Women who wear the full-face veil are unwittingly caught in debates about human rights and national security, writes Alayna Ahmad.
The question around the purpose of the full veil, or niqab, already poses problems within Islam as a religion as there are many interpretations of this subject. Nonetheless, the veil for some represents their Islamic identity, which they should be allowed to freely express as a fundamental human right. However, the Swiss Italian-speaking region of Ticino has now become the country’s first region to ban the full-faced veil, infringing on the basic human rights of Muslim women. The Swiss ban follows similar bans by France in 2010 and Belgium in 2011.
There are around 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland representing about 5 percent of the total population, of which only 2 percent reside in Ticino. The vote, which was supported by a 65 percent majority, stipulates that “No-one may mask or hide their face on the public highway, nor in places open to the public, except places of worship, nor those offering a public service.” The Central Islamic Council of Switzerland were appalled by this decision and in a statement said that this was “yet another loud expression of social Islamophobia”.[i]
Whether someone chooses to wear the veil or not, it is their freedom of expression
Switzerland has recently tightened its rules on immigration and foreign visas, many of which are issued to citizens of Middle Eastern and Muslim countries. While the Swiss nation has always been proud of its democratic values and processes, and its ability to stay neutral throughout both world wars, questions now arise on how comfortable Switzerland is in accommodating people from other religions and cultures. Banning the veil may help women who are forced to wear it, but it certainly will not help integrate women who choose to wear it.
The non-governmental organisation Amnesty International also condemned the vote. Manon Schick, the head of Amnesty Switzerland remarked: “Fear, and the creation of a problem where there isn’t one, have beaten reason and respect, to the detriment of the basic rights of the entire population.”[ii]
Home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, France was the first country in Europe to ban the veil. The law prohibits the “concealment of the face in public space”, which includes any face-covering garment. Findings from the Pew Research Centre poll leading up to the ban in France were astounding – more than 80 percent of those interviewed in France supported the ban.[iii] Similarly in Belgium, the law prohibits any face-covering garment in a public place, on the grounds of security. Fines and possible jail time will be imposed on anyone caught in public with their face veiled.
Although these laws intrude on the fundamental rights of freedom and expression, the governments of France and Belgium are passing them as matters of security.
Nevertheless, it is insightful to learn of the history of the veil in Islam. There is no mention of the veil (as we know it today) in the Qur’an, which only asks us to draw a veil over our bosoms (24:30-31). During the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his wives and daughters and other Muslim women were asked to wear a cloak over their bodies so they could be distinguished in society (33:59).
I believe that most religious leaders fail to inform Muslim women that the veil, a custom borrowed from the Christian Byzantine Empire, was incorporated into Islam as an identity for Muslim women in order to differentiate them from other believers or People of the Book.[iv] Islam has always emphasised the need for modesty and dignity and interacting decently with persons of the opposite sex. However, the compulsory veil in some countries with Islamic laws is more of a recent phenomenon.
Needless to say, whether someone chooses to wear the veil or not, it is their freedom of expression. For example, Christian nuns also cover their bodies and hair. If we took away their right to cover themselves in this way, we would be infringing on their religious and human rights.
Banning the veil only aggravates already existing problems and causes more resentment from peaceful and law-abiding Muslims. I think that this ban is by no means an incentive to integrate Muslim citizens, as the women who wear the veil will only become increasingly confined to their homes.
Optimistically, activists and left-wing citizens are working towards the revocation of these bans. In the Belgian city of Ghent, a ban on headscarves was overturned for civil servants by the current majority in the city council.[v]
Governments need to find ways to integrate people from different settings and religions, because certainly nothing will be achieved by alienating minorities.
[i] Jessica Chasmar, ‘Italian-speaking Swiss region bans full-face Muslim veil’, The Washington Times, 23 Sep 2013, available here
[ii] Jonathan Fowler, ‘Swiss region bans full-face Muslim veil’, Agence France-Presse, 22 Sep 2013, available here
[iii] Steven Erlanger, ‘Parliament moves France closer to a ban on facial veils’, The New York Times, 13 Jul 2010, available here
[iv] Alayna Ahmad, ‘Are Muslim women really second class citizens?’ HuffPost Religion, 27 Dec 2012, available here
[v] ‘Belgian city scraps headscarf ban imposed by center-right in 2007’, 28 May 2013, Reuters, available here