25th September 2010
Re: French Ban of Islamic Face Veils from Public Spaces
Dear Ambassador Maurice Gourdault-Montagne
We write in opposition to the recent vote by the French parliament and senate to ban Islamic face veils from all public places. The French political establishment may want Muslim women to expose their faces but through this divisive, discriminatory, and frankly xenophobic piece of legislation, the true face of French ‘laicité’ has been made clear. France has shown it has an intolerant ideology where women are secluded from society simply for expressing modesty; a hypocritical ideology where freedom and equality are exclusive to only those who tow the secular line; and a fragile ideology that feels threatened by a few centimetres of cloth and a handful of harmless women. The denial of medical treatment, access to education, limitation of freedom of movement, refusing child benefit payments, and consequently rendering to second class status women who hold an alternative view to secular philosophy, reflects the religious apartheid and fascist nature of this extremist ideology.
Many have questioned why in the midst of major economic, political and social crises, Western governments should choose to wage war on a piece of cloth worn by a few hundred women (if that) within their borders, other than to divert public anger away from political and economic incompetency. How convenient that at a time when the Sarkozy government is embroiled in corruption charges and pushing through unpopular pension reforms and economic cuts, national attention should be focussed on Muslim women and their clothing. Are secular liberal states so inept in solving their own major problems that they need to use Muslim women as human shields to hide their faults, inadequacies and failure in dealing with the real issues of the day?
Furthermore, it has not gone unnoticed that the ‘veil debate’ has simultaneously exploited and fuelled an increasingly hostile climate to Muslims in the West for cheap political ends. Many have commented that Western politicians have used attacks on the face veil to gain the oxygen of media publicity and curry favour amongst the rising xenophobic and anti-immigrant sectors of their electorate. They have unscrupulously exploited xenophobia to secure political ambitions. It demonstrates the cut-throat nature of secular politics where politicians have no qualms in whipping up hysteria about its religious minorities, competing in anti-Islamic rhetoric, and playing politics with their communities in order to bag a few racist votes.
Veiled Muslim women who may be forced to attend French citizenship lessons under the new law will therefore presumably be educated about a way of life that breeds contempt for religion, and where instigating prejudice against minorities and playing communities against one another is an acceptable electioneering tool. They would also seemingly be taught that the French view of the woman’s dignity is to criminalise her for her religious dress, and that freedom extends to the right to exploit women through pornography and prostitution but not to the right for a woman to follow her religious convictions free from harassment.
The ‘veil debate’ has exposed the failure of secular states to create harmonious cohesive societies where all feel equally respected. Secularism’s aversion to religious pluralism has nurtured an environment where racial hatred has thrived. Cheap attacks on the dress by opportunistic politicians have provided a veneer of acceptability for racist expression and anti-immigrant rants, fanning the flames of fascism and stoking tensions between communities. Xenophobic vitriol was given a platform, entertained, and tolerated under the umbrella of strengthening national identity. It has been the bigotry that has characterized this obsession with the veil, the antagonism of religious dress code bans, and the constant demonization of Islam that have fuelled prejudice and divided communities – not women’s clothing.
Via hijab, minaret, and now niqab bans, European states have exposed the failure of secular liberalism to accommodate the rights of its religious minorities. While secularism espouses freedom and claims to liberate Muslim women from lives of oppression, in reality it has treated them in true authoritarian fashion, forcing them to relinquish their religious convictions in exchange for access to basic human rights. It speaks volumes about any ideology that needs to subjugate the rights of its minorities and legalize religious discrimination in order to protect its values. No longer can it be acceptable for advocates of secular liberalism to lay claim to its universality and neutrality in securing rights for all.
Dress code bans have been sold as a measure to protect, liberate, and empower Muslim women. However, where is the justification in criminalising the Muslim woman to set her free; stripping her of her rights in order to guarantee her choice; expelling young girls from school and cutting women off from employment, in the path of liberation; dismissing a woman’s right to determine her own convictions in life, to safeguard equality; and increasing the prejudice, discrimination, and victimization she faces within society by stigmatizing her dress, to protect her? Advocates of outlawing the veil have argued that it cuts women off from public life – the irony is that it is prejudice and bans that have achieved just that. They have argued that it is a ‘symbol of oppression’ – is coercing women to leave their deeply held religious convictions through the arm of the law not a source of oppression itself? Furthermore it is not without irony that various ‘male dominated’ European parliaments, who have described the burqa as a symbol of the subjugation of women by men, see it fit to exert their male patriarchy to dictate to women how they should and should not dress.
If the French government wished to be a torch-bearer for women’s wellbeing, then why not appoint commissions tackling the causes of domestic violence, rape, and the sex industry in France – all of which affect the dignity of tens of thousands of women within the country rather than a few hundred? In addition, while accusing religious dress codes that reflect modes of modesty as outdated and oppressive, these same politicians ignore the objectification and sexualisation of women’s bodies in pornography, lap-dancing clubs, advertising, and the entertainment industry, all permitted under the premise of freedom of expression and driven by the pursuit of profit in Western societies. It is these actions resulting from capitalist liberal values that have dehumanized, devalued, and degraded women. Surely, for those who have a sincere concern for women’s rights, raising for debate, these forms of denigrating women should surely be more pressing than a handful of Muslim women covering their faces out of religious devotion within their societies
In contrast, Islam views the woman’s dignity as sacrosanct and has prohibited exploitation of her looks and her objectification within society. The Islamic dress code is one means by which to ensure that society values women according to their thinking, abilities, and behaviour rather than their physical appearance. The Islamic belief that a woman’s body is her own private concern and not open for public display, discussion, scrutiny, or monitoring – is clearly not a mark of liberation according to the Western liberal narrative of women’s dignity.
Ultimately, the outlawing of religious dress codes by Western governments symbolizes a failure to convince Muslim women, many Western born, bred, and educated to embrace secular liberalism. It is a desperate attempt at ‘forced secular conversion’. It is reflection of a weak ideology that resorts to state force rather than force of argument to convince and that is unable to protect its own values other than by stripping women of basic rights. The idea of increasing numbers of women who having tasted the fruits of liberalism and lived the Western dream being unconvinced by its ideals, and now adopting Islam as an alternative social and political path, appears to be a concept too indigestible for Western politicians to accept.
While debate has focussed on Islamic dress and whether it is appropriate for Western secular societies, the real debate to be had is whether secularism that is failing on so many fronts is appropriate to be idealized as the best system by which to organize society. The capitalist secular liberal system has caused chaos in the economy, meltdown of family life, and disrespect for women in society. Islamic laws and values offer society dignity for the woman, strong family units, and ensure healthy cooperation of men and women in public life. So in the end, dress code bans simply illustrate that when it comes to a battle of ideas with Islam, secular liberalism is incapable of rising to the challenge.
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
Women’s Media Representative
Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain