been getting very hot under the collar in an online debate on the question of whether or not the niqab and burqa should be banned. I found myself pissing in the wind, arguing against the ban in the face of a deluge of heated opposition, with most posters adamant that the niqab and burqa are abhorrent affronts to women’s rights.
I’m not entirely unsympathetic to their concerns. Yes, I loathe the attitude that women have a duty to cover themselves up, that merely by existing, by having breasts and legs and faces, they are a sinful temptation to men and responsible for men’s lust and actions. I cringe and want to punch the wall with anger when I hear some Muslim women justify the wearing of their particular form of “modest” dress on the grounds that “If you left a piece of meat unwrapped on the kitchen table, you wouldn’t blame the dog if he ate it, would you?” I don’t know how women can collude in their own objectification and excuse their own abuse in this way.
But I don’t believe you can ever emancipate women (or any other group) by dictating to them what they can or cannot do.
Nor, in a Western European context, do I buy the argument that a ban on the burqa and niqab is necessary to prevent women being coerced into wearing these garments against their will. Time and time again, I see people on messageboards and online debates blithely claiming that obviously no woman would ever choose to wear the niqab or the burqa and the vast majority must have been forced by their families. Actually, scores of studies have shown that the majority of burqa- and niqab-wearers in Western Europe voluntarily chose that form of dress and in many European countries the vast majority of women opting for the extreme forms of covering are converts, who don’t even have a Muslim extended family. It seems to me that the kneejerk circular argument that so many people resort to when this topic comes up – “I think the burqa is oppressive, therefore I can’t imagine that any woman would freely choose to wear it, therefore any woman who does wear it must have been forced to do so (regardless of what she says or the overwhelming evidence that most European burqa-wearing is voluntary), therefore it must be oppressive” – is insulting to both women and Muslims, patronisingly pigeonholing both groups as easily-brainwashed patsies who are incapable of making an informed, independent choice.
I’ve also met the argument that, while European burqa-wearers may choose the garment to make an extremist point, they are immature poseurs, irresponsibly promoting a garment which is mandatory in many Middle Eastern countries and thus making the oppression of women in those countries more culturally acceptable. But it seems to me that legally prohibiting the full veil on those grounds is equivalent to banning T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara or other communist iconography or slogans, on the grounds that it is legitimising the oppression and human rights abuses in undemocratic communist countries like Burma. I don’t see that the fact the people in one part of the world are forced to accept a practice against their will ever justifies curtailing the freedom of expression of people in another part of the world – even if they use that freedom of expression to show support for undemocratic or oppressive regimes.
I also refuse to accept that wearing the niqab or the burqa is always about accepting a view of women as the temptress that needs to be hidden for decency’s sake and to protect men from their uncontrollable urges. For some women, it is more a pragmatic choice – they don’t believe that in an ideal world they should have to cover themselves up, but while we live in a culture where many men still believe they have the right to vocally appraise any female stranger on the street and where many people, male or female, judge women on their looks in a way that they do not judge men, covering themselves is a way of preventing that and reframing social encounters in their own terms.
Then, of course, there are Muslim women who now choose to wear the full veil because they are fed up with the way that the Muslim world has been attacked and stigmatised since 9/11. Watching the west bomb the crap out of Muslim countries and seeing even the most moderate of their faith publicly branded as potential terrorists may have made them more willing to visibly assert their faith and stick two fingers up at mainstream British society in a way that they did not do before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I just do not accept that every women who wears a full veil is doing so because she sees herself as a sinful temptress or a piece of meat.
My main reason for opposing a ban on the full veil, though, is that, at gut level, the idea of any woman being forced to reveal a part of her body when she doesn’t want to – whatever her reasons – appals me. I see little difference between a law insisting that a woman must reveal her face and a law insisting that she must reveal her tits. For me, central to the notion of women’s rights is the idea of bodily autonomy. When I read men arguing that they have the “right” to see the faces of women they pass in the street I feel as offended as when I hear women comparing their bodies to a piece of meat that should not be left unwrapped on the kitchen table.