French MPs have finally taken steps to ban the full veil meaning that, in the name of defending the Republican principles of ‘secularism’ and ‘equality’, the state should determine how certain Muslim females shall dress.
One justification that the French have given, and it is a reasoning that seems to be rapidly gaining common currency, is that the face-veil ‘is the symbol of the repression of women, and… of extremist fundamentalism’.
But I wonder if that is a little simplistic.
To start with, it is important to dispense with two myths. Firstly that the wearing of a veil is a uniquely Muslim phenomena. It’s not. It has its place in the Christian religion, and I dare say other religions too. For example, one thing I notice more and more in my own Church is the rising numbers of (usually young) women who are electing to wear the mantilla to Mass. Partly, this is because there is a long established tradition of doing so, but also it is because (I suspect) more and more young women wish to make a statement of some kind; be it on their devotion to faith, or against the liberalisation of the Church they are in, or indeed against the society in which they reside. Whereas, admittedly, this veiling is within the context of worship, nonetheless I think Madeleine Bunting gets it right when she rejects the possibility that all women who wear the face-veil are necessarily victims of patriarchy, and concludes instead that some ‘young women are choosing to wear the full veil, seeing it as a powerful statement of identity’ (there is also an argument one could get into about where worship ends and ‘normal’ life begins – but I won’t).
The second myth is that such practice is chracteristic of Middle-Eastern, and not Western, culture. Which is perhaps true on the very superficial level of this particular kind of veiling, but the act of veiling oneself per se is not at all alien, be it in public places or religious. Visit a Cathedral or monastery in France or Spain or pretty much any country in Europe, and one would be expected to ‘dress modestly’ (this often includes the covering of legs and arms – ie/ no shorts or t-shirts, and it is not at all unusual for monasteries to insist that women wear a veil). Indeed, to bring it closer to home, I remember at my confirmation listening to two elderly ladies loudly horrified (they thought they were whispering) at the state of dress (or undress) of some confirmants, and unwittingly informing the whole Church that in their day it would never have been allowed and that ‘Father would have had us marched out the Church and sent right back home to put some clothes on’. Equally, calls for modesty have not always been confined to designated religious spaces; the public space also historically demanded certain minimum standards of modesty, and even if those standards appear to be increasingly redundant it is still not true to say they do not still exist, or that they never existed in the first place.
As such, the question of the veil is as much one of degree as anything else, and indeed the extent to which offers a very vocal rejection of the society in which it is situated (read Raedwald’s take on the powerful statement made by covering the face, here). And I think this is the key. Not only is the covering of the face a deeply anti-social act, it also constitutes a very visible rejection of the society in which the wearer resides. Just as wearing the mantilla has come, in my mind, to have both positive expressions (expressing a particular devotion) and negative expressions (establishing an identity over and against overriding trends), so the same is true of the face-veil; an expression which attracts all the more ire because it rejects contact with precisely that society that offered those wearers, at some point or another, a place they could call home.
Which is where I come to the novel position of agreeing with Mehdi Hasan, who quotes Fareena Alam in saying that ‘the controversy over the veil “has more to do with Europe’s own identity crisis than with the presence of some ‘dangerous other’. At a time when post-communist, secular, democratic Europe was supposed to have been ascendant, playing its decisive role at the end of history, Islam came and spoiled the party.” Now I disagree with the air of triumphalism, because Islam hasn’t at all spoiled the party; rather, Europe has sought for centuries to spoil its own party, and is looking for someone to point the finger at now that it needs someone to blame. But the central point is surely accurate – Europe has spent so long dismantling its own roots that it no longer knows who or what it is, and lies prostrate before a religious community very sure of who and what it is. In its defence, it must resort to the only weapon left in its armoury, one that it has become increasingly dependent on; the awesome power of the long idolised state.
Which leads to the bizarre position of a French government making it illegal to wear too many clothes, rather than (as has been more customary throughout the ages) the wearing of too little. For the French, the bogus principle of secularism is the shield behind which the attack on the face-veil has been advanced, even when the alternative they enforce, a secular space and culture marked by hedonism and immodesty, is precisely what the face-veil fundamentally seeks to reject. As such, the French follow a dangerous path, drifting toward proscription of that which defies or denies secularity and/or the character of the secular public space, even when some might feel such defiance and denial to be wholly justified. This is dangerous because is risks criminalising friend as well as foe: if secularism becomes seriously ill and is in need of medicine, then one would be ill-advised to criminalise the chap who might just bring it medicine.
I am not a fan of the face-veil, and think it is alien to our culture and history. But then I am not a fan of the path down which contemporary society is walking, either. And I think it unlikely that any state power that felt compelled to outlaw the face-veil would stop at just the face-veil; it would very soon find other dissenting voices, too.