Banning the veil

By Dennis Gruending

Courtesy Saskatchewan History & Folklore SocietyFrance’s National Assembly recently approved a bill that would make it illegal to wear in public garments such as the niqab or burqa, which incorporate a full-face veil. Similar laws are in force or being contemplated in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. Supporters of the legislation say that veils are a provocative symbol of Muslim fundamentalism that has no place in a secular country. They say as well that the veil is more of a cultural than a religious symbol and that it is not essential to Muslim worship. Those who would do away with the veil see themselves as liberating women from a certain oppressive interpretation of Islam. On the other hand, opponents of the legislation say that it is discriminatory against Muslims, that it offends religious liberty, and that it is not the business of the state to tell people how they should dress.

Only a tiny minority of Muslim women wear full face coverings in Europe and North America but the veil has become a potent political issue in Europe, with a resonance in Canada. A Leger on-line poll released in July found that 54% of respondents believe that Canada should ban the face veil as well. In Quebec, 73% of respondents want wearing of the veil to be banned.

Martha Nussbaum, who teaches at The University of Chicago, has written (in the New York Times) one of the more intelligent articles regarding the controversy. Nussbaum says that banning women from wearing face veils is “utterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty.” Nussbaum bases her argument on both religious liberty and on practical, secular observations. She says there is a long tradition (in America) holding that there must be special accommodations made to protect the freedom of conscience and religious freedom of the “minority believer.” She also argues that laws about face veils are clearly aimed Muslims and not other groups. In some European countries, she says, public school teachers are banned from wearing face veils on the job although nuns and priests are permitted to teach in full habit.

Catholic nuns were covered

I have more than passing familiarity with the classroom attire of nuns and priests because I was taught by religious sisters in primary school and by Catholic monks in high school. When I was a student in the 1950s and 60s, the sisters wore black habits that covered them from neck to ankle. They also wore starched bibs and veils that covered their chests, heads and foreheads. The only parts of their bodies visible was their face from eyes to chin and also their hands. The photo of sisters shown here is taken from a book called Everett Baker’s Saskatchewan, selected and introduced by historian Bill Waiser. The sisters who taught me dressed in much the same manner and no one in my largely Catholic community thought this to be at all out of the ordinary.

There was an earlier time, however, when sisters’ garb was a hot political issue, similar in some ways to the controversy today regarding the face veil. In the mid 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was active in Saskatchewan and promoted an agenda of anti-Catholicism and opposition to immigration from anywhere but the British Isles. A Conservative coalition government led by J.T.M. Anderson was elected in 1930 and quickly passed laws prohibiting the display of religious symbols and the wearing of religious dress in public schools. Most of Saskatchewan’s schools were public, even in cases where the local population was mainly Catholic and where the teachers were sisters or priests. Anderson’s administration was a one-term government but Catholics did not forgive the Conservatives for more than 50 years and generally supported the Liberals throughout that time.

Banning veil unacceptable

Nussbaum would likely have opposed the banning of religious garb in schools. Today she argues that banning the veil is unbecoming of a liberal democratic society. She says that a number of arguments are commonly made in favour of proposed bans and she deals with each in turn. Let’s summarize her arguments, in her own words:

First, is the argument that security requires people to show their faces when appearing in public places. A second, related, argument says that covering part of the face impedes transparency and reciprocity proper to relations between citizens. Nussbaum says these arguments are applied inconsistently. The weather can get cold in North America and Europe and people often walk with hats pulled down over ears and brows, scarves wound tightly around noses and mouths.  Yet those people walk the streets freely and no one stops them from entering public buildings in the name of transparency or security. As well, many others in society cover their faces all year round: surgeons, dentists, football players, skiers and skaters. Nussbaum writes, “What inspires fear and mistrust in Europe, clearly, is not covering per se, but Muslim covering . . . a reasonable demand might be that a Muslim woman has a full face photo on her driver’s license or passport.”

Nussbaum says a third argument against the burqa is that it is a symbol of male domination that symbolizes the objectification of women. “The glaring flaw in the argument,” she writes, “is that society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture. Proponents of the burqa ban do not propose to ban all these objectifying practices. Indeed, they often participate in them. And banning all such practices on a basis of equality would be an intolerable invasion of liberty.”

A fourth argument holds that women wear the burqa only because they are coerced. This argument, Nussbaum says, “is typically made by people who have no idea what the circumstances of this or that individual woman are . . . Do the arguers really believe that domestic violence is a peculiarly Muslim problem?  If they do, they are dead wrong. There is no evidence that Muslim families have a disproportionate amount of such violence. Indeed, given the strong association between domestic violence and the abuse of alcohol, it seems at least plausible that observant Muslim families will turn out to have less of it.”

The final argument, Nussbaum says, is that the burqa is unhealthy because it is hot and uncomfortable. “Clothing that covers the body can be comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on the fabric,” Nussbaum says. “But more pointedly, would the arguer really seek to ban all uncomfortable and possibly unhealthy female clothing? Wouldn’t we have to begin with high heels, delicious as they are? But no, high heels are associated with majority norms, so they draw no ire.”

Nussbaum concludes that all of these arguments against the burqa are discriminatory. “We don’t even need to reach the delicate issue of religiously grounded accommodation to see that they are utterly unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty. Equal respect for conscience requires us to reject them.”

Burqa and misogyny

Not everyone agrees with Nussbaum. Feisal Mohamed, an English professor at the University of Illinois, responded to Nussbaum in the New York Times with an article of his own. Mohamed says that the burqa controversy revolves around a central question, Mohamed says: “Does this cultural practice performed in the name of religion inherently violate the principle of equality that democracies are obliged to defend? The only answer to that question offered by liberty of conscience is that we have no right to ask in the first place. This is in essence Nussbaum’s position, even though the kind of floor-to-ceiling drapery that we are considering is not at all essential to Muslim worship. The burqa is not religious headwear; it is a physical barrier to engagement in public life adopted in a deep spirit of misogyny.”

Mohamed argues that in contemporary society we should look beyond the traditional disputes between religious liberty and political authority. We should, he says, begin to understand the concepts of “justice and equality to be absolutely good with little regard for whether we come to value the good by a religious or secular path.” He believes that “bigots of all varieties” can and do plead for protection on the grounds of religious liberty to justify their practices. He also believes that the burqa “might legitimately be outlawed as an instrument of gender apartheid” but he agrees that such a law might create more divisiveness than it cures.

No coercion

The question of the face veil is both real and symbolic but I believe it is more the latter – women who wear the veil appear to be different in appearance and mentality, and they are Muslim. The face veil to many people represents something that they do not understand, that they fear, or at least do not like. It appears that most people in Europe are prepared to lend support to any legislator who proposes banning the veil, and at least some Canadian politicians are sure to assume the cause. But perhaps our own history provides a gentler and a wiser model. Most of the religious sisters who were my primary school teachers exchanged their long habits for modest street clothes following the church’s Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. I was pleased by that change but the choice was theirs and made without coercion, which is as it should be.

8 thoughts on “Banning the veil

  1. Hi Dennis,

    Well written with good conclusion.
    If you just let me I’m gonna share it in my Facebook page.


  2. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks. A comprehensive look at banning the veil with its appeal to liberty of thought, though as a woman I find that I lean toward the the view that sexism’s oppression of women is a main player here.

    Your conclusion that time will change the problem for women as it did for your nuns in habits in your schooling of the 50’s is a tad polyannish in nature. Why did the nuns wear those hot, uncomfortable garmets? Was it not a direct indication of the Catholic (and other) churches male-dominated wrong-headed ideas about women and their bodies tempting good men? Was it not one more way in which the patriarchy taught we women shame and enforced the mother or whore identity on us? How many victims were there while we waited for that freedom to be gained? How many women found the sisterhood a prison and took it out on their charges? (Obviously your school experience was not like a lot of children who were treated unkindly by unhappy religious sisters.) How many women not in the sisterhood learned to be second-best, sinful beings and/or the downtrodden mothers of 16 children?

    If waiting for slow societal change was all we ever did, we women would not have the vote yet!

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comments Kay. Your point about religious sisters wearing long habits and other obscuring clothing because they were forced to do so by the church’s patriarchy is perhaps well taken. I know that there are religious sisters among my blog readers and would be pleased to hear from them on this topic. Am I to take it from your comments that you would be in favour of a law that bans people from wearing the full face veil in Canada? I really wonder if that is the best use to which we can put our police and court systems. I know also that there are some young Muslim women who read Pulpit and Politics and would invite them to participate in this discussion.


  3. Kay replies to Dennis,

    No, Dennis, you aren’t to assume that I am supporting a legal ban on the full face veil in Canada.

    I see this as an issue of freedom to live one’s life in a way that does not harm others. My question would be – do the the young women wearing the veil get a choice? If they rebel against their tradition, are they in danger? Recently, we have seen honour killings here in Canada.

    As to the change in religious sisters’ dress, it did not happen because the Church hierarchy said, “Oh yes, maybe we are being restrictive of these women’s freedom.” It happened because women demanded the right to chose their dress and the support of the laity backed them up.

    Are we supporting the right of Muslim girls and women to chose?

    Dennis replies: Thanks Kay for your additional comment. I would also invite other readers to respond to both your comments and to my original piece.


  4. I think I have to agree with your conclusions Dennis but also with Kay’s imperative that we must constantly find ways to insure that girls and women truly have the right to choose – a much more complicated process than a “yes” or “no” to wearing the veil (or for that matter saying we could not go into church with our arms uncovered when I was a teenager)


  5. Very thoughtful essay, but I wonder if the photo of the two nuns dressed in religious clothing is a fair one. In the article, and in the arguments lately heard in the press, etc. its really not a question of the hijab (although it is there too) nor covering up the body, but more so the face. And the nuns never covered up their faces. I am against laws banning the full face veil (it does nobody any harm; liberty of expression in all its senses) but wonder how I would feel if I had a child in kindergarten with a teacher wearing the burka.

    Dennis replies: Your point about nuns not having covered their faces is well taken. The parallel that I find between Saskatchewan in 1930 and France (along with other countries today) is that the state proposes to prescribe what one can and cannot wear — religious habits in the case of sisters in the 1930s and the face veil today.    


  6. Hi Dennis,

    Once again a most thought-provoking group of blogs. I’m afraid that our “Western” oriented cultures have long looked on our feelings of superiority as simple facts. And from the time of the Crusades till the present “Western” powers have attacked what were considered inferior groups like the Muslims. Our unquestioning support of Israel, the “West’s” invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are more signs, to many Muslims of our loathing of anything Muslim as well as our attempts to control their lands and resources. Large numbers of Muslims certainly can’t see any other purpose for those attacks. On the other hand, our soldiers fighting in predominantly Muslim territory cause many “Western” people to feel they must support “OUR SIDE”, our soldiers, and look upon anything Muslim as something that must be denounced. I greatly fear for our children and grandchildren if wiser heads do not prevail in these, to me, rather silly disputes over religion and the deeper question of how we treat those who have less power than we do.


  7. You can not judge a person by what they wear. Varying religious groups should have the right to wear their traditional garb when it is not harming anybody. The nuns veil is long gone but it is a shame really as a habit reflects the commitment of the nun to her religious life


  8. I found your essay to be very interesting and I just had to comment.
    In relation to the idea that a Burka is oppressive to woman, I would have to somewhat disagree because of the history of how the Burka developed. This article of clothing was developed as a way to practice Purdah. It was too impractical and expensive for the woman to never leave the home so the Burka was made, of bright cloth and interact stitching, so that the woman could take the house with her when she went out. This was liberating because it is not about the suppression of woman but about the idea that the exterior world is men’s domain and the interior would is woman’s. Of course since then it has been taken and reshaped to relate a tight to other things but its initial concept for me means freedom. However this freedom has dwindled from the Burka as it has moved and spread from the practice of Purdah to the practice of control and hiding. The reason I think this is when a tradition or ritual is practiced and is liberating, if it become impractical it tends to disappear on its own from the people but the Burka has not.
    I feel that this situation is one where there needs to be a choice between two evils. It is where people must weigh tolerance and decides when their tolerance becomes so all encompassing that it lets things happen that shouldn’t. It’s a difficult place to be, after all if there were not people who were intolerant things such as the moment for woman’s equality would have never happened but at the same time many atrocities have happened because of intolerance. It is turn that we speak with a very western view but at the same time we should not be ashamed of it, for it is who we are and what our culture is. The same as the Hijab is part of Muslim culture and they have the right to say how they feel. The problem is the dealing with this issue cannot be one sided, there are so many different variables. We could easily accommodate this woman by giving them a private room with another woman to verify their identity to; however we do not just as they should understand that we are a very different culture then theirs. But it is not just the woman we need to think about and their opinions but the families too and their situation.
    I personal am very much undecided with the matter but I feel that parts of both parties are being unreasonable.


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