Friday, April 23, 2010

To Veil or Not To Veil

At the international (and transnational) law and politics blog, Opinio Juris, Julian Ku asks,“Do the Face-Veil Bans Violate International Law?” I hope the short answer is “yes,” but some precedent suggests otherwise so I may be proven wrong.

In my first comment to Julian’s post I wrote: For a pellucid perusal through the relevant issues, please see Ben Saul’s article, “Wearing Thin: Restrictions on Islamic Headscarves and Other Religious Symbols,” Forced Migration, Human Rights and Security, J. McAdam, ed., (Portland, OR: Hart, 2008): 181-212; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 08/128; Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 09-56. SSRN:

One of the comments, by a professor of law at the University of Luxembourg:

An important issue is security. Hold-ups have been committed recently in France by people wearing face-veil, that is covering them from head to feet. It should indeed be clear that it is what the target of the law is: burqas covering women, or whoever is under this cloth, from head to feet, sometimes even with gloves.

In other words, wearing the burqa might be a religious command, but it could be used by anybody to hide, and has been by people who were probably neither women, nor muslims [sic]. And in present times, that is not something you can afford.

To which “david” rightly responded:

That’s brilliant Gilles, a really fantastic point you’ve made, because banning the burqa is surely going to stop bank robbers from covering themselves up. And I suppose we should outlaw wigs too, because although they bring succor to those undergoing chemotherapy, they can also be used to disguise one’s true identity.

Give us a break.

And I could not resist chiming in once more:

Indeed, Halloween masks have been used by not a few criminals here in the states but I’m not aware of any proposed legislation to ban them.

And wearing the burqa or hijab is not a (Quranic) religious obligation (nor an injunction derived from hadith), in fact, it’s safe to say that veiling in general has been transformed by mass media in North America and Europe into a trope for and symbol of “many-things-Muslim” in an ideologically motivated discourse. Hence, and for example, veiling becomes a thinly veiled discourse, say, between Islamists of various sorts and secularists of various stripes (as in both Iran and Turkey in the Islamic world and in France and elsewhere in Europe), one in which the concrete choice of Muslim women from around the world is submerged if not trivialized, and the variegated motley reasons (not all of which are simply and solely ‘religious,’ in fact, some we might rightly characterize as ‘Liberal’ or emancipatory) for veiling are ill-understood or ignored. As one author writes, Among countless other meanings, it [veiling] might make specific statements about a women’s piety, her values regarding sexual modesty, her resistance to Western notions of sexuality, he desire for privacy or mobility in male-dominated environments, or her membership in a political or national movement.

The tradition of veiling and modest dress pre-dates Islam, “acting as a marker of class, faith, ethnicity and age in many cultures.” Veiling is often Quranic in inspiration insofar as modest dress is recommended and veiling is thought to exemplify such modesty for women (the relevant Quranic verses, 24: 30-31, ‘direct both Muslim men and women to dress and interact modestly, and also instruct women not to display their beauty except to their husbands and close relatives’).

When one examines the ostensible reasons for banning ”the veil” one finds them chock full of false assumptions, stereotypes and anxieties and thus success in the endeavor to deny this practice will only serve to prolong and exacerbate religious, cultural and political conflict, at the very least it will do nothing by way of addressing “national security” concerns with terrorism.

Recommended Reading:

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila, ed. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Afkhami, Mahnaz, ed. Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, ed. Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. New York: Olive Branch Press/Interlink, 2005.
  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Avi, Sajida Sultani and Homa Hoodfar, eds. The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.
  • Bowen, John R. Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. New York: Berg, 1999.
  • Esposito, John L. and François Burgat, eds. Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam, Gender, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Keaton, Trica Danielle. Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics & Social Exclusion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • Khan, Shahnaz. Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, revised ed., 1987.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. New York: Perseus Books, 1992.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory. London: Zed Books, 1996.
  • Nouraie-Simone, Feresteh, ed. On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era. New York: The Feminist Press, 2005.
  • Ozdalga, Elisabeth. The Veiling Issue, Official Secularism and Popular Islam in Modern Turkey. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1998.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Shirazi, Fagheh. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001.
  • Stillman, Yedida K. Arab Dress: From the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000.

See too, these posts at IntLawGrrls: The Politics of the Veil, The Values of the Veil, and Politics of the Veil bis.

Update: By way of clarification, I am not in favor of the State enforcing a putative religious requirement for women to “veil,” believing this is a matter of private, free choice on the part of women. And this is in keeping with the Qur’ān (2: 256), which states “There is no compulsion in religion.” Thus, for instance, what occurs in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s imposition of the chador after the 1979 revolution, the Taliban’s imposition of the burqa‘ after their accession to power in 1997, as well as the violent coercion in the name of Islam by non-State actors and groups to “enforce” veiling of one kind or another is contrary to both Liberal principles and the Qur’ān. There’s a nice online treatment of this topic from an enlightened Islamic perspective here and here.


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