The question of the veil has become
a heated debate in the British media. In this debate some fundamental
principles seem to be at stake: Individual freedom to practice one’s
religion, freedom of choice, freedom of clothing and discrimination
against a particular community, that is, the so-called Moslem community.
Islamists and some human rights activists maintain that the so-called
Moslem community is being stigmatized and have been under racist
attack since September 11th. They argue that the latest attempts
to ban burke or the nighab is a violation of individual freedom
and another racist attack on Moslems. Let’s examine these issues
Two events following one another brought up the question of the
Islamic veil in the British media: Jack Straw’s comment on the women
wearing the nighab and the case of Aishah Azmi, a 24 year old support
teacher, who was ordered to take off her full veil, including the
nighab. She took the school to court and the court decided in the
school’s favour, and so she appealed against the court’s decision.
In my opinion defending the right to wear the veil in any form
or shape and in any circumstances as freedom of choice is fallacious.
It overlooks other, just as important, rights recognised by modern
civil society. In unconditionally defending the right to wear the
veil, one comes, at best, in collision with other set of rights,
i.e. children’s rights, women’s rights, societal rights, and the
principle of secularism. In debating about the freedom of wearing
the veil, one must take different circumstances into consideration.
1. The age of the person wearing the veil. 2. The extent of the
veil and 3. Where the veil is worn.
Why are these factors relevant in the discussion?
First and foremost it is important to define what the veil is.
Is it only a fashion item, a mere clothing style? The argument that
classifies the veil as a style of clothing is totally misleading.
The veil is a religious ritual, a religious costume. Moreover, nowadays
the veil has become the political banner of a political movement,
namely, political Islam. The veil has become the symbol of Islamic
power. Wherever, Islamists gain power, they force the veil on women,
as a sign of their victory and supremacy.
Why is this argument relevant to our discussion? It may be argued
that irrespective of its religious or political character and significance,
one must be free to wear any “political or religious symbol” one
chooses to wear. My response, and I believe many others’, to this
is a categorical NO. It must be said that in most countries, including
Western democracies, there are certain dress codes at workplaces
and wearing different political symbols or religious ones are not
allowed in the workplace. Therefore, the veil must also be viewed
in this light. We should tear out all this romantic falsification
surrounding the veil. The veil is a religious and political symbol
of a religion and movement that degrades and deprives women.
The veil as a symbol of women’s subjugation
The veil is both the symbol and the tool for women’s subjugation.
Islam, as in fact, all other religions, is a misogynist ideology.
Islam is a direct product of sheer patriarchy. Islam, particularly,
due to its earthly characteristics, penetrates every aspect of private
and social lives of men and women. A woman, according to Islam,
is an extension and subject of a man. She does not have an independent
identity and is defined by her master. The veil has been prescribed
to hide men’s property from potential violators. A “free” woman,
according to Islam, is considered an open and free target, a free
It is absurd to regard the veil as a fashion item, or a dress
style. We should define the veil as it really is, and as it really
functions in the lives of many women under the rule of Islam: a
symbol of servitude and subjugation.
Nevertheless, it may be argued that, if one chooses a life of
servitude, one should be free to do so. The modern civil society
has a different answer to this argument. In a free, modern civil
society when safeguarding human rights, children’s rights or women’s
rights there are laws limiting an individual’s right to harm oneself
or to deprive oneself of certain rights and privileges. By the same
token, there must be some limitations imposed on the use of the
veil. This is perhaps where some disagreements arise. This is where
those above-mentioned circumstances come into the picture.
Veil must be banned for underage girls
One of the achievements of the modern civil society is the recognition
of society’s responsibility to safeguard children from any kind
of abuse. The society must be responsible for a child’s safety,
happiness, health and their normal growth and development. Past
decades have witnessed a great struggle by decent, human-loving
individuals to establish the concept of children’s rights, to recognise
a child as an individual and not the property of their parents.
This is a landmark achievement, which contradicts the essence of
religion. According to Islam, the child is the property of the father
or grandfather and they even have the right to take the child’s
life. Therefore, the modern children rights charters are in basic
contradictions with religious laws and customs. They, in fact, nullify
certain religious or “divine” rights. This must extend to girls
living in Islamic communities.
The veil is a pure discrimination against girls. It hampers their
physical and mental development. It segregates them from the rest
of the society. It restricts their growth and future development.
It assigns to them a prescribed social role according to their gender
and a division of labour. Therefore it must be banned. Society is
duty-bound to safeguard free, healthy and normal development of
these girls. It is a crime to ignore this obligation. Freedom of
choice is purely nonsensical regarding the veil for underage girls.
“A child has no religion”. It is the parents’ religion that is imposed
on the child. The society must respect the child’s right to a free
development. Just the same way that modern society recognises the
undeniable right to education for all children, bans child labour
and regards physical abuse of children as a major crime, it must
also ban the veil for underage girls. This must be added to all
international children’s rights charters. The veil is a physical,
mental and social abuse of girls and it must be recognised as such
by the international community.
Secular society verses the veil
In a secular society, religion must be a private affair of any
individual. The state must be separated from religion and stay away
from promoting any religion. A secular society can better defend
individual rights and civil liberties. Contrary to the commonly
held belief, religious hatred or communal stigmatization can better
be avoided in a secular society. In a secular society wearing or
carrying any religious symbol at state institutions and in the place
of education must be prohibited. By doing this, the state and the
educational system do not promote any particular religion. Religion
remains in the private sphere and clashes between followers of different
religions is somewhat avoided. Therefore, I believe that the recent
legislation in France regarding the banning of wearing any religious
symbols in state institutions and schools is an appropriate step
in the right direction.
However, I believe that its main shortcoming is to still allow
private religious schools to operate. This leaves the girl’s fate
in the hands of religiously-fanatic parents to send her to private
religious school and ghettoize her life completely. This is not
respecting individual freedom and civil liberties; this is discrimination
against a group of girls who are isolated from the society at large
and their lives are ghettoized by their parents and so-called leaders
of their communities. The society must defend the right of children;
girls living in Islamic communities are no exception. The society
and the state have responsibility for their normal, healthy and
Burke or the nighab, an individual right or a societal
The veil comes in different forms and shapes, from a scarf, to
a robe-like loose garment that covers the woman’s whole body (it
looks some what different in different countries, or according to
different Islamic sect’s rules) and finally the burke or the nighab.
Burke has become known as the symbol of Taliban, the most severe
restriction imposed on women’s appearance.
Must a woman be allowed to cover herself under this most severe
form of the veil? In my opinion: NO. The banning of burke or the
nighab can be argued from two angles, 1) the societal right and
2) the women’s right.
Firstly, in my opinion, when dealing with burke or the nighab,
we surpass the sphere of individual rights. Here, we enter the sphere
of what I call societal rights. The person under this kind of veil
has no identity in the face of fellow citizens. The society cannot
work with faceless humans. At a workplace, and I mean any workplace,
it is the right of the fellow workers and customers to see the face
of their colleagues or the personnel. There is also the issue of
trust at stake. You can not trust the person who has covered their
face. Eyes and facial expressions are the key to communication,
if you hide these, there can be no real communication. Therefore,
wearing burke or the nighab must be banned at the workplace.
I believe that the question of trust and identity goes further
than the workplace. It is just as important on the bus, in the park,
in the recreation ground, etc, that you can see the face of the
person in your immediate surroundings. Here it is the question of
individual rights verses the societal rights. There are instances
where the society rightfully decides to deprive certain individuals
of certain rights for the benefit of society as a whole. For example,
banning smoking in public places and imposing severe restrictions
on smokers, limits the individual rights of smokers, but it is defended
on the basis of health benefit for the whole society. Burke or the
nighab must be banned for the benefit of society.
Secondly, we argued above, that the veil is a symbol and a tool
for women’s subjugation and degradation. This is one of the main
reasons for demanding that it be banned for underage girls. Nevertheless,
we agreed that in a free society an individual has the right to
choose servitude, if he/she chooses to do so. However, we also argued
that there are certain limitations imposed on self-harming practices
by individuals. Female circumcision, which after a long and hard
battle became known as what the practice really is, being female
genital mutilation, is now banned by many Western governments. Women
rights activists had to fight vigorously in order to bring consciousness
about this brutal religious practice and succeeded to ban it in
these countries. There are many different religious sects and not
all their practices are permitted by the law. Therefore, religious
freedom does not mean freedom to practice just any religious command
I believe that burke or the nighab should also be categorized
as those religious practices prohibited by the law. Burke or the
nighab deprives a woman of any identity. By allowing its use, we
recognise the existence of some identity-less women who walk around
in a ghost-like shape. This is a real insult to human dignity. The
society should not permit such degree of degradation and humiliation
of humans. This is outrageous. This must fall under the category
of the limitations society imposes on self-harming practices. I
add in passing that I doubt deeply the nature of voluntary and free
choice regarding the veil, particularly in this severe shape. But
we will not get into this debate here.
We should redefine the veil. We should debate this question widely
and openly. Hopefully, we come to the agreement that certain limitations
must be imposed on the veil: banning of all shapes of the veil for
underage girls. The use of the veil at public workplaces and educational
institutions and total ban on burke and the nighab.