On Monday April 11th 2011, the French ban of the face veil in all public places came into force, criminalising Muslim women for simply dressing modestly. Any Muslim woman found wearing the face veil in public can now be forced to uncover and will either face a fine of 150 Euros or be required to take French citizenship classes, while any man found guilty of having pressured their female family members into adopting the niqab could face a fine of 30,000 Euros or a year in prison.
By forcing Muslim women to unveil, the French government has simply exposed the deficiencies, weaknesses and flaws of Western secular liberalism. 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 French secular fundamentalism or ‘laicité’. It has shown itself to be an intolerant ideology where women are secluded from society simply for expressing modesty, where all talk of human rights is clearly a fallacy, and where liberté, egalité, and fraternité extends only those who tow the secular line.
Women forced to attend lessons on the values of French citizenship should presumably be taught about an ideology that teaches contempt for religion; 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. Supporters of niqab bans argue that the veil cuts women off from public life – the irony is that it is insults, prejudice, and bans against the dress that have achieved just that – imprisoned women to their homes.
The justifications for the ban are ludicrous. They criminalise the Muslim woman in order to set her free; strip her of her rights in order to secure her choice; stigmatize her in order to protect her; and subjugate her in order to liberate her! The irony seems to have been lost by the French parliament, composed primarily of men, that dictation to Muslim women how they should NOT dress and ordering them how to think through threats of fines is the height of male patriarchy – where’s the empowerment in this? Muslim women need no lessons in ‘female dignity’ from secular states that celebrate topless beaches and secure liberty to express promiscuity while outlawing modes of modesty. Nor do they need lectures on women’s subjugation by representatives of a system that gives freedom to the objectification of women on fashion catwalks, and though pornography and prostitution but labels as outdated the belief of a woman’s honour as being sacrosanct.
If the French government wanted to be a torch-bearer for women’s dignity, then why not appoint commissions investigating the degrading impact that prostitution, lap-dancing clubs, and the pornography industry have on the ‘dignity’ of all women within the society – all of which run freely in France and other capitalist liberal states under the premise of freedom of expression and driven by the pursuit of profit. Surely, for those who have a sincere concern for women’s rights, raising for debate these forms of degrading, dehumanizing, and devaluing women should be more pressing than a handful of Muslim women covering their faces out of religious devotion and modesty.
This racist, divisive piece of legislation will do nothing but throw fuel to the fire of racial tensions between communities. French politicians have been playing politics with their communities, competing in racist anti-Islamic rhetoric and policies to curry favour amongst their rising population of far-right voters, regardless of its detriment on society. It demonstrates that secular politics has no qualms in stigmatising, and whipping up frenzy and hysteria about its religious minorities or playing on irrational fears regarding Islam and Muslims in order to bag a few extra votes. The cut-throat opportunistic nature of secular politics is clear for all to see, where instigating prejudice against a community is an acceptable electioneering tool to win a few racist votes and where politicians seem more than willing to use the Muslim woman as political fodder to feed their public rankings. The alienation of Muslims and a divided society appears to be acceptable collateral damage to secure political mileage.
This ‘veil debate’ has exposed the failure of secular states to create harmonious cohesive societies where all feel equally respected. Discriminatory government policies and cheap secular politics that unscrupulously exploits xenophobia for political ambition, has fanned the flames of racism and fascism, stoking tensions between communities. It has provided ammunition for far-right groups with anti-immigrant agendas increasing racially motivated abuse. Bigoted vitriol was given a platform, entertained, and tolerated under the umbrella of strengthening national identity. It is all this that fuels prejudice and divides communities – not women’s clothing. Secularism’s aversion to religious pluralism has nurtured an environment where racial hatred has thrived.
Niqab bans enforced in France and Belgium and also under debate within other Western secular states such as Spain, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have exposed the failure of secular liberalism to accommodate the rights of its religious minorities. Laws have been formed that target the minority based upon the prejudice of the majority. While secularism espouses freedom and claims to liberate Muslim women from lives of oppression, in reality it has treated them in true authoritarian fashion, legalizing religious intolerance and forcing them to relinquish their religious convictions in exchange for access to basic human rights. No longer can it be acceptable for advocates of the ideology to lay claim to its universality and neutrality in securing rights for all. So, although debate in the West 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.
These niqab bans are simply desperate actions taken by desperate governments to try to stem the rise of Muslim women rejecting Western liberalism and adopting Islam as their spiritual, social, and political path in life. It is an attempt at forced secular conversion – forcing Muslim women to leave their Islamic values in exchange for Western ones. The idea of increasing numbers of women who having lived the Western dream, tasted the fruits of Western liberalism being unconvinced by its ideals, and now turning to Islam appears to be too hard a concept for die-hard secularist politicians to stomach. As Andre Gerin, the chair of the the French niqab commission said,“..the burqa is the tip of the iceberg…..Islamism really threatens us”. Ultimately, the outlawing of religious dress codes by Western governments symbolizes a failure to convince Muslim women intellectually of the superiority of secular liberal values. It speaks volumes about the intellectual fragility of any ideology that needs to use bully-boy fear tactics rather than strength of argument to persuade individuals to embrace its values.
So while many French and Western politicians have labelled the hijab and niqab as ‘symbols of oppression’, these veil bans are also a symbol. They are a ‘symbol of a weak ideology’ that needs to resort to force of law rather than force of argument to convince and a ‘symbol of the flawed and failing ideology of secularism’, whose staunch advocates would rather play politics with women’s clothes than engage in serious debate about the true causes of women’s oppression – including the detrimental impact of liberal culture on women’s lives and women’s respect.
In this increasingly intense climate of fear being generated around Muslim communities in the West, aimed at coercing them into leaving their Islamic values in exchange for Western ones, it is vital that as Muslim women we continue to hold firmly onto our Islamic beliefs. We should remember the promise from our Creator(swt) of the rewards awaiting those who are patient and steadfast in their deen during times of adversity and difficulty. Allah(swt) says,
“Verily, those who say, ‘Our Rabb(Lord) is (only) Allah and thereafter stand firm and straight (on the Islamic belief) on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. Such shall be the dwellers of Jannah(paradise), abiding therein (forever), a reward for what they used to do.” [Al-Ahqaf: 13-14]
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
Women’s Media Representative, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain