Tag Archives: muslim

Thinly veiled: No ban can be an acceptable way to ‘liberate’ women

This week, the lower house of the French parliament voted by 335 to one to approve a law which bans “the concealment of the face in public”.

niqab french ban

The resulting debate has of course caused stark divisions, not least within the liberal camp. But the split now is not so much between those that are in favour and those against (with an excellent piece by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian), but between people who have a hard-line view on the subject and those who are as yet undecided.

It’s a multi-faceted problem which is not easy to pick apart.

Some view the face covering veil as a refusal by those who wear it to accept Western culture, the divisive marker of an unmanageable fissure between Islamic culture and our own.

The ban itself could of course indicate a deep seated fear of the stranger in Western culture, of dislike of the unknown and a rejection of those who are different to ourselves. My optimistic inclination is to disagree with this thinking.

The ban itself can be seen as the demand from Western society for a level of openness which is, in that arena, expected. This is a demand for women to contribute to certain cultural norms, norms which dictate that the face is a vital element of communication and engagement with others.

These questions have contributed to just some of the noise surrounding the issue and are of course central to the argument – an argument which cannot be comprehensively dealt with in one blog post.

The view which has attracted most attention this week, however, is that for which the face veil is a “walking coffin” – acting as a powerful symbol which represents the subjugation of Muslim women.

It is one many commentators have supported and against the backdrop of recent human rights atrocities in Iran – in regard to the stoning-to death of adulterous women –  my gut instinct would be to agree, strongly.

Yet gut instinct must take a back seat. After piecing together this puzzle of grey on grey I have cautiously made my decision that a ban from the State on women wearing face covering veils is unacceptable.

It goes without saying that we should not, as a culture, tolerate oppression. However, it is not the role of government to impose restrictions on women, especially if it is in a misplaced attempt to ‘liberate’ them. It is in no way progressive and wholly counter-productive.

Furthermore I find it arrogant of anyone who is a non-Muslim living in Western society to make blanket assumptions about why Muslim women choose to wear a veil.

To homogenise veil wearing women with such generalised statements and presuppose that none are making their own decisions is to infantilise each and every one of them.

I am not saying that oppression does not exist in Islamic culture, more that the wearing of a niqab is not a black and white indicator of that oppression, nor will simply banning the face veil prevent it.

The face veil can be a powerful symbol of an oppression that can exist but stripping it away will not prevent the subjugation of women in Islam as a whole and furthermore it smacks of hypocrisy.

Realistically, a ban could be more damaging, forcing women into seclusion as they feel increasingly alienated from ‘accepted’ Western culture and seen as weak instruments of male domination.

We do not live in a society where the state should intervene on this level – by telling women what they can and cannot wear.

However we go about tackling these issues, it is crucial that the State is not the function by which the rights of the woman are removed.

The free speech debate, where does responsibility lie?

free-speech

Valentine’s Day marked twenty years since Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Mass book burnings and riots in Britain followed, however the book continued to be sold and arguably, this set the precedent for current divisions felt between Westerners and the Muslim community today.

On that day the debate about free speech in Britain was blown wide open, and it is even more relevant today than it was then. Most recently a bizarre martyr has been made of the Dutch MP, Geert Wilders. Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, drew mass media attention to him as he was refused entry to Britain where he intended to show his film about the Koran, Fitna. The timely occurence of this ban has sparked mass debate about free speech wars in Britain and I recently attended a debate at Bishopsgate University; From Fatwa and book burning to Jihad and hate law: twenty years of free speech.

Although the general consensus of the speakers (including journalist and author Kenan Malik and the Independent’s Amol Rajan) was unsurprisingly in favour of free speech, it was the qualifications that each speaker chose to impose on that freedom which set the grounds for discussion. Until that evening I had dedicated little personal thought to the topic so was left with more than a few considerations to mull over.

Free speech can loosely be taken as a freedom to offend, a freedom which Geert Wilders was denied. To take this point, there is little point in engaging with a notion of free speech if you intend to limit it with qualifications. When you talk about the liberty to offend you are also allowing people the liberty to be offended and opening the floor up for balanced debate.

To me, it seems rather patronising to ‘protect’ minorities from anything that may be deemed as offensive. As one outspoken member of the audience said, “Do you expect us to fall at the first offensive comment?”

Let the debate commence and let those who deserve it be ridiculed for their unfounded prejudices. By censoring one argument you are in effect silencing the whole debate and preventing those ‘offended’ from speaking out themselves.

Maleiha Malik, reader in law at King’s College and speaker at the event, thinks however, that qualifications are necessary. Sure, the aim of free speech is to promote intellectual debate rather than hate rows, but is it naive to think the only thing to arise from an offensive comment is a fair-debate? Probably. But it is discerning where the responsibility for these qualifications lies that proves most difficult. In the debate of free speech, there seem to be few neutral voices.

A friend who attended the debate with me raised her concerns that “the media have reneged on their responsiblities” in providing a voice for millions of people that it should be representing. She likened the negative media attention on Muslims and Islam as akin to the ‘banker bashing’ which has proliferated the media of late. The media is failing to take a fair part in a debate of which it should be at the heart.

Is it then, the media’s responsibility to provide the forum for balanced and open debate? Members of minority groups, and indeed anyone with a voice to be heard, need to feel that that voice is represented if they can have any faith in the notion of free speech at all.

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