Religion

Is There a Point to Veil Bans?

While some have predicted that everyone on this site will have to wear burqas in order to appease the wrath of the religious, in other parts of the world, the face veil is becoming far less popular in other parts of the world. In some countries, the move has been to ban women from covering their faces in public, for reasons varying from cultural integration to national security to women’s liberation.

Many who argue against face veil bans are citing morally relativistic reasons for opposing them, whether they realize it or not. This is especially the case when it comes to women’s rights and LGBT rights, along the lines of “Those of us who are over here will keep our freedom and our universal human right and continue to evolve our culture. You, over there, born into oppressive cultures? We won’t try to impose things like freedom and rights on you. Continue persecuting and oppressing as you see fit. ”

Without moral relativism, you could say that bans would prevent women from being compelled to cover their faces, which would be a step forward. In actuality, such laws are questionable — not for morally relativistic reasons, but because they are utterly counterproductive.

In the best case scenario as can be imagined for such comprehensive covering, the women who wear full face veils sincerely believe that it is their firm religious duty to do so (the BBC has excellent coverage of such women as well as a handy illustrated guide to different forms of Islamic veiling). In the worst case scenario, women might be forced by the men in their lives to wear a full face veil when leaving the house.

There can be some Stockholm Syndrome-esque overlap between those two categories; if you are told your whole life that your body is a source of sin, pollution, shame, and temptation for poor innocent men who cannot help themselves, of course you would want to cover it.

Whichever way, if a woman sincerely thinks that she should cover her face, or the man in her life won’t let her out without a face covering, some law would not compel her to go about uncovered. All that bans would do is drive these women further into isolation from society — they wouldn’t be able to leave their houses at all, shut away by their own will or someone else’s. There is no way that creating more deeply entrenched subcultures, ones wholly detached from the rest of the population, will lead to anything good.

On a wholly personal note, I used to wear the headscarf as well as long, loose clothing, and would have started covering my face of my own volition had my father not forbade me from doing so (he understood the stigma of it better than my idealistic teenage self did). I sincerely believed that if a man saw me and felt that I was attractive that I was a sinner for provoking him, and that anything he did (harassment, rape, whatever) would be my fault for tempting his base male nature.

(I was quite a fetching young lass, after all.)

What helped to change my mind? Because I was not shunned by society for dressing differently, I was able to come into contact with people with different views from myself. My religious views were tempered thanks to this contact and it played a not insignificant role in my eventual apostasy. Naturally, not every overly-devout Muslim will change quite that much thanks to social contact with non-Muslims, but those Muslims who do have meaningful relationships and contact with non-Muslims tend to be more moderate in their views.

Let’s have more of that and less of this, please.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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26 Comments

    1. It seems like it was part of an overall move to ban religion and promote forced atheism. Generally, a movement to force people to give up or take up any particular religion isn’t going to be terribly effective, human rights violations aside.

  1. For me it’s simple, I’m a 100% atheist and against ALL restrictions imposed by religion or culture on women and men.
    But I’m not so sure if a government ban is the way to tackle the problem. When has prohibition ever been successful at stamping out unwanted behaviour?

  2. I think a full-on ban is a poor choice, but I certainly see requiring removal of face-covering veils for identification and for activities requiring identification (i.e. buying alcohol, as one 14 year old boy was able to do, while in a burka).

  3. A year or so ago this issue came up with some people at work. Luckily I am very comfortable with the guys who were having the discussion.

    It seems like many people want to claim that the veil ban is supposed to stop the abuse of the “poor oppressed women.” (Just using the quotes because, like Heina says, many women where them because they truly believe it is the right thing to do for many reasons.)

    I finally had to explain my concerns about the ban idea to prevent abuse by comparing it to physically abused women. I asked the men involved in the discussion if they would make a ban against women walking around with bruises on their faces and think that that would stop the men from abusing them. I think that it would just isolate the women more and make it even more difficult to get out of the abusive situation.

    I also live in a fairly northern part of Canada. It is hard to pretend that their isn’t some sort of bigotted reason for a ban on veils or for people being super concerned about someone wearing a hijab. Most people are wandering around with only their eyes showing during the coldest part of winter anyhow! Sometimes I think it would actually be nice to just put a hijab on and not have to worry about hat head once I get to work.

    To me, the best thing is to let people wear what they are most comfortable with. Over time, as the women wearing burkas somewhere like Canada become more comfortable with seeing people dressed in a more relaxed way they will hopefully move to just wearing a hijab or maybe not even that. If it is truly an issue of abuse, it will not help to essentially punish and isolate the women being abused.

    1. “I finally had to explain my concerns about the ban idea to prevent abuse by comparing it to physically abused women. I asked the men involved in the discussion if they would make a ban against women walking around with bruises on their faces and think that that would stop the men from abusing them. I think that it would just isolate the women more and make it even more difficult to get out of the abusive situation.”

      That is a fantastic point. I’d never thought of that before- I was kiiinda in favor of bans because I thought it would allow women who don’t want to wear the scarves to have the excuse of “it’s the law” as opposed to “I don’t want to”, though mainly opposed to it in the name of general freedom of expression. I had never considered the alternative to women being allowed to go around without headscarves- women being forbidden from leaving their houses because they couldn’t wear the headscarves.

  4. My mother is from Iran, but is very secular. I grew up in LA and most of the Persians we knew were like her. (Seriously, every Persian wedding I went to was a booze-fest, and instead of head scarves they all wear designer clothing.) Any time she saw someone wearing a head scarf in public she would make a very loud, negative comment about it. In her view, they were making all Middle Eastern people look “bad”. Needless to say, she is very much in favor of veil bans. For her it was less about preventing sexism than it was about her shaking off an image she didn’t want to be associated with.

    I don’t agree with her and I don’t think veil bans are useful, but I’ll never really understand what it was like for her either.

    1. That seems to be a fairly common experience in Southern California. Most of the Persian students with whom I went to high school were fairly secular. Then again, that might have to do with the fact that most of their parents and/or grandparents were fleeing the Ayatollah.

  5. There is a word or concept I try to reach for to explain why secular westerners should not ban headscarves & burkas, but should instead allow women & men to allow any clothing that fits with local mores. It would be something like “multiculturalism”, or “separation of culture and state”. Does anyone know what I am looking for here?

  6. Also, I am allowed to cover my face in public as a man. Shouldn’t a woman be allowed to do the same? Trying to stop sexism, while simultaneously creating a gender-based double standard. *tsk tsk*

    For the purposes of ID, though? Totally agree with Mark on that score.

    1. @Cabbageman: ban the beard!

      I agree with Heina, it’s not going to do any good and it may well harm some people, but it shows we’re tough on crime. I mean, tough on terrorism. Um, tough on Muslims? At least, tough on a few Muslim women!

      I’m also curious about exactly how many women would be affected. In France IIRC their ban actually affected fewer than a thousand women directly (but, by design, every single Muslim and person-of-middle-eastern-appearance, not to mention a number Sikhs and others).

      I could definitely imagine see you lot doing a burka portrait session and using them as your site author images for a day in solidarity with women who have been banned.

    2. it’s even worse than that. In France for example, Muslim girls have been forbidden from showing up to school in bandannas, a piece of clothing not forbidden to the non-muslim kids nor the boys. it’s resulting in discrimination based on presumptions of intent.

  7. The problem with girls and women covering their faces is that boys and men can then never learn what the facial expressions of girls and women actually mean.

    The result of that is that adult men then project what ever it is that they want to project when ever they see a woman’s face, i.e. they project “she was asking to be raped”.

    Women always covering their faces only occurs in highly misogynistic societies where women are second class citizens and are treated as the property of their male relatives. The reason women are treated as second class citizens is because by being unable to read their facial expressions, adult men are unable to perceive girls and women to be human beings with equal rights.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but are there any non-misogynist societies where girls and women always cover their faces? I don’t think there are any and I don’t think there ever have been any.

    This is why “separate but equal” doesn’t work and can’t work. To be “equal”, one needs to understand and be understood. If you can’t understand someone from their own perspective, it is extremely difficult to not treat them as “the other”, and via the Dunning-Kruger effect treat them as inferior.

    To understand someone from their own perspective, you need to experience social interactions with them while your “theory of mind” is developing, that is during the time when you are acquiring a first language (from birth to the end of puberty, when the compulsion of peer pressure goes away).

    I don’t like that human psychology is such that lack of understanding triggers xenophobia and projection, but until that changes, I will support bans on face covering of children and adults of both genders. I appreciate it won’t prevent people from projecting their own desires on to other people, many pedophiles claim that the child was “asking for it”, but not having bans on face covering will make it worse.

  8. I know many women who wear the burqua out of freedom of choice. Yet the response I get on this issue from well meaning feminists is that those women have been negatively conditioned by patriarchical dress codes since birth. Therefore the burqua is intrinsically wrong. And in the interests of freedom of thought and expression, I can’t get my head around this one. Is wearing the burqua as an expression of freedom of choice no different than Chinese women who previously had foot binding “as an expression of choice”?

    I know several women who wear the scarf and sometimes even the veil who are brilliant physicians and University professors. The majority of them uphold western feminist ideals. I really can’t perceive them wearing the burqua because of the patriarchy. It’s analogous to saying that Supreme Court justice Sonya Sotomayor wears lipstick because of the patriarchy.

    What’s wrong with saying that a woman who wears the burqua has agency and simply wants to wear it because she has the freedom to do so? And therefore, no article of clothing whether a string bikini or a niqab should be banned by any group. Only a totalitarian would impose such bans.

    1. I think it is similar to telling a woman who in in an abusive relationship that she should leave her abuser.

      On the one hand she has agency and loves the man who is abusing her and doesn’t want to leave him. On the other hand she has been conditioned to tolerate the abuse and accepts it as a condition of being with the man she loves.

      Some women are not able to leave an abusive relationship on their own, they stay until the abusive relationship threatens their children, and then they leave.

      I see the face covering as similar. In isolation, a woman should be able to choose staying with an abusive man as well as choose to wear something that covers her face. A woman who is part of a society also has obligations to others, to her children and to the children of others who are and will be her children’s peers, as children and as the adults they will grow into. Allowing those children to be conditioned to accepting violence from an abusive man is (in my opinion) unacceptable.

      I am unable to fault a victim of abuse for doing things which mitigate the damage that he/she has experienced. I see becoming conditioned to tolerating abuse as a “feature” that mitigates the damage of being abused.

      That doesn’t change my feeling that for girls and women to cover their faces is inherently wrong because it deprives the next generation of children the opportunity to learn how to read the facial features of girls and women.

      Being conditioned to accept abuse is something that all humans are capable of. If someone says they are not, it simply means they have not been subjected to enough abuse. I think it is unacceptable to allow children to be in an environment where they become conditioned to accept abuse, and I feel that is what a society that allows people to cover their faces leads to.

    2. “I can’t get my head around this one. Is wearing the burqua as an expression of freedom of choice no different than Chinese women who previously had foot binding “as an expression of choice”?”

      this doesn’t work as an analogy or comparison. footbinding is irreversible and it’s done to small girls; it’s the equivalent of FGM, not of wearing the veil.

      And incidentally, there are no laws that I know of that forbid extreme modding, and binding your own feet falls under extreme modding.

  9. On the one hand she has agency and loves the man who is abusing her and doesn’t want to leave him. On the other hand she has been conditioned to tolerate the abuse and accepts it as a condition of being with the man she loves.

    so you’re saying we should criminalize being in an abusive relationship? this is nonsensical, and obviously dangerous to the women whose victimhood would be thusly criminalized.

    That doesn’t change my feeling that for girls and women to cover their faces is inherently wrong

    just as with the above, I highly doubt that you actually mean what you’re saying. if covering one’s face while female were “inherently” wrong, wearing a balaklava/skimask in winter would be just as wrong as wearing the veil.

    so, I don’t believe you think that the act of covering your face is “inherently” wrong. I think you believe it’s wrong in some circumstances, for certain specific reasons, because those circumstances cause specific consequences. Which matters because if it’s the circumstances and consequences that make it bad, then maybe it’s not the piece of clothing that’s a problem.

    1. My statement was non-artful. In private, covering one’s face has no moral or ethical consequence.

      What I meant was that covering one’s face such that others cannot learn to read your facial expressions is inherently wrong.

      If you want to be a hermit and not have any social contact, then covering your face is fine. If you want to be a social person and have social interactions with other people, then you have to allow those people to have social interactions with you by allowing them to be able to read your facial features and to understand the language that you are speaking and also your body language.

      If a woman wants to seclude herself away and never have children or contact with anyone else, then she can cover herself and never learn or express body language. If she has children, it is child abuse to not allow those children to learn how to communicate with others. Communicating with others includes body language and facial expressions. Denying anyone the ability to communicate with others is abusive.

  10. “I sincerely believed that if a man saw me and felt that I was attractive that I was a sinner for provoking him, and that anything he did (harassment, rape, whatever) would be my fault for tempting his base male nature.”

    I am sorry, and forgive me for saying this, but I do not understand this statement. My brain hurts even trying to understand this kind of mind-control idea.

    Even if I saw the most beautiful woman in the world naked in front of me, I have come close, I would not thrust responsibility of my desire for her onto her.

    I would take responsibility for my own desires and try my best to get her to agree with my little scheme of getting to know her.

    Could anyone explain the genesis of this idea that a man cannot control himself in the company of beautiful women. I will admit, I have lost my mind and gone stupid in front of some, but I have never been behaviorally impaired.

    Is this an actual premise taught to some people?

    1. mtheatheist, yes there are people who believe that and who act that way. It is also called blaming the victim.

      Many pedophiles do this, they project that their victims are asking for it. Many slavery apologists do this, saying that the slaves were better off being compelled to be slaves and work.

      If is a form of delusional thinking. If your perception is so skewed that you interpret every action a woman makes as being an invitation to have sex, then that is what you will perceive. That is what happens when you are unable to read the actual communication and instead impute what every you want to perceive.

      It is like conspiracy theorists. Every piece of data is interpreted in such a was as to support the conspiracy. Or like YECs, every piece of data is used to support the idea of a 6,000 year old Earth, a man made out of mud, a talking snake, and so on.

      This is what rape apologists are doing when they say “she was asking for it”. No matter what she was doing, it gets interpreted as an invitation for sex, with the conclusion that if she was asking for sex, it can’t be rape.

      In the limit, simply not covering one’s face is perceived to be an invitation for sex and asking to be raped.

  11. I don’t know how people can support these bans. I don’t like face veils, and I don’t want to encourage that practice. Why would you think such bans would do anything else? This kind of ban is so effective at radicalizing people that groups that aren’t being persecuted in this way will literally make that persecution up. It’s like a real life War on Christmas.

    Even if it was going to work, keep in mind that this nice, feminist message is going to be delivered by not so nice and often openly racist police officers. I don’t think women should cover their faces, but I don’t think the best response to that is violence and imprisonment.

  12. Full face bans have more merits than simple secularism. They have security merits as well. When out in public, you should be identifiable just like everyone else. We have the right to see your face and know who you are. Would you walk into a convenience store in a ski mask? How do I even know it’s a religious woman underneath that veil? Or even a woman at all? It would be a good way to sneak into somewhere you aren’t supposed to be. Would you try to go to court in a full mask? A bank? It’s like those women wanting their driver’s licence pictures taken with a veil on. That defeats the purpose. The purpose is to identify you. The right to practice religion is not a license to use religion to evade the law. Full face covering bans protect society in more ways than people give them credit for.

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