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.

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