The reports that a French parliamentary committee wants to ban the full face veil in certain circumstances has caused outrage among not only Muslims , but some respected Christian commentators as well. As an opinion writer who has closely followed issues of human rights and freedom of religion for The Australian newspaper, I too received a flurry of emails when the news broke.
One friend and colleague — the editor of Mercatornet, actually – seeking my opinion expressed his own: “To me, it seems crazy, a violation of freedoms, a victory for a certain brand of feminism, etc. But obviously, many respectable people take a different approach.”
Well, I am one of the “respectable” people to whom he refers (I hope). I do not agree with the wearing of a full face and body veil in the West. In these insecure times there are good reasons for banning it in government offices.
I do not see this as a feminist issue. I do not see this as religious issue, despite the intervention of the Catholic church which has wrongly compared it to freedom for Christians in Muslim nations, most of which do not allow Christians any freedom to wear any symbols or practice their faith at all. No rather, this is a political issue.
The French have a huge problem. Due to a combination of their Francophone immigration laws and Muslim fertility rates, which are about four times the average in France, they have a Muslim population of about six million. However it is important to remember that this population comprises various types and streams of Islam, and this ban is really only aimed at the type of Islam which might encourage the wearing of the full face and body veil. In other words, it is aimed at the most fanatical and fundamental stream of Islam. And within that so called fundamentalist stream the full face veil is a lot more than a traditional religious symbol of modesty. It is a political symbol.
It is very important to remember this in any discussion of the veil. (See BBC graphic on this page for variations on the veil.) It is often very confusing for women in the West, because we see the veil as a form of sexual oppression. However, our Muslim sisters often see it quite differently. For them it can indeed be oppressive, in the sense of impractical, but that is unimportant compared with its symbolic value. For them it is a symbol of political freedom, not oppression. It was for this reason that it was embraced so fervently in Iran during the revolution, after being completely banned under the rule of the Shah Reza Pahlavi. The more it was banned the more the daughters of the Iranian revolution embraced it.
However, it is also true that there is a small minority of Islamic women for whom the full face veil is simply part of a cultural tradition. Many women wear it in parts of North Africa and it is absolutely mandatory in Saudi Arabia. If these women want to reside in France, they have to accept the other symbolism of the veil, and are unfortunately stuck in the middle of this. The latest proposals would prevent them from gaining residency. This is where the argument tends to shift, and subtle problems of what we in Australia call multiculturalism intrude into the argument.
Some people in Australia, and I admit that I have felt like this, think the current French approach towards any form of religious symbolism too heavy-handed, the result of an historically aggressively secular political tradition; a matter of cutting off the nose to spite the face, so to speak. Some years ago the French tried banning the hijab in schools, along with all other religious symbols. Recently they have had to compromise a bit, and although they will not allow the hijab , which is not the full face veil, they will allow scarfs. In Australia we do allow the hijab to be worn in most places, including schools.
Watching my former neighbours and my pupils in a Sydney girls school 20 years ago it seemed that one could get around quite well in a hijab, although it is awkward and many girls had started to give them up, especially when they went on to work or higher education.
More recently, however, a combination of political awareness and ethnic tensions in Sydney, and the particularly strident contribution of a particularly strident Mullah in western Sydney, has meant that to speak against the hijab is no longer merely to speculate on the future of an awkward garment. Suddenly girls and their families feel victimized. They can become aggressively anti the educational establishment (which doesn’t do girl’s education much good) and start deliberately wearing it — even to Bulldogs football games.
Australia’s problems, however, are as nothing compared with Europe’s. We have had an immigrant culture for our entire history of only 200 years; in Europe immigrant cultures, principally the new Muslim culture has quite suddenly intruded upon a nation steeped in ancient western traditions as well as juggling modern political realities. So the French have decided to draw the line. The line they have drawn is at the full face veil as a political symbol. Hence the recommendation that women who persist in wearing it will not have residency visas.
It seems glaringly obvious that since September 11 and the subsequent London bombings that we should go beyond the politically correct multiculturalism of a former, less insecure time. There are now definite Muslim enclaves in western urban centres where fundamentalist Islam can and does flourish. At the same time, the French government has a security obligation to all its citizens. This means encouraging religious freedom and tolerance, while at the same time discouraging political symbolism which encourages fanaticism under the guise of religious tolerance.
It is a new high-wire act we have avoided in Australia. The Europeans are not so fortunate. Blithely denying that this is a political issue, trying to turn it into a feminist issue or an issue of religious freedom, is really quite a blinkered view — a view which does not grasp modern cultural, demographic and political realities.
Angela Shanahan is an Australian newspaper columnist.