March 2011

Few current issues have become more emotionally charged than the head coverings worn by many Muslim women, both in traditionally Muslim countries and in the West. This plays out in Turkey, where the ruling Islamist AK Party has struggled to allow women to wear the hijab in public universities and public buildings, something that has been banned for most of the past 85 years or so under resolutely secularist rule. Among Muslim countries, Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco have also imposed some restrictions on the practice. Now comes the latest salvo in the war on headscarves: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s introduction of a ban on wearing of the face-covering niqab or similar garb in public, which comes into effect next month.

A brief taxonomy may be useful. In America we tend to lump the different categories of Muslim headgear under the catchall term “burka” – sometimes spelled “burqa,” but this is incorrect. The most common form of female Muslim head covering is the hijab, a headscarf that hides the hair and may or may not cover the entire neck. The hijab can be seen on women wearing tight jeans, high heels, jewelry and makeup. It can also be seen on women wearing shapeless, long-sleeved, floor-length garments, sometimes with gloves, and in just about any configuration between the two extremes. There is the chador, the black Iranian garment that covers the entire body and the hair, but leaves the face exposed. Similar to the chador is the abaya, typically worn in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, which may or may not be worn together with the niqab, a veil that covers the entire face, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Finally, there is the Afghan burka, typically light blue in color, which covers the head and body, with only a grid through which the wearer can peer dimly. Walking the crumbling pavements of Kabul can be a challenge in such a garment. Eating in public while wearing a niqab or burka is all but impossible. In Saudi Arabia restaurants have “family sections” in which women can relax their guard to a degree, sheltered from the lascivious glares of single men, but no such option exists in Afghanistan.

The French ban covers only the niqab, burka, and similar garments that cover all or most of the face. Many other European countries are debating similar bans, though only Italy, which bans all face-coverings (including motorcycle helmets) in public facilities, has enacted one. In Britain, both the House of Lords and an employment tribunal ruled several years ago that teachers could be prohibited from wearing a niqab, and could be sacked if they refused to comply with the prohibition.

It would be unfair to characterize all proponents of any kind of ban on veils as racist, though there is no question that many of them, apparently including Sarkozy, do pander to racist sentiment among the electorate. But there are legitimate concerns about the proliferation of the veil. Many, if not most, Turks favor a secular society, and Turkey has succeeded where few other Muslim countries have, in creating a Western-style separation of religion and state. This separation has come under increasing threat from the Islamist government (the wives of the President and Prime Minister both wear the hijab), and it makes many people uneasy. In the West, many immigrant Muslim populations have failed or refused to integrate. Some of this is certainly due to the host countries’ own attitudes and official policies, which can make it hard for Muslim immigrants and their children, religious or secular, integrate into a society they feel is closed to them. But there is no question that many immigrant communities, unlike preceding generations of immigrants, have no interest in integrating, and expect the host country to change its laws and practices to accommodate them. Leaving aside the idiocies of many countries’ immigration policies – why, for example, can it be easier for an illiterate Somali to gain the right of residency in the U.S. than for an Indian with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT? – growing populations of immigrants who can’t or won’t integrate, many of whom seem to detest the culture and values of the countries that have taken them in, represent a real social problem, even if most right-thinking people would prefer to ignore it.

This is not to say that the “solutions” proposed by the likes of France’s National Front or Holland’s Geert Wilders (which include banning construction of new mosques, repealing the clause of the Dutch Constitution that guarantees equality under the law, imposing what Wilders calls a “head rag tax,” and a ban on preaching in any language other than Dutch) should be adopted. Wholesale deportation of immigrants, in addition to being unfeasible, is also undesirable. Banning public manifestations of religiosity is also unfeasible and undesirable. If a woman who, by tradition or choice, wears the niqab, how can banning her from going out in public improve her life? Still, secular Western countries – I wouldn’t presume to tell majority Muslim societies how to organize their social and religious arrangements – could apply some common-sense measures, which could include:

1.     First, reform immigration policy, not by banning immigrants but by encouraging immigration of people who have the education and skills to contribute to the economic and social life of the country, regardless of religion or country of origin. Does this mean that you may get an occasional suicide bomber who has an advanced degree and a good job? Yes, but a policy designed to eliminate the slightest risk of this will do much more harm than good.

2.     With regard to the hijab-niqab issue (I refer only to Western countries here – Muslim countries will need different approaches):

a.     Government employees may not wear the niqab or burka on the job (hijab, it’s up to the individual). As a citizen, you should be able to see the face of the official you are dealing with and the teacher who is instructing your children.

b.     Government offices do not transact business of any kind with anyone wearing the niqab or burka. Government employees should be able to see whom they are dealing with, while access to government buildings, already the object of security concerns, could legitimately be denied to anyone refusing to show his or her face (Italy already has such a policy, which applies to Halloween masks and motorcycle helmets as well as Islamic face coverings).

c.     Private companies or organizations should be allowed to make their own policies, but cannot require anyone to wear it (religious establishments excepted).

d.     Individuals should have the right to wear it in public places, including shops and other facilities that allow free public access. Access to public transport is more problematic.  Security concerns could dictate that all passengers show their faces.

e.     Driving while wearing the niqab or burka is strictly forbidden. Riding in a car while wearing it is no concern of the state.

It’s not a perfect solution, it may not fit all countries, and it is likely to infuriate some people on both sides of the question, but it’s a basis for discussion.

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