Women: too weak to be allowed to choose?

The Daily Telegraph ran an article about Jeremy Browne’s comments regarding banning the wearing of face veils in public to allow ‘freedom of choice’ for Muslim girls and women; Frank Cranmer at Law & Religion UK commented on it.

How on earth is banning a woman from wearing a garment supposed to promote freedom of choice? It sounds a bit Henry Ford to me: “You can have any colour you like as long as it’s black.” So, women would only be allowed to wear what they choose if what they choose is in accordance with what the government thinks women ought to wear?

As a female, I’m not terribly struck with the idea of the government telling me what I can and can’t wear in public, and mandating that I have to expose parts of my body that I don’t want strangers staring at. Personally, I have no desire (at present) to wear a face veil, although I usually wear a hat. [Politicians, please note: my husband does not make me wear a hat. I just like hats.] But I want to have the choice. If I should, at some point in the future, convert to Islam, I want to have the freedom to express my beliefs in the way I believe to be right.

There are two problems with banning face veils in order to ‘protect’ women:

1) The ban would affect women who wish to wear a veil for their own reasons. Of course, those proposing a ban seem to believe that no woman could ever want to wear a veil, so even those women who think they’re acting voluntarily are really the victims of subtle mental abuse. The logical conclusion here is that those proposing the ban believe that women are too weak, easily led, and stupid to be allowed to make their own clothing choices. If they cannot be trusted to make the choices the government approves, then they will have to be told what to wear – for their own good, of course. Because they need protecting.

2) If women are indeed being forced to wear face veils in public in this country, does anyone really think that banning veils would result in a better life for those women? If women are indeed being abused in that way, then the abuser will simply think of another way to maintain his control. The fundamental point here is that if the veil is being used to abuse women, then it’s the abuse that is the problem, not the veil. The veil – in this case – is merely the outward sign. There is no point papering over the problem by banning veils without doing something about the actual problem. Unless, of course, the people in favour of a ban don’t actually care about women being abused – they just want to prevent women wearing a garment that makes them, personally, feel uncomfortable.

A further corollary to this is that if this country’s existing laws on domestic abuse aren’t sufficient to deal with an abuse problem manifesting as veil-wearing, then maybe we need to review the abuse laws. After all, why pick out Muslim women wearing veils? Why not orthodox Jewish women who shave their heads and wear wigs? Why not Hindu women who wear sandals even in winter? Unless, again, we don’t actually care about women being forced to wear particular garments – we just want to indulge in a bit of Muslim-bashing because Muslims are the popular bogeyman du jour?

Another disturbing aspect of the Telegraph article was the comment by Dr Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, who said the veils were “deeply offensive” and were “making women invisible”.

Again, this statement raises problems for me.

Dr Totnes finds veils offensive; well, that’s her choice. Personally, I find mankinis offensive, and I’m apparently not the only one. But nobody is talking about banning mankinis. Is that, perchance, because we in the UK – despite the climate – are quite comfortable with acres of pallid, hairy flesh on display in public places? It’s people who cover up instead of stripping off to enjoy the watery sunshine as it breaks through the cloud cover for five seconds who are deeply suspicious…

The other point is that ‘veils make women invisible’. How? Well, maybe Dr Totnes has a different experience of veils than I do. In my experience, the typical Muslim woman in a veil manifests as a person dressed in a long dress with a veil, usually in black or dark blue. Definitely not invisible in any way. ‘Invisibility’ all sounds a bit Star Trek to me – I had never previously considered a Muslim woman’s face veil to be the religious equivalent of the Romulan Cloaking Device. What is Dr Totnes a doctor of, anyway? If she’s working in advanced physics, maybe she knows something I don’t…

Unless, of course, Dr Totnes is not talking about actual invisibility, but metaphorical invisibility? Does she think that a woman wearing a face veil is easily ignored and kept out of public life in the UK?

Actually, I find that thought even more disturbing than the idea that an MP believes in some kind of strike force of invisible Muslim women. Because if the mere wearing of an all-covering garment renders a woman metaphorically invisible to society, then the converse must be true: women are only noticed by society if are attractive. Women, in fact, must be purely decorative – a non-decorative woman (or one in possession of a Muslim Cloaking Device) can be ignored. And that’s OK by Dr Totnes.

Because Dr Totnes is not saying “We need to make sure Muslim women can play a full part in public life regardless of what they wear” – she is saying “We need to make Muslim women dress more attractively before we can take them seriously as individuals.”

But what about the security aspects? Those who are not bleating about how face veils are the sign of oppression are waxing lyrical about the security implications of people wandering around our streets and schools, completely unidentifiable.

OK, these are my objections to that line of thought:

1) On a personal level, I’m very bad at recognising faces. Consequently, pretty much everyone is unidentifiable until I know them well. A face veil is hardly likely to make a difference (except so few people wear them in the UK that it’s an identifying mark on its own…).

2) Why is it so important to be able to identify everyone as they walk down the street? Are we in the middle of an epidemic of veiled Muslim women committing heinous public acts and I haven’t noticed? (Maybe they’re all invisible…)

The necessity for being able to identify a person only occurs in certain circumstances, such as in court, in exams, and possibly in banks and similar institutions (motorcycle helmets already have to be removed). However, in the first two instances, surely it is enough that the woman’s identity be established? Once her identity is established, she can put the veil back on. Identifiability is not a reason for a blanket ban of face veils in public – if it was, we would already have banned fancy-dress masks, thick makeup, and broad-brimmed hats (which prevent CCTV cameras getting a good view of the face). For that matter, a ban on face-coverings in public would have serious implications for road safety, as it would involve a ban on many types of motorcycle helmet…

Communication is another valid reason for restricting the wearing of a veil: if it is important for a person to communicate clearly, particularly to large groups, a veil may interfere with this.

But these are specific examples, where the restriction would apply to any kind of face covering, not just Muslim women’s veils. A particular, immediate, problem is identified; removal of the veil (whether temporarily, for identification purposes, or for longer periods, such as while teaching) is the only practical solution.

In conclusion, therefore, a ban on face veils (blatantly directed at Muslim women) cannot be supported:

  • If veil-wearing is a sign of abuse, then the abuse itself should be targeted. And, in fact, if this is the case, veil-wearing provides a useful signal of when abuse is happening – a signal that would be lost if veil-wearing were banned.
  • If veil-wearing is not necessarily a sign of abuse, then banning veils prevents women from exercising their right to manifest their religion and their right to choose their own clothes.
  • A ban on veil-wearing implies that women are not sufficiently strong, sensible, or intelligent to be allowed to make their own clothing choices, because no woman acting on her own volition would ever wear a veil.
  • Framing veil-wearing as preventing women taking part in public life implies that women can only take part in public life if they look attractive – and therefore that their contribution is decorative rather than substantive.
  • While there may be circumstances in which veils should not be worn (for identification, security or communication reasons), these are few. And the restrictions should equally apply to any other type of face-covering, such as a mask or a motorcycle helmet.

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