France’s National Assembly recently approved a bill that would make it illegal to wear in public garments such as the niqab or burqa, which incorporate a full-face veil. Similar laws are in force or being contemplated in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. Supporters of the legislation say that veils are a provocative symbol of Muslim fundamentalism that has no place in a secular country. They say as well that the veil is more of a cultural than a religious symbol and that it is not essential to Muslim worship. Those who would do away with the veil see themselves as liberating women from a certain oppressive interpretation of Islam. On the other hand, opponents of the legislation say that it is discriminatory against Muslims, that it offends religious liberty, and that it is not the business of the state to tell people how they should dress.
Only a tiny minority of Muslim women wear full face coverings in Europe and North America but the veil has become a potent political issue in Europe, with a resonance in Canada. A Leger on-line poll released in July found that 54% of respondents believe that Canada should ban the face veil as well. In Quebec, 73% of respondents want wearing of the veil to be banned.
Martha Nussbaum, who teaches at The University of Chicago, has written (in the New York Times) one of the more intelligent articles regarding the controversy. Nussbaum says that banning women from wearing face veils is â€œutterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty.â€ Nussbaum bases her argument on both religious liberty and on practical, secular observations. She says there is a long tradition (in America) holding that there must be special accommodations made to protect the freedom of conscience and religious freedom of the â€œminority believer.â€ She also argues that laws about face veils are clearly aimed Muslims and not other groups. In some European countries, she says, public school teachers are banned from wearing face veils on the job although nuns and priests are permitted to teach in full habit.
Catholic nuns were covered
I have more than passing familiarity with the classroom attire of nuns and priests because I was taught by religious sisters in primary school and by Catholic monks in high school. When I was a student in the 1950s and 60s, the sisters wore black habits that covered them from neck to ankle. They also wore starched bibs and veils that covered their chests, heads and foreheads. The only parts of their bodies visible was their face from eyes to chin and also their hands. The photo of sisters shown here is taken from a book called Everett Bakerâ€™s Saskatchewan, selected and introduced by historian Bill Waiser. The sisters who taught me dressed in much the same manner and no one in my largely Catholic community thought this to be at all out of the ordinary.
There was an earlier time, however, when sistersâ€™ garb was a hot political issue, similar in some ways to the controversy today regarding the face veil. In the mid 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was active in Saskatchewan and promoted an agenda of anti-Catholicism and opposition to immigration from anywhere but the British Isles. A Conservative coalition government led by J.T.M. Anderson was elected in 1930 and quickly passed laws prohibiting the display of religious symbols and the wearing of religious dress in public schools. Most of Saskatchewanâ€™s schools were public, even in cases where the local population was mainly Catholic and where the teachers were sisters or priests. Andersonâ€™s administration was a one-term government but Catholics did not forgive the Conservatives for more than 50 years and generally supported the Liberals throughout that time.
Banning veil unacceptable
Nussbaum would likely have opposed the banning of religious garb in schools. Today she argues that banning the veil is unbecoming of a liberal democratic society. She says that a number of arguments are commonly made in favour of proposed bans and she deals with each in turn. Letâ€™s summarize her arguments, in her own words:
First, is the argument that security requires people to show their faces when appearing in public places. A second, related, argument says that covering part of the face impedes transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens. Nussbaum says these arguments are applied inconsistently. The weather can get cold in North America and Europe and people often walk with hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths.Â Yet those people walk the streets freely and no one stops them from entering public buildings in the name of transparency or security. As well, many others in society cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, football players, skiers and skaters. Nussbaum writes, â€œWhat inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering . . . a reasonable demand might be that a Muslim woman has a full face photo on her driverâ€™s license or passport.â€
Nussbaum says a third argument against the burqa is that it is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women. â€œThe glaring flaw in the argument,â€ she writes, â€œis that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty.â€
A fourth argument holds that women wear the burqa only because they are coerced. This argument, Nussbaum says, â€œis typically made by people who have no idea what the circumstances of this or that individual woman are . . . Do the arguers really believe that domestic violence is a peculiarly Muslim problem?Â If they do, they are dead wrong. There is no evidence that Muslim families have a disproportionate amount of such violence. Indeed, given the strong association between domestic violence and the abuse of alcohol, it seems at least plausible that observant Muslim families will turn out to have less of it.â€
The final argument, Nussbaum says, is that the burqa is unhealthy because it is hot and uncomfortable. â€œClothing that covers the body can be comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on the fabric,â€ Nussbaum says. â€œBut more pointedly, would the arguer really seek to ban all uncomfortable and possibly unhealthy female clothing? Wouldnâ€™t we have to begin with high heels, delicious as they are? But no, high heels are associated with majority norms, so they draw no ire.â€
Nussbaum concludes that all of these arguments against the burqa are discriminatory. â€œWe donâ€™t even need to reach the delicate issue of religiously grounded accommodation to see that they are utterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty. Equal respect for conscience requires us to reject them.â€
Burqa and misogyny
Not everyone agrees with Nussbaum. Feisal Mohamed, an English professor at the University of Illinois, responded to Nussbaum in the New York Times with an article of his own. Mohamed says that the burqa controversy revolves around a central question, Mohamed says: â€œDoes this cultural practice performed in the name of religion inherently violate the principle of equality that democracies are obliged to defend? The only answer to that question offered by liberty of conscience is that we have no right to ask in the first place. This is in essence Nussbaumâ€™s position, even though the kind of floor-to-ceiling drapery that we are considering is not at all essential to Muslim worship. The burqa is not religious headwear; it is a physical barrier to engagement in public life adopted in a deep spirit of misogyny.â€
Mohamed argues that in contemporary society we should look beyond the traditional disputes between religious liberty and political authority. We should, he says, begin to understand the concepts of â€œjustice and equality to be absolutely good with little regard for whether we come to value the good by a religious or secular path.â€ He believes that â€œbigots of all varietiesâ€ can and do plead for protection on the grounds of religious liberty to justify their practices. He also believes that the burqa â€œmight legitimately be outlawed as an instrument of gender apartheidâ€ but he agrees that such a law might create more divisiveness than it cures.
The question of the face veil is both real and symbolic but I believe it is more the latter â€“ women who wear the veil appear to be different in appearance and mentality, and they are Muslim. The face veil to many people represents something that they do not understand, that they fear, or at least do not like. It appears that most people in Europe are prepared to lend support to any legislator who proposes banning the veil, and at least some Canadian politicians are sure to assume the cause. But perhaps our own history provides a gentler and a wiser model. Most of the religious sisters who were my primary school teachers exchanged their long habits for modest street clothes following the churchâ€™s Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. I was pleased by that change but the choice was theirs and made without coercion, which is as it should be.