Saturday, May 22, 2010

A veil on libertarian freedom

(Apologies for the lack of links. Google Chrome doesn't like me today. Which is only adding fuel to my ranting. Will try to repair this asap. The links, I mean.)

If you take a quick scan through the French news websites, you quickly see that Europe is facing some grave economic crises. But still the French cabinet found the time to discuss a draft law banning the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Spain has just slashed public wages and is on the verge of economic collapse, yet the Minister of Work voiced his support to prohibit full Islamic facewear in the streets. Last month, Belgium’s coalition government dissolved and there was talk of splitting up the country, yet the parliament managed to unite 136 out of 138 deputies to vote through a law banning the burqa and niqab.

Why, in such difficult economic times, are European leaders investing such energy in the matter of women’s facewear?

Unless my French has failed me, it appears the burqa-ban laws were introduced with such displays of speechmaking that it is easy to assume the fate of these countries hangs on this single point of principle. One Belgian deputy admitted that ‘the image of our country abroad is more and more incomprehensible’, but said this near-unanimous vote banning the burqa and niqab rescued ‘an element of pride to be Belgian’. A French commission on the veil said the veil was ‘contrary to the values of the Republic’ and the parliament should make it clear that ‘all of France is saying “no” to the full veil’. The Spanish work minister said this clothing ‘clashes fundamentally with our society and equality between men and women. The values of our society cannot go into retreat'.

So how many women in Belgium wear these face-coverings that engaged the whole national parliament at a time of near-dissolution? France has studied the matter and judges that there are 1,900 women in the country wearing the full-face veil. When Denmark passed a law in January limiting full veils in public spaces, there were 200 women wearing the niqab and three women wearing the burqa.

Of course, the niqab is objectionable; it is indeed a mark of women’s oppression and isolation from the public world; it obstructs women’s communication with others, not to mention their vision and general mobility. And yet, at base, this is a piece of cloth. The cloth does not cause oppression, but merely reflects it. The corset and wired skirts did not cause the marginalisation of Victorian women, nor did foot-binding cause the oppression of Chinese women. When English women started to enter the public world, to demand votes and to do jobs, they soon swapped their corsets for the loose-fitting simplicity of 1920s dresses, and then, finally, for trousers.

As Muslim women become liberated, logic tells us they will take off their burqas by their own volition. A programme for the liberation of Muslim women – or immigrants in general – would be a fine thing, and yet this would involve changing their conditions of life and aiding their full participation in society. To ban the burqa is to take on the question of marginalisation at the most superficial level; it is to attack the symbol, to tear off the niqabs and to believe that this is liberation.

These burqa bans do not really ring true as genuine efforts to liberate Muslim women. The measure is less for the benefit of the woman than for the gallant state posing as her protector. In all those high-faluting speeches about their values, politicians reveal the real reason for these laws, which is to create an occasion for their own performance. The draft French law also includes a new crime, targeted at Muslim husbands, of inducing somebody to cover their face, which bears the penalty of a year in prison and a €15,000 fine. And so the state poses as the chivalrous knight rescuing women from their husbands.

There is a new and coercive element to these bans, too, which is the idea that citizens should be visible to the state at all times. It is because of ‘public security’ that Muslim women must show their faces, politicians said in both the French and Belgian parliaments. Who knows what they could be plotting behind those niqabs?

The reason for banning the face veil is illiberal through and through: we must show our faces so that we can be scrutinised by state security. For all the fine talk of openness in social relations, welcoming Muslim women into society and so on, the bans are also a cry of ‘Show your faces!’. A person must show their face so that they are identifiable and scrutinisable. In this sense, the burqa bans share the same impulse as bans on hoods in the Coastlands shopping mall in Paraparaumu on the basis that they might be a ‘security risk’.

Even if you argue that the niqab is illiberal, how much more illiberal is it that the state should tell a woman that she cannot wear one?

Banning is not the answer, to ailments that are either modern or traditional. Banning is never the answer: it is just an excuse for grandstanding and self-justification on the part of the state. Sarkozy may pose as the defender of liberty and equality; in fact, opposing the ban on the veil is the proper libertarian position.

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