Ayesha S. Chaudhry is author of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. She is assistant professor of Islamic and gender studies at the University of British Columbia.
This summer, the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s burka ban, agreeing that the burka hinders Muslim women from integrating into French society. Several European countries, including Belgium and Switzerland, have also recently banned the niqab (face veil), reflecting a European trend that may well have an effect counter to its stated intention. Rather than integrating Muslim women – like the 24-year-old who brought the case to the court – this decision will likely increase a sense of alienation for women who want to wear the veil. And it will create an adversarial environment by forcing an artificial binary between national citizenship and religious identity.
Banning the veil is an old European practice with roots in colonialism, often spurred by xenophobia, patriarchy, and general hang-ups about the female body. Despite the purported concern for the well-being of veiled women, women are rarely (if ever) the sincere concern of those calling for de-veiling.
Take, for example, Lord Cromer (Evelyn Baring), who, as the British controller-general of Egypt, claimed to spearhead the emancipation of Egyptian women by encouraging them to de-veil. At the same time, he converted women’s medical schools into midwifery schools, reduced women’s access to education in general and, back in England, served as the president of the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Clearly, Lord Cromer’s calls for de-veiling were about something other than women’s emancipation.
Since the days of colonialism, Muslim women have become hyperpoliticized pawns in larger ideological struggles, and women’s bodies bear the burden of marking which “side” a society belongs to, by either donning the veil or removing it. Europeans are not the only ones politicizing women’s bodies – Muslim-majority countries have engaged in similar tactics, expressing their commitment to Islamism (e.g. Iran today, Saudi Arabia) or secularism (Iran under the Shah, Turkey) through forced veiling or de-veiling.
Neither forced veiling nor de-veiling actually serves the interests of women, though secularists argue that de-veiling “saves” women from patriarchal oppression, and Islamists argue that veiling “saves” women from an objectifying male gaze that turns them into sex objects. In both arguments, a woman’s emancipation or subjugation is measured by the amount her body is covered or uncovered. Both arguments infantilize women, expressing a profound mistrust in their ability to make decisions in their own self-interest. Caught in the middle, Muslim women simply cannot win.
In this context, it is especially important to put women first, to give women space to chart their own journeys, and to allow the veil and lack thereof to have meanings beyond their patriarchal origins.
Importantly, Muslim women ought to be free to make their own choices – which necessarily includes the right to make their own mistakes – as they navigate their way through multiple identities. As a woman who wore the niqab for 10 years in Canada through public high school at Streetsville Secondary School in Mississauga, and undergraduate and masters degrees at the University of Toronto, I am grateful to have belonged to a liberal democracy that allowed me the space and time to have my own journey and find my own way. I am proud of Canadians for rejecting a copycat proposal to ban the face veil in Quebec earlier this year. In this instance, the EU has much to learn from the Canadian model.