By Lucy Emmerson
A few days ago, France’s ban on the face-covering Islamic veil came into effect, and all I could think was ‘what they hell were they thinking?’
Personally, I abhor the veil, believing it dehumanises its wearers, denying not only their femininity, but their very personality. I see in it many of the things I detest about the attitude of so many of the men I encounter in my daily life in Cairo. In the harassment I, and so many other women in Egypt, both foreign and Egyptian, suffer, I see not only outbursts of sexual frustration, but a lack of respect for women which is underpinned by a hatred for those who will not deny their gender by covering all evidence of it.
This sentiment was demonstrated vividly recently when up to 18 female protestors were detained in Tahrir Square, arrested, and then subjected to virginity testing, designed to humiliate and shame them, all the while male police officers laughed and photographed them. The motivation is simple; these men felt threatened by the empowerment the women were demonstrating by the act of protesting, and they sought to shame and to subjugate them.
I believe that many of the women who themselves voluntarily wear, or defend the culture of wearing, the niqab or burqa are of a similar near-sighted and self-interested ilk to the women who defend guardianship-laws in Saudi Arabia; laws which in 2002 led to the death of 15 school girls when the Mutaween (religious police) prevented them from escaping a burning school in Mecca, because they were not wearing headscarves and abayas (black robes), and not accompanied by a male guardian.
The decision of the French government to ban the face-covering veil is, nevertheless, absolutely incomprehensible to me, for reasons relating to both the principle of freedom, and to basic common sense.
You cannot force social cohesion, and attempts to do so will only drive the wedge deeper. The French government claims that the rationale behind the move is that face-covering undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society, and also that it diminishes the status of the women who wear it in a manner incompatible with the notion of equality upheld by the French state.
I disagree with the first part of the statement, and would argue that banning the face-covering veil undermines the basic standards of liberalism required in any democratic society. A central idea underpinning representative democracy is that it should defend against tyranny of the majority. Consequently, just because we do not like something, just because we do not agree with it, does not give us the right to prevent others from doing it, even if they are a minority of the population.
Unlike others defending it on the grounds on freedom of expression and dress, I will not compare my hatred of the veil to the lack of respect I feel towards girls in micro-mini skirts – that would be to miss the point entirely – the point being that this law is xenophobic and exclusionist and therefore unhelpful in the quest for shared cultural identity.
While, to some extent, I agree with the second part of the statement, that the face-covering veil relegates the status of its wearers, I would argue that enforcing this heavy-handed law is not the way to bring about equality of the sexes. Firstly, this is because while some women who wear it are no doubt oppressed and given no choice, there are others (in my opinion, although this cannot be confirmed, a minority) who claim to feel genuinely empowered when they go out wearing a niqab or burka.
More worryingly, the rise in recent years of women wearing the face-covering veil, both in the west and in Muslim countries, is a symptom of a worrying backlash against the perceived imposition of Western values. The Koran does not demand that female followers of Islam cover their face in public, only their hair.
This is demonstrated by the fact that it is only a small minority of muslim women who wear the full niqab or burka. The rise in wearers is a trend that is cultural, rather than religious, and this kind of law will serve only to exacerbate it, as communities who feel victimised by this kind of xenophobic law rebel against a society which they feel does not represent them.
The more we try to enforce integration, the more we exclude those who do not fit into our notion of belonging, and the more we drive these individuals to the fringes of society, the more we radicalise.
In an age of increased Islamic radicalisation, and the terrorist attacks which have resulted from it, this kind of legislation will only serve to fuel the fires of racial hatred, and provide ammunition to those who preach that the West would seek to destroy Islam. Islamophobia is not something that should be cashed in on, in a cheap attempt to win votes, and this move by the French government is ultimately dangerous, illiberal, and irresponsible.
Lucy Emmerson: is a British university graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from University College London, who have been living in Cairo since the beginning of the year, and is currently working as a Programme Officer for a refugee-serving NGO.
she is a first-time blogger who will write whenever she feel having something to say. Politically speaking she believe in a socialist-meritocracy-with-a-side-of-liberalism. In practice that means she believe inheritance tax should be 100%, hate ID cards, and think that university education should be both competitive and free. she see multiculturalism and open-mindedness as not only possible, but necessary, to create a better world.