Is the Face Veil Really a Threat to Western Culture?

Published on Huffington Post (UK) here

Anti Muslim sentiments are contagious – now Holland has joined the widespread campaign in Europe tocriminalise the face veil. The veil is already banned inFrance and Belgium and on Friday, the Dutch government agreed to propose legislation that will make it illegal to wear clothes that cover the face in public places. Anyone flouting the ban in public buildings, educational institutions, hospitals and public transport, will be issued with a fine of 380 euros.

The government says they want to “protect the character and customs of public life in the Netherlands.” However, the truth is that they are pandering to the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders because they need his party’s support. Wilders leads the far-right Freedom Party (PVV), which won 24 of the 150 seats in the 2010 Dutch elections, making it the third biggest party in parliament. When the Liberal WD party and the Christian Democrat party formed a minority coalition last year, they struck a deal with Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party – despite not being a part of the governing coalition, they pledged to back austerity measures in exchange for a ban on the face veil.

I wonder how curbing this minor phenomenon of veiling is going to help the country’s economy? An opportunity to influence decisions that would have improved the lives of his voters has been wasted by Wilders. But I guess that should not be surprising, as he doesn’t have any credible policies. He only has anti-Muslim policies – he wants to ban the Quran, veil, new mosques and new migrants from Muslim countries. He promotes anything but freedom contrary to the name he has given to his party. Many Governments in Europe will not mind this distraction away from an economic crisis that they (and the bankers) are responsible for. Instead of allowing the far right to influence policy, those in power should be removing the conditions in which such political parties thrive. Providing a platform to an opportunist such as Wilders, who has built his profile on promoting fear and hate, is likely to damage the reputation of the Netherlands.

Are Muslim women’s clothing really a threat to the Western way of life? I cannot see how a few thousand veiled women in Europe, who are apparently not engaging with the majority anyway, going to bring down Western culture! The veil has become such an emotive issue, but how many calling for a ban, have actually come across women wearing it? Statistics quoted are based on guesswork and exaggeration. For example, the exact number of women veiling in the Netherlands is unknown – it is believed there are only a few dozen from the 900 000 Muslims. Belgium estimates that only a few hundred adopt it from a Muslim population of 630 000. In France, the Interior Ministry has been quoted as saying that 1900 women wear the veil (from a population of 5 million Muslims). However, the influential newspaper, Le Monde, revealed they had seen government reports showing the actual figure to be 367.

Despite the disproportionate level of attention given to Muslim women’s attire by politicians, media and public – most appear to be misinformed about the topic. Reasons cited for a veil ban vary and are not coherent. Some say covering the face is a threat to security but veiled women are showing their faces for identification when necessary. Another common argument is that it’s a barrier to integration. I accept the veil impedes communication and integration but how is preventing a few thousand women in Europe from covering their face helping the majority of Muslims integrate? If concerns were genuine, then politicians would be attempting to tackle the real barriers to integration such as high unemployment rates and the multiple forms of discrimination experienced by the Muslims.

And there are those who want to save the oppressed Muslim women who are forced to cover. Such women do exist but the majority are wearing the veil out of choice and their reasons vary widely. Some feel it is a religious obligation while others admit it isn’t but want to take an extra step to feel closer to God. There are those who want to make a political statement or do it for reasons of fashion or culture or are simply going through a fad. Many have told me they feel liberated in the veil. I can’t see how the veil is liberating, but that does not matter. It does not matter that some people find it intimidating and frightening because it’s unfamiliar as my nine year old daughter described in her blog – none are sufficient reasons to justify legislation banning it.

Personally I am not keen on the veil as it overwhelmingly reinforces every conceivable Western prejudice about Muslims and Islam. I would even urge veiled Muslim women to consider the impact their choice is having on Muslim communities living in the West. However, from a gender perspective, I will vociferously continue to speak out on the right of women to make autonomous choices about their bodies whatever that may be – whether they live in the West or in Muslim countries. It is interesting to note that it tends to be mainly men that lead debates telling women what to wear.

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