Earlier this month, France put its 2010 law banning the veil into effect, spurring angry demonstrations in both Paris and London. Two women were arrested, not because they were wearing burqas but because they participated in an illegal demonstration. Parisian police arrested 61 people this past weekend for holding an outlawed protest on this issue.
It is important to understand that the French ban is not specific to Islam. The French law is ethnicity -- and religion-neutral and refers only to a generic “face-covering.” In 2004, France became the first European country to legally restrict all religious clothing in public schools: veils, visible Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and hijab (headscarves) were forbidden, not in public, but in public schools.
The French police will not forcibly remove any woman’s burqa nor will they arrest such women as long as they identify themselves. The police will fine them. Further, anyone who forces a woman to cover her face can be imprisoned for up to a year and fined about 30,000 euros (or about $43,000.00).
What does this ban mean for the West?
The West believes in freedom of religion, tolerance, multi-cultural diversity and, within limits, a woman’s right to dress as she pleases. (Nudity is not permitted everywhere). These values are precisely what sets the West apart from so many Muslim-majority countries which engage in religious apartheid and which persecute infidel religions. Saudi Arabia bans the practice of Christianity and Judaism outright.
Here are our tricky questions: Do we want the state telling women what to wear and how to worship? What if a woman has been misinformed. Isn’t it still her right to obey misleading information?
Does Islam mandate face-covering—is this a genuine religious requirement—or not? Have all face-veiled women freely chosen to veil—or have they been coerced into doing so to please their families and to avoid being beaten or even honor murdered? This does happen in the West.
Many eloquent and educated Muslim religious women insist that this is their free choice; that to them it does not signify subordination but rather resistance to Western “racism” or alleged “Islamophobia” and to a Western culture which, in their opinion, condemns women to dangerous sexual licentiousness, pornography, and lonely lives. Some say that face-veiling signifies their “devotion to God.”
However, Muslim men, both religious and secular, wear modern, western clothing. Why do Muslim women alone have to bear the burden of representing 7th century Islam--especially since this means sweltering in the summer heat and walking dangerously amidst crowds and traffic?
Many other equally eloquent, equally educated Muslim religious (and secular) women—as well as ex-Muslims--insist that the Koran does not mandate that women cover their faces—only that men and women both dress “modestly.” Leading Islamic scholars agree with them. History reveals that Muslim women successfully fought against wearing both the face-veil and the headscarf for more than one hundred years in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.
In 1994, the Supreme Court of Malaysia prohibited public servants from covering their faces. Their grounds included the fact that doing so is not required by Islamic law.
In 2009, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious learning, was angered when he toured a high school in Cairo and found a teenage girl wearing a face-veil. He said: “The niqab is a tradition. It has no connection to religion.” He instructed the terrified girl never to wear the niqab again and issued a fatwa (religious edict) against its use in schools.
In 2010, Syria banned full face-veils in certain public places, including universities. In 2010, Iraqi religious authorities issued a fatwa requiring courtroom witnesses to appear unveiled; they said that only the Prophet Muhammad’s wives were obliged to wear face-veils.
And on April 12, 2011, Dr. Taj Hargey, Imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, wrote in the Daily Mail: “The decision by the French government to outlaw all forms of public face-masking, including the burka and niqab, is welcomed by all thinking Muslims around the world.”
The face-veil (niqab or burqa) presents both a security and health risk to others. Imagine a doctor or nurse who is veiled in terms of spreading deadly superbugs; imagine the awkwardness of a face-veiled courtroom witness, judge, teacher, or bank manager.
Most important, from my perspective, the burqa is a “prison,” a “coffin,” a “moving sensory deprivation isolation chamber.” I have argued that it is a human rights violation and constitutes both a health hazard (to the wearer) and is a form of torture. Burqa wearers have no peripheral vision and only limited forward vision. Hearing and speech are muffled. Facial expressions remain hidden. Movement is severely constrained. No eye contact can be made.
Burqa-wearers have written memoirs which describe how burqas cause panic attacks, anxiety, fears of suffocation, claustrophobia, depression, low-self-esteem, and vitamin D deficiency diseases from lack of sunlight. In "Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia," Jean Sasson describes how one Saudi woman felt when she wore a veil for the first time:
“When we walked out of the cool souq area into the blazing hot sun, I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric. The air tasted stale and dry…I had purchased the sheerest veil available, yet I felt I was seeing life through a thick screen. How could women see through veils made of thicker fabric? The sky was no longer blue, the glow of the sun had dimmed; my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its color…I groped and stumbled along the pitted, cracked sidewalk, fearful of breaking an ankle or leg.”
Women wearing burqas may feel they are defending Islam’s “honor.” In so doing, they are presenting a decidedly unfriendly face of Islam. Why not dress modestly and wear a headscarf?
I understand why many liberals, libertarians, leftists, and Islamists feel strongly about the importance of allowing Muslim women to veil their faces in the West. I wonder how many face-veiled women they have interacted with personally or in an ongoing way? Do they see face-veiling as impeding or accelerating an assimilation process in which religion is, indeed, a private, not a public matter?
France is brave and right to ban the burqa. There is no reason for a modern Western country to honor what is, essentially, a political statement and an ethnic and misogynistic custom. Banning the burqa is not infringing on religious freedom but is, rather, a principled blow against the Talibanesque and barbaric subordination of Muslim women on Western soil.
Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion. She is the author of thirteen books, including "Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman" and "The New Anti-Semitism," and may be reached at her website www.phyllis-chesler.com
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies. She is the author of 4 studies about honor killings and 16 books.