Secularism and the face veil.


In my many debates with the Islamic community on how secularism benefits the religious, a repeatedly made assertion is that secularism in fact oppresses Muslims. To highlight this, they point to the ban on face-covering in France. Often two things happen if I attempt to provide a secular perspective after this issue is raised; firstly I’m told that I don’t understand Islam, and secondly I’m told that I’m a white male and so bizarrely this precludes me from arguing back, despite the fact that they raised the issue with me in the first place. As it stands, I am secularist, and all of my arguments on politics and religion stem from that premise. And so when it comes to secularism and the face veil, I thought I’d address the line of argument from Muslims that secularism oppresses Muslims here.

I should start by pointing out my prejudices. I dislike the full face veil. I’m not a fan of anyone telling others what is to be considered “dignified” or “modest” according to their religious beliefs. I’m also not a fan of the subtle hint that it is a woman’s duty to ensure a man doesn’t sexually assault her, by covering up. I’m also not a fan of the apartheid history that the face-covering veil has, and continues to perpetuate in authoritarian and patriarchal households and states. But here’s the thing; it absolutely doesn’t matter what I think of any item of clothing that someone else freely chooses to wear. It it not my place to tell someone else that they are oppressed, if they are freely choosing to wear something. It is not my place to tell them that they are not freely choosing to wear something on the basis that I find their religion itself to be oppressive. Secularism ensures freedom of religion for you, as much as it ensures freedom from religion for me. It ensures you are free to wear what you wish, and I am free to criticise all articles of faith (including what it is I believe the veil stands for). All must be free to wear whatever they wish, without someone else restricting them according to personal beliefs.

The enforcing of the wearing of the face veil, is a different matter entirely, and the one’s doing the enforcing – thus controlling the lives of others – should absolutely be subject to state punishment for what is essentially the hijacking of someone else’s life. It is true that this is a massive problem in nations in which Islam is enshrined into the framework of state, but also in the homes of Muslims in Western countries, and it is a very difficult situation to address. It is however entirely self defeating to seek to free people, by oppressing them. The perpetrator of the coercion is the one violating the liberty of the individual. The coercion is the problem. The belief that coercion is acceptable, is the problem. Restricting individual choice is not a solution. Indeed, seeking to restrict the choice of all women, because some men are viciously abusive, is the essence of victim-blaming, counter-productive, and vastly anti-secular.

(Note; In a place – such as a trial or an airport security check or children in a school – where facial recognition is essential; the rule of law and security must not be sacrificed for religious belief, the face veil should be removed).

The fight to free human beings from those enforcing the wearing of the face veil, is one in which the conclusion must not be caging people by enforcing the non-wearing of the face veil. The conclusion must be freedom of choice for the individual. That is the goal of secularism as I know it. Challenging the narrative of divisive, oppressive structures and instead offering individual freedom – including choice – is the basis of a secular society. Any deviation, is the opposite of secular. My right to wear something that a religious citizen may find ‘immodest’ or ‘offensive’ does not permit that religious person the right to prevent me from wearing it, and so the same right must be extended to all.

I differ somewhat from Anne Marie Waters from the ‘One Law for All’ campaign, where she stated:

“But I have a question — even if it is a choice, so what? I choose to round up every niqab and burka on the planet and bury them in the deepest pit under the deepest ocean in the world — will this choice be honoured? Of course not, so what makes these women’s choices so much more important than mine?”

– She seems to be suggesting that ‘individual choice where it doesn’t interfere with the liberty of others‘ and ‘interfering with the liberty of others by theft, and restricting personal choice of all others in adherence to my beliefs‘ are two concepts that should be regarded equally. To round up and bury every niqab on the planet, requires stealing, and then telling others you’re doing it for their own good according to your own beliefs. This can in no way be twisted to represent secularism. Much the opposite.

I also think Maryam Namazie makes a similar mistake when she compares the face veil, to female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation relies on the clear violation of the individual’s right to her own body. If someone wishes the right to mutilate another human being, then they must also accept the right for others to mutilate their body, whenever those others see fit. The person being viciously mutilated has exercised no choice, and has had their most sacred liberty molested. Similarly, if the face veil is forced upon another human being against their will, this clearly violates their right to personal liberty, and lacks all choice. In both cases, the punishment should be on those who commit the offence against the other person’s liberty. Force is the problem. Not choice. Seeking to prevent force, by preventing choice by force, is absurd. Force is not to be conflated with someone freely choosing to wear a face veil. State punishment for all Muslim women, because some men force other Muslim women to wear clothing against their will, is a deeply oppressive measure. It is the punishing of someone for freely wearing the face veil, that is in the same camp as violating all other individual liberties.

When we on the secular left often point to conservatives (especially in the US) wishing to withhold the right for women to be free to control their own reproductive system, without interference from the state, it seems hugely hypocritical to then wish to withhold the right for women to be free to choose what to wear without the interference of the state. You do not fight oppression, with oppression.

It has been four years since the French introduced the ban to the country. Since then, Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali have both been fined for wearing the face veil, others who freely choose to wear the face veil are scared to leave their house through fear of punishment or threat. It is particularly difficult to consider the fining of someone and fear of punishment for freely choosing to wear an item of clothing, as “freedom”. It seems the opposite to me. It seems that innocent people are forced to endure unnecessary abuse, because others don’t like the veil. Ahmas said:

“My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head. The politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they’ve done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I’d be able to make it to a cafe or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favour of the ban said niqabs were ‘walking prisons’. Well, that’s exactly where we’ve been stuck by this law.”

– Further, a report by “Open Society” contains quotes from Muslim women – who freely choose to wear the veil – who have faced increased persecution in France since the ban. Karima from Marseilles said:

“I particularly miss going out. Now you have to think twice before going out and I’ve really withdrawn into myself a lot because when you go out people are really very, very nasty. Before, it was kind of OK. You had some stares, sometimes people took liberties and said certain things, but not as much as nowadays, especially since it’s been covered so much in the media.”

— The point is clear. State punishment for freely choosing to wear an item of clothing, creates criminals out of peaceful people who have harmed nobody, is just as oppressive, and leads to persecution and a feeling of being dehumanised in the exact same way that state punishment for freely choosing not to wear an item of clothing does so too. Muslim women in France freely wearing the veil, are being blamed and having basic rights restricted, for the patriarchal abuse of women forced to wear the veil elsewhere.

William Langley, completely ignoring the people victimised by the law, at The Telegraph said:

“…the public overwhelmingly sees the ban as right for France, beneficial to its Muslim communities and justified.”

– This is irrelevant. Secular civil liberties are the starting point that mustn’t be breached, including the freedom to express oneself according one’s own conscience where it doesn’t interfere with the same liberty for others. The ‘community’ does not get to tell individuals what it is that is ‘beneficial’ to their personal life. If every French citizen minus one wished to ban the item of clothing that the one individual freely wishes to wear without harming the same liberty for anyone else, the majority are no more justified in punishing that person than the individual is justified in forcing the majority to wear that same item of clothing. Indeed, if 99% are forced to wear an item of clothing, and 1% choose to wear it, that 1% should not be punished. The people enforcing it upon the 99% should be punished. In this case, it is those coercing that are in the wrong, not the 1% freely exercising their liberty.

Langley goes on:

“This, as Mme Amara painstakingly tries to explain, is the problem with all those charming liberal pieties about allowing women to choose how they wish to dress. Large numbers of the women who wear the burka – whether in France, Britain or anywhere else – don’t have a choice.”

– The implication is that we wont deal with those doing the forcing directly. We’ll instead punish those who choose freely to wear the face veil. I think he summarises his entire article, when he refers to the liberty for all to choose – regardless of gender – what it is they feel comfortable wearing, and to express their beliefs in their own way as “…allowing women to choose“. As if women should thank right winged men for “allowing” them certain liberties. At the heart of it, it is a very patriarchal, and ironically, very Islamist line of argument.

France is not secular. Neither are those who seek to ban choice. The state intrudes upon the personal freedom of the choice of the religious, where that personal freedom does not interfere with the liberty of others, and so it is by definition anti-secular. It is the state – through enforcing restrictions of wearing the veil – imitating the role of those who force the wearing of the face veil through threat, blaming the one’s they seek to oppress in the process, whilst claiming they do it for their freedom. It is the state controlling the private choices of the individual, and so it is a different side of the same coin that demands punishment for those who do not wear the face veil. The state should be enhancing a framework to help those forced to wear the face veil by abusive family members or partners, and focusing on educating children and adults away from perpetuating oppressive structures, whilst advocating secular democratic civil liberties for all across the World. The state should not on punishing those who freely choose to wear an item of clothing. They are not at fault in any way. Punishing the innocent, for the crimes of the abusive, is not a secular principle. It is also therefore vastly disingenuous for Muslims to conflate secularism, with oppression of Muslims.

6 Responses to Secularism and the face veil.

  1. Steve says:

    What a relief! I have been worried about the fact that I find myself in agreement with much of what I read on Futile Democracy. Such a degree of political convergence between myself and a right-wing apologist for Racist/Apartheid Israel and supporter of murderous Imperialist wars who aspires to go and live in a corrupt, degenerate and arrogant society governed by principles of greed and selfishness that rank it alongside Pakistan in unpleasantness is not good for my self esteem. Now, happily, you have penned a piece of soggy, wishy-washy liberal drivel that I can gladly tear into.

    The basic contention of your article is that the face veil or niqab should be a matter of free individual choice and that the state has no place in interfering with such individual choices in a secular society. You support the idea that people should be free to wear whatever they like as long as it does not harm anyone else and you clearly believe that the wearing of the niqab in public causes no-one any harm.

    Firstly, within the patriarchal and traditionalist conservative families and communities where the niqab may be worn there is little or no chance of women or girls being offered free choices. The pressure to conform to this degrading piece of apparel may be by brutal threats and intimidation or it may be familial or community pressure but in either case the question of free choice does not arise. I accept that it may be difficult or even impossible to tell whether an individual is really making a free and unfettered choice (short of long term separation from family and community) but I simply do not believe that if offered a genuinely free choice (ie. with no penalties for rejecting the niqab and the burka)) then women, especially young women, would choose to wear these garments.

    Secondly, the matter of individual freedom cannot be divorced from the wider societal impact of those choices. I am deeply offended by the sight of a woman wearing a burka and/or a niqab and my partner becomes positively incandescent with rage, but I agree that we do not have any right not to be offended. However, we do have a right and an obligation to be concerned about a deliberate and concerted attempt to de-secularise our society by religionists (especially, but not only, by Islamists) and it is our duty to combat and defeat these attempts. Normalising a situation where women from particular communities can go around wearing garments which not only advertise their own subjugation but make a very public statement about their own separation from, and non participation in, wider society does have an impact on others and this has to be put into the equation.

    I am not so sure that actually banning the wearing of the niqab in any public place is the correct response but I have no doubt that such a move could be justified in terms of the need to vigorously defend certain core principles of a secular society where gender equality is supposedly enshrined in both law and in popular culture – especially when that notion is under concerted attack. As for banning the niqab or any full face covering for any non medical purpose in workplaces, schools, public institutions (Town Halls etc) or in any place offering services then I think this is both justified and necessary. The whole purpose of the niqab is to make a symbolic public statement rejecting integration and to create a practical barrier to free communication between equals. If there really are any women who genuinely and freely choose to cut themselves off from society in this way then this is desperately sad and I pity them immensely, but this would be their choice. For myself I would choose to decline to communicate with anyone who holds me in such contempt that they will not even show me their face (yes – this is a cultural, but not all aspects of culture deserve equal respect and tolerance – that’s why we ban Female Genital Mutilation) but I simply do not believe that many women would want to be so grossly offensive to me or that they really wish to advertise their inferior status as someone else’s property.

    For the overwhelming majority of women in those communities where wearing the niqab is sometimes enforced then effective public discouragement (perhaps including an outright ban) of this statement of chattel slavery, female subjugation and aggressive rejection of integrated secular society will be a step toward liberation, sexual equality and the ability to make real choices that were denied to their mothers and grandmothers.

    Traditional Asian Islamic societies tend to regard woman and girls as property, as chattels and as having fewer (or no) independent rights. This was the case in mediaeval and early modern Europe as well but we had the Enlightenment and the emergence of progressive secularism and Asia did not. The recent murder by stoning to death of a young women in public, in front of police officers and crowds of onlookers in the centre of a large Pakistani city by members of her own family, simply because she had rejected her father’s instructions as to who she should marry, is an extreme example of this attitude. The enforcement of dress codes which are inextricably linked with this subservient property status is another manifestation of the same attitude. Every women who wears a niqab/burka on the street of the UK or France is making a public statement of support for this unacceptable aspect of gender subjugation and we are entitled, as a society, to say that this cannot be permitted. This is especially true when, in the vast majority of cases, we can be reasonably sure that free and unfettered personal choice had nothing to do with the decision to don such vile symbolic garments in the first place.

  2. pj says:

    I expect a follow-up article on “Secularism and the free choice to walk nude on the streets.”

  3. Steve says:

    pj is quite right – exactly the same arguments apply to public nudity, although I personally cannot see any actual or symbolic harm in people waking around naked (apart from distracting to those driving past in vehicles).

  4. […] the case for secular, liberal democracy on several occasions pertaining to the specifics – the veil, or sexuality, free expression, or the building of mosques – I thought I’d use this […]

  5. srishti says:

    Pretty sure the prison is one she can leave if she goes out with an uncovered face.

  6. Joshua Lord says:

    While I think that this article makes a strong case for state non-interference in the wearing of any garment, there’s one point I’d like to see addressed before I can really commit myself to this position.

    Firstly, I’m not entirely sure that it really is the case that the full face-veil in no way infringes the liberty of non-wearers, which is essential to establish because it’s a foundational predicate of your cogent argument. There is at least one way in which I think the face-veil does infringe on the liberty of others. By masking one’s facial expressions without hindering one’s ability to detect the expressions of others, a power inbalance is created. This imbalance is characterised by one person, the veil-wearer, having access to a wealth of communicative information – information that permits inferences about the intentions of others – that is simultaneously denied to these others. Take the example of someone exhibiting an angry facial expression: those that recognise this expression in another are likely to tailor their behaviour toward that individual in such as way as to minimise the risk of provoking a violent reaction. A world in which the facial expressions of others are hidden from me, while these same others can freely read all expressions of mine, is a world in which I feel significantly disadvantaged, and even under threat. If a fashion trend were to emerge which involved people wearing ski-masks in public, I’d probably welcome a ban on ski-masks in public places. I’d support this not because of prejudice against ski-mask wearers, or because of a visceral dislike of ski-masks, but because I’d want the power imbalance that this fashion trend would necessarily entail – in which I’m the disadvantaged party – redressed.

    Now, I do think it really matters that banning the wearing of the face-veil would be associated with more psychological harm being inflicted to those denied the liberty to wear this garment than would be inflicted on ski-mask wearers in the hypothetical scenario I outlined above. Nevertheless, I think that religious exceptionalism sets a dangerous precedent. One rule for one and one rule for another, just because people are especially sensitive to religious issues, contravenes the secular liberal principles that you and I hold dear, so a hit to the well-being of those finding any face-veil ban to be repressive may be a price worth paying to keep the power dynamic of public interaction as balanced as possible.

    Consider, we already take this approach with respect to the carrying of firearms. We restrict this liberty because of the power imbalance it otherwise creates. Admittedly, this is a more extreme example than the face-veil, but I believe the relevant underlying principle is the same. In both instances one individual has power over others by virtue of a possession that they are wearing. I’m sure that some people would dearly love to carry firearms in public, and restricting their freedom to do so must inflict a material hit to their happiness, but it’s a cost worth incurring to avoid the proliferation of profound power imbalances in the public sphere.

    In sum, I think a case can be made that restricting the freedom to wear the veil in public would help to protect the freedom of everyone to live in a society of minimised power imbalance. I’m interested to see how you’d address this point. At present I’m very much on the fence with respect to a face-veil ban, partly because I see some merit to the arguments you’ve advanced here, and partly because I think that, practically speaking, there’s a chance it would create more problems than it would solve; amplifying existing tensions between Muslim and Non-Muslim communities, for example.

    Essentially, I’m open to persuasion. So persuade me! 😉

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