Tuesday 16 July 2019

Martina Devlin: We're shirking our duty if we don't ban the burqa

Sultaana Freeman, who fought a legal battle in Florida for the right to wear a veil on her driver's licence photo
Sultaana Freeman, who fought a legal battle in Florida for the right to wear a veil on her driver's licence photo
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Forcing women to hide their hair, and sometimes their bodies and faces, is a form of fanaticism amounting to repression

How many Muslim women cover up voluntarily, without any form of coercion whether explicit or implicit? Just a minute while I do the sums. Okay, I'm ready: the answer is none.

Even those who claim to do it willingly are brainwashed. They conceal their appearance because they are bulldozed into it by a patchwork quilt of reasons, from social to familial to cockeyed religious grounds. Free will is a fig leaf when it comes to the veil.

Muslim women in Ireland, as in other countries, may tell themselves they choose to wear headscarves. They may even believe it. But a woman living in a tight-knit immigrant community is under intense pressure to conform. Rebel, and she becomes an outcast.

So it is up to the host country to set the standard. It is not racist to want all women to be free. Forcing them to hide their hair, and sometimes their bodies and faces, is a form of fanaticism amounting to repression which we should not tolerate.

Far from protecting them, conditioning women to believe they must be shrouded in public undermines their dignity.

Here in Ireland, our Government shirked the issue when it had an opportunity to show some leadership on this divisive visual barrier between the wearer and mainstream culture.

In 2008, a Wexford school asked for Department of Education guidelines on whether the headscarf was acceptable as part of the uniform. The department left it up to individual schools.

This is not tolerance but cowardice, and duty shirked. We need policies on Muslim dress codes, and we should formulate them now while we have a relatively small Muslim population. Anyone who opts to live here subsequently will be aware of the standards our society is setting.

We are paralysed by political correctness, however; horrified at the thought of our Muslim community waving the racist card, protesting against victimisation, or complaining about restrictions on their religious freedom.

But the Muslim headscarf is the tyranny -- not its prohibition. The headscarf is a symbol of authoritarianism on the part of men and subjugation on the part of women.

The screened-off woman is also sending out a negative message, that either she or her family do not wish her to be a full member of society. This stance doesn't just affect those who cover up, but anyone who comes into contact with a wearer.

It takes France, with its well-defined sense of national identity and its significant Muslim community, to address the dilemma. A cross-parliamentary body has recommended banning full face and body veiling in state buildings and on public transport. Inevitably, this is misrepresented as an erosion of human rights. On the contrary, I see it as reinforcing them.

France is not the only European country weighing up bans. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Italy all either have laws, or are considering legislation, against clothing which masks the face.

One of my colleagues attended a media conference in Algiers last April, where post-graduate female students from the university acted as interpreters. These women, who were Muslim, were asked not to wear headscarves by the state broadcaster running the event, because it was felt they would send an anti-progressive signal to international delegates.

The young women complied, but were jeered at by men on the street as they walked bare-headed from the campus to the conference centre. Were they angered by these hecklers? On the contrary, their indignation was directed at the organiser for asking them to leave off their veils, thereby laying them open to taunts.

This reaction highlights the duplicity at the heart of any discussion on the Muslim female dress code. Women are indoctrinated by the dominant male element in their communities to believe free will is exercised when they cover up -- instead they are controlled, censored and reduced to chattel status.

We are repeatedly fed the subterfuge that Muslim women choose to cover themselves, finding it 'liberating'. Implausibly, the veil is even described as a tool of female emancipation: they are set free from the shackles of their sexuality, or so the deception goes.

The sight of a woman in a niqab or burqa dismays and saddens me, just as the image of a young girl tricked out like a Jordan-wannabe is disturbing. Any form of extremism, whether denial of sexuality or flaunting it, has ominous undercurrents.

Some contend you can't fight repression with a ban, and highlight the irony in such a move. They pontificate about incentivising women to surrender their veils, without specifying how this might take place.

While we can't force people to assimilate or integrate, we can frame laws and oblige citizens to abide by them. Many schools require children to wear a uniform -- the Muslim scarf should not become part of it. Currently, it is being donned as a way of testing the water in Ireland. If we accept it, the path is cleared for more restrictive coverings.

Such clothing reduces a woman's right to be a person, and dehumanises the wearer. Yet the Koran only requires modest dress -- for men as well as women. The obligation on a woman to conceal her appearance is a man-made one. Still, if it makes Muslims feel any less victimised, I'd gladly have nuns' veils banned as well.

Full body and face veiling are less an anti-western statement, more an anti-female one. Let's use the law to protect all women in Ireland . . . Muslim or otherwise.

mdevlin@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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