The impending vote in France’s National Assembly on a proposed Muslim veil ban has raised important questions about what constitutes women’s rights. On one hand, opponents of the ban claim that a truly feminist approach would be to allow women the right to wear veils if they choose, and that arresting and fining women for choosing to do so can hardly be seen as liberating women; on the other hand, proponents of the ban argue that defending a woman’s right to wear a veil if she so chooses only protects that one particular right while supporting an overarching ideology that denies women all other rights. It is the latter argument which is put forth by Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy, who identifies as a Muslim as well as a liberal and a feminist.
Eltahawy’s support for the proposed ban reflects a division between European and American attitudes on the issue of religion and women’s rights. In Europe, she explains, centuries of religious conflict and efforts to keep religion out of people’s personal lives have led to a tradition excluding religion from the public realm; in America, however, the individual can invoke religious freedom to justify almost any act, creating a sort of “hallowed ground” which to defile is taboo. If we are to defend women’s right to choose, the Americans argue, this must include women’s right to choose to wear a veil, but Eltahawy counters,
“I’m really outraged that people get into these huge fights and say that as a feminist you must support a woman’s right to do this, because it’s basically the only kind of ‘right’ that this ideology wants to give women. Otherwise they get nothing.”
For Eltahawy, it is ironic to defend women choosing to wear burqas, because this simply supports the very ideology which denies women the right to choose in general, so the principle is essentially a self-defeating one. However, the journalist admits that the effort to ban the burqa is in the wrong hands—namely, right-wing conservatives and Christian fundamentalists—and should be taken back up as a liberal cause. “[W]hat really disturbs me about the European context”, she explains, “is that the ban is driven almost solely by xenophobic right wingers who I know very well don’t give a toss about women’s rights”, adding that “they’re hijacking an issue that they know is very emotive and very easy to sell to Europeans who are scared about immigration, Europeans who are scared about the economy, Europeans who don’t understand people who look and sound different [from] them”. Thus, in Eltahawy’s view, the ban is not a conservative assault on women’s freedom, but a liberal boon to it; it has just been co-opted by disingenuous bigots who care little about women’s rights and whose main agenda is to stem a terrifying influx of strangers into the European subcontinent.
But does Eltahawy’s argument hold water? She claims that supporting the right to wear the veil is ultimately opposing women’s rights in general since it supports the overall tradition of oppression, yet this seems like an over-simplistic argument—this is because supporting a woman’s right to choose to wear a veil does not necessarily require or presuppose denying them all other rights; indeed, it is possible to support a woman’s right to choose to wear a veil and her right to do anything else. So, perhaps the best path towards solving the veil dilemma is in neither a strict outright ban, nor an endorsement of veil-wearing which ignores its underlying fundamentalist Muslim ideology, but rather a third solution entirely. Hypothetically, it should be possible to allow women the right both to wear a veil and to drive, go shopping, and go to the hospital wherever and whenever they want, and without a male chaperon. That is, the French might simply pass a law that allows women the choice to do anything (as long as it does not harm another, of course), and the result is that everybody wins—women who want to wear the veil may do so, but she may also drive, go shopping, and travel without a male chaperon if she so chooses.
It would be naïve for Americans to overlook the fact that, for Europeans, veils are highly evocative symbols which conjure up images of oppression, hierarchy, and domineering, theocratic societies in which women are subordinate to men, and that these images cut to the sensitive core of the cherished secular Enlightenment philosophy and values which Europeans have literally spent centuries cultivating. Of course, the absolutist attitudes of anti-veil zealots do not really reflect such values, especially given their ulterior xenophobic motives. Maybe veil proponents need to heed the warning of people such as Eltahawy that blind support of choosing to wear veils inadvertently justifies a larger system which denies choice in general, while opponents should consider the possibility of both—that women can wear veils and do anything else if they want to.
Learn more about the tenets of the Muslim faith by visiting out Guide to Divinity.