Cold Comfort: Supporting Arguments don’t do Burqa Bans a Favor

The proposed French ban on facial coverings* worn by some Muslim women seems like it hasn’t left the news for weeks, with new developments popping up regularly and prompting, again, a wave of articles and editorials on the topic.

One theme that I’ve noticed lately is the tendency for people opposed to the ban to contextualize their opposition with a comment along the lines of “I really don’t like the burqa/niqab/veil, but I don’t agree that it should be banned.”  One Canadian blog describes it as “unsettling because it is often a symbol of feminine oppression,” and quotes a Member of Parliament, who says that “As a woman, clearly it makes me a little uncomfortable.”  A Globe and Mail journalist writes that “many Canadians feel uncomfortable seeing the face-veil here. It represents a physical barrier, which has no precedent in our culture.”  An opinion piece in the France-based Presseurop describes the burqa as “a barbarous piece of clothing.”  And yet, all of the quotes listed here come from people (of vastly differing political leanings) who all strongly disagree with a legal ban on wearing burqas.

This makes me wonder: what exactly is the function of expressing one’s personal discomfort when arguing against the ban?

It is true that such claims can be useful in establishing that one’s argument is coming from a certain social or political framework, based in ideas about rights or rule of law, rather than a personal love for the niqab (although such claims can also be made clearly without the use of words such as “barbarous.”)  The point that many of these writers are trying to make is that disliking something is not a very good reason to outlaw it, and that certainly has some value.

And yet, I find myself squirming a bit every time I see comments like these, because despite the ways they might be useful to the argument, they still stigmatize those who cover their faces in France, Canada, and other Western countries.  Even if women who wear niqab or burqas are shown to have legal belonging, their belonging within the Western societies where they live is shown as questionable at best, and negative feelings towards them are validated.  (Of course, that is exactly what some of the writers I quoted are likely trying to do; most of these aren’t exactly anti-racist sources.  That said, I’ve seen similar sentiments even in feminist arenas, where I think writers need to be more careful.)  These comments mark niqab-wearing women as legitimate sources of discomfort for those of “us” who come across them.  Ironically, such comments can even end up backfiring, by feeding the sentiment that leads people to desire a ban on face covering (which, in the long run, is probably a bigger problem than the ban itself.)

The comments also assume that there is only ever one meaning for the niqab, and that it is intrinsically oppressive, and only ever a negative experience.  In the bitterly, painfully cold Toronto winter cold snap we had last week, I found myself thinking that a piece of fabric designed to cover the face could actually be a great idea.  In saying that, I don’t mean to trivialize the issue, but instead to say that covering one’s face, as with many experiences, can have multiple meanings, and might even be to one’s advantage at certain times.

As Sheema Khan writes, in the Globe and Mail article quoted above,

the intentions of these women are diverse. For some, it is an act of faith to get closer to God. Some incur the disapproval of family, friends and community for taking this step; others are forced to do so by family members. Youthful defiance may play a role.

For those who are truly made uncomfortable by the niqab because they see it as a sign of oppression or sexism, let’s re-focus the targets of this comments away from the fabric, and away from the women who may or may not be wearing it because of coercion.  Instead, what should make us uncomfortable is domestic violence, it’s people who force women to wear things they don’t want to, and it’s the idea that human value (as a woman, as a religious person, as a person deserving of respect) has anything to do with what that person does or does not wear.  This will get us a whole lot further than a narrow focus that judges only the clothes and the people who wear them.

*Although not exactly accurate, I’ve used the words “burqa” and “niqab” somewhat interchangeably throughout this post; “burqa” is the word that is in the news most often with regards to this issue, but I think “niqab” is a more accurate reflection of what the proposed law would actually ban.  The lack of precision in the language used around this case could be a whole other blog post.

  • umm musa

    I think that a great deal of the rhetoric is by cynical politicians wanting to divert public opinion from economic downturns etc etc by finding a convenient scapegoat. Shameful.
    Another excellent article about the niqab ban is on ummahpulse.com
    http://www.ummahpulse.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=545:burqas-babes-balderdash&catid=22:jumahpulses&Itemid=130

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

    LOL, Silly Europeans!!!! if the burqa makes them uncomfortable, am I allowed to say that bikini’s and scantily clad women make ME uncomfortable? Oh CRAP I guess that makes me SEXIST.

  • http://www.blogistan.co.uk/blog/ Yusuf Smith

    These arguments were put forward in the “debate” over banning the hijab in French schools too: “I dislike the hijab, but I don’t agree with banning it”. The haters take this to mean “even those who oppose the ban basically agree with us that hijab/niqab is bad”. It strengthens them rather than weakening them.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Krista, your last paragraph is brilliant. Banning niqab will do nothing to stop female oppression, in fact one could argue such a ban only oppresses women further.

  • http://www.modwar.blogspot.com Joe Six-Pack

    In many places, women chose to wear the Burqa because it is dangerous not to do so. The hostility in the culture around this decision is based in part because it is generally so dangerous to step out of line in the first place, for men and women. This goes far beyond the actual wearing of additional or different clothing.

  • lark

    I think the burqa should be banned in the west, because it is forced veiling in many countries, by law and custom.

    The movement should be, not to protect veiling as a free choice, but to end veiling by force of law or custom, everywhere.

    It shows how wrong the priorities are, that this is the question: veiling as free choice.

    End forced veiling, then re-visit the issue.

    • Fatemeh

      @ lark: the point of this discussion is not to take a side for or against burqa bans. It’s to examine and critique the way the issue is presented in the media; please limit your discussion as such.

    • Fatemeh

      @ lark: the point of this discussion is not to take a side for or against burqa bans. It’s to examine and critique the way the issue is presented in the media; please limit your discussion as such.

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  • Thabit

    What i dont understand, is the fact that if you ban the veil you are actually reducing the personal choice of a woman who wants to wear it.
    Does this not constitute oppression by banning a woman of her freedom of choice?

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  • Laury

    I would say it is exactly my point to give *nothing* but political and legal support when I say I hate niqab but I’ll fight for the right of my sisters to wear it. It is a common and meaningful way of articulating civil rights in the States, at least. The most common one being (and no analogy being made here), “I despise the KKK, but I’ll fight for their right to march in a public space.” In the States, we pride ourselves on creating a space for practices we dislike to downright hate (It may not always play out that way, but it is a political ideal that drives many of us on the far Left to the far Right).

    I absolutely despise niqab. I would give every sister I could nasiha not to wear it. I don’t care what their intentions are: whether it is humbling intimacy with God to arrogantly showing up the sisters. Just as I assume they would despise the fact that I will *never* wear hijab outside of prayer (and sometimes not then) and give me nasiha to wear *at least* that. The point is that we support each other’s right to choose while we do not support each other’s choices. It is a crucial distinction to make. Without our right to hate each other’s choices while we support each other’s rights, we would be coerced into accepting religious norms we cannot.

    That is the function of saying you hate the niqab and you would fight for your sisters’ right to wear it. Without that, I’d have to join the other side to ban it.

    P.S. Your rhetorical turn to focus instead on domestic violence (i.e., the niqab is not important for us to focus on) is exactly that used by patronizing patriarchs (whether they be male or female) to tell feminists that there are other more crucial matters to consider so as to diminish our concerns: For instance, female religious authority is not that important, really shouldn’t we be focused on literacy? This is not a point related at all related to this blog, but I am surprised to see you using it.

  • Krista

    Salaams Laury, thanks for your comment.

    A few thoughts:

    You make a good argument about the value of supporting each other’s rights while hating each other’s choices (as you put it.) I’m still hesitant to fully buy into it, and I think context plays a big role. In a Canadian, or otherwise Western, majority non-Muslim context, I don’t think we’re in any danger of niqab being forced on us if we’re not vocal enough about our opposition to it; in contrast, people who wear niqab *are* in danger of being further alienated or marginalised by comments that continue to paint them as “barbarous,” especially when the whole discussion is coming out of the debate about whether the niqab should be banned.

    That said, maybe I should have been clearer that I was talking specifically about comments being made usually by white, non-Muslim members of the dominant society, who have a certain level of power to define who does and does not fit into the definition of “us.” The conversation would probably change in a different cultural context (which includes certain Muslim spaces within Western non-Muslim countries.) My point here isn’t that we should censor ourselves, but that our words certainly have different amounts of power in different situations, and I think that that’s something we need to acknowledge and take responsibility for. I still think that overemphasising opposition to niqab in this context can often do more harm than good.

    As for the “rhetorical turn to focus instead on domestic violence,” maybe I should have been clearer at the beginning of that paragraph (it’s an argument I’ve made before, which is probably why I was lazy in articulating it here), because I don’t actually think I’m doing what you’re saying I’m doing there. Basically, my point is NOT that people concerned about niqab should focus on other, supposedly “more important” issues – it’s that I’m not sure that the niqab, in and of itself, actually *is* the issue, and therefore, removing it won’t solve a whole lot. In situations where a woman is wearing niqab because of some form of coercion or oppression (whether that is because of violence or threats of violence within her family or community, or just overall social pressures that dictate that women’s faces need to be covered), then I would argue that the sexist/coercive situation is the main problem, and that the niqab is a symptom of it – removing the physical piece of fabric doesn’t remove the oppressive situation that led to someone wearing it it.

    For people who want to maintain their focus on the oppression that they feel the niqab symbolises, that’s fine, I’m not saying they need to focus on literacy or whatever in place of it, but I also feel like the often-exclusive focus on the niqab as a piece of clothing is a little too narrow. Does that make sense? I feel like there’s a better way to articulate this, will comment again if I come up with something clearer…