First of all, what’s the difference?
The burqa is the most extreme form of the veil—the full body cloak covering everything from head to toe, with just a piece of gauze to see through. The niqab is very similar, minus the gauze over the eyes. These are not to be confused with the hijab, shayla, al-amira, or khimar, which are all various forms of headscarf that shroud the hair and neck but leave the face uncovered. So as not to get lost and confused in Arabic nomenclature, from now on I will refer to the burqa and niqab as a ‘veil’, ‘full veil’ or ‘full Islamic veil’ – even though, that in itself is a misnomer . . . but we will get to that.
Belgium has banned the full veil and France is moving towards the same position. Both countries warrant the ban on two main grounds. The first being public safety and security. This I can fully understand. There have been a number of incidents of criminals committing crimes or eluding capture behind the oblivion of the veil – most notably one of the 21/7 bombers who initially evaded arrest by wearing a full veil. Completely concealing your identity in public places poses a genuine security risk (you wouldn’t after all be allowed to wander around the Louvre in a cloak and balaclava) and I can’t see how anyone could argue that is doesn’t.
Where both countries have blundered though is through voicing their second point: The argument that the veil is a breach of women’s human rights, dignity, freedom etc, and, therefore – in the words of Daniel Bacquelaine, the MP who proposed the bill in Belgium – “not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society.”
I could quote Sarkozy on it too, although he says much the same thing. And I can see why they have said it. It’s perfect for political point scoring. By banning the veil on the grounds of security, you appeal to the right wing contingency of the country, keen to see something being done to combat the more extreme forms of Islam; but by also saying that you are doing it in order to ‘liberate women’, you score with the left wing liberals. It’s rare in politics that a decision can win you support from both sides. However, in trying to ‘have their cake and eat it too’ both countires have unwittingly waded into a quagmire of conjecture that has marred their decision and hindered sensible debate on the issue.
What is the appropriate stance on the full Islamic veil? Let’s start with the basics. Is it even Islamic? This seems to depend on who you ask and how you read the Qur’an. The text, like most religious texts, is open to all manner of interpretations and even Islamic scholars and Imam can’t agree on the position of the full veil within the religion. So aside from the religious aspect, which is tenuous, we then have to ask: Is it an oppressive device imposed upon women, stifling their freedom and severing them from mainstream society? Or, is it a reaction by Muslim women to the rampant Westernisation of the world and their personal stand against it’s intrusion into their faith? Again, depending on who you ask or what you read, it can be either.
What should become fairly obvious from these contradictions is that banning the veil on the spurious grounds of freedom is foolish and unnacceptable. What is needed is a sensible and open debate about the security dangers and practical implications of wearing a veil in public (the necessity of non-verbal communication, the dangers of hindered peripheral vision when driving and the concealment of injuries beneath the veil are all valid, logical points that warrant discourse), because a liberal, tolerant society, no matter how well meaning, shouldn’t impose it’s version of freedom on anybody else.