Almost every country on Earth has minorities within their borders. These minorities might practice a different religion than the majority population; hail from a different homeland, or practice different customs. Different nations have different ways of handling the thorny issue of multiculturalism. Some countries, like Canada, have embraced multiculturalism by protecting individual minorities’ freedoms and by accommodating their specific cultural needs. However other nations, such as France, stanchly require anyone living within its borders to adhere to its own values and democratic rules. Both versions host their own set of problems. If you grant minorities certain cultural rights, it could erode the host country’s core beliefs and values. On the flipside, by forcing minorities to assimilate into a narrow definition of what is “civil” and “proper” behavior, it takes away a minority group’s cultural autonomy. Essentially, it boils down to whether an individual nation is willing to accept the legitimacy of a certain cultural or religious practice. This holds especially true on the debate of the Islamic veil.
According to Laura Barnett’s “Freedom of Religion and Religious Symbols in the Public Sphere”, the Islamic veil comes in three major categories: the hijab which “is worn by a female over her head, generally covering her hair, ears, and neck”, the burqa “a large loose garment that can cover the hands and face” and the niqab, “a veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes” (Barnett 2011: 1). Muslim women wear the veil for modesty but there is still debate within the Muslim community whether it is a requirement for practicing Muslims or if it is simply a cultural custom (Barnett 2011: 1). Whether worn for religious or cultural reasons, the backlash against the veil has been significant, especially in Europe. In Belgium for example, there is no nation-wide ban on headscarves but it does allow individual schools to ban them if they so choose. (Barnett 2011: 11) As a result, most schools have banned the veil (Barnett 2011: 11). Belgium, along with France and Italy, has also banned women from wearing the burqa in public (Barnett 2011: 9, 11, 14). In Belgium’s case, the reason for allowing the bans of headscarves in schools are due to the ideals “of equality and neutrality” being more important than the individual right to religious expression (Barnett 2011: 11).
It is naïve to assume however, that in the wake of 9/11 and the heightened awareness of Muslim terrorists that laws banning the Islamic veil are a way to assert secularism within the public sphere. France was the first European country in the wave of anti-veiling, banning “religious symbols in the classroom in 2004 and on full facial veils in public in 2011” all in the name of secularism (Barnett 2011: 11). However there are other underlying reasons on why the veil was banned in those circumstances. The veil is considered alien to French culture and in French culture, you must prescribe to French customs (Barnett 2011: 14). This was most evident of a case in 2008 when “a woman who wore a niqab was denied French citizenship due to her lack of integration into French culture” (Barnett 2011: 14). Many in France as well as in other parts of the Western world also find the Islamic veil “anti-feminist” (Barnett 2011: 14). Westerners have the illusion that Islamic women do not wear the veil by choice; they are either coerced by their husbands and families to wear one or are pressured or “brainwashed” by their culture to wear the veil.
In Susan Moller Okin’s “Is Muliculuralism Bad for Women?”, Okin argues that there is “tension” between multiculturalism and feminism; what may benefit one, may not necessarily benefit the other (Okin 1999: 10). She also makes the claim that “group rights are potentially, and in many cases actually, antifeminist” and that most major religions, including Islam, “are rife with attempts to justify the control and subordination of women” (Okin 1999: 12, 13). Okin continues with her firmly entrenched belief that many non-western cultures are inherently “patriarchal” and uses cultural customs as a way to control women (Okin 1999: 14, 16). Her opinion is that cultures that oppress women should go “extinct” or adapt to become less sexist as it becomes enlightened by western liberalism (Okin 1999: 22, 23). Grafting Okin’s opinions onto the veil debate, it is clear that she would believe that veils are a way for Islamic men to control women. If hair is a symbol of immodesty, husbands and fathers would be afraid for another man to take interest in their wife or daughter if she was uncovered. If a woman chose to go out in public unveiled, it is possible that her family would deem her immodest and negative consequences could follow. Scenarios like these are entirely possible and no doubt happen. However Okin fails to understand that many women are not forced to wear veils in the Western world; they choose to. Okin, like many people who oppose the veil, refuse to put themselves into the shoes of Muslim women. To many women of the Islamic faith, wearing the veil is a way to keep their modesty and to keep their cultural heritage. They are being feminist by protecting their right to modesty, even under enormous pressure to conform. Naturally Western countries should protect women’s rights if they encounter backlash by choosing to not wear the veil. However we cannot assume that women who chose to wear the veil are victims of sexism within their culture or religion.
Bonnie Honig responded to Okin’s essay with her own, titled, “My Culture Made Me Do It”. She too, found Okin’s writing to be unfair towards non-western cultures. In her essay she writes, “feminists ought to be careful lest they participate in the recent rise of nationalist xenophobia” and that “culture is something rather more complicated than patriarchal permission for powerful men to subordinate vulnerable women” (Honig 1999: 36). In contrast to Okin, Honig believes that “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not just seek to “control” women’s sexuality” (Honig 1999: 37). Lastly, she mentions that there are indeed “Muslim feminists” who “see veiling as an empowering practice” that allows them to comfortably work and interact outside of the home (Honig 1999: 37). Although Okin’s point that different cultures can have sexist elements, it’s unfair to paint an entire picture of a religion or culture as being completely anti-feminist. Women have a voice no matter their ethnic, cultural, or religious background and to ignore that fact is in itself, anti-feminist.
Other western nations with a significant Muslim population have also weighed in with their concerns about the veil. However unlike France, Italy, and Belgium, Canada has embraced multiculturalism rather than adopting secularism. Canada allows veils in public, “unless there is a serious safety or public order issue at stake” (Barnett 2011: 4). Even in the French province of Quebec, where there is a heavy influence of French secularism, the hijab is allowed in public schools (Barnett 2011: 5). To not allow it would be “a violation of both freedom of religion and the right to education”, so schools must accommodate any special needs they might have, according to the Quebec Commission (Barnett 2011: 5). The Commission also reasoned that to take away the right of a Muslim woman to wear the hijab “would be an insult to the independence of Muslim women” (Barnett 2011: 5). However the government of Quebec is not as tolerant as the rest of Canada when it comes to other types of veils. In 2010, Quebec passed a bill that prohibited burqa and niqab wearing women from working in government jobs and “those accessing government services from wearing veils where issues of security, identification or communication are involved” (Barnett 2011: 5).
Although the reasons are valid in their own right, it seems prejudicial to prevent women from wearing the burqa and niqab. If accommodations are made for the disabled, such as those who have trouble communicating, there should be accommodations for women wearing the veil. If there are concerns about the identification of a woman, a female government official can ask her to briefly take off her veil to confirm her identity. Fingerprints can also be used for identification and microphones can be placed in the veil itself in cases where the veiled woman’s voice must be heard. These accommodations are simple and do not violate the religious freedom of individuals. By not allowing veiled women to access government services, it prevents them from requesting government aid, receiving government sponsored health care and public education. These are fundamental rights that belong to every citizen, regardless of what they wear or what religion they choose to worship. To take away these rights from women just because they cover their face is insulting to their dignities as human beings.
I believe that a woman has a right to wear whatever she chooses. Her race, ethnicity, religion, or cultural background is irrelevant to her rights as a human being. If a woman chooses to wear a hijab, a burqa, or a niqab, she should wear it without fear that she will be denied services due to her religion or culture. I acknowledge that there are circumstances where wearing a face covering can be a risk, such as security checkpoints. In that case, a veiled woman should be searched like everyone else and remove her veil, but she should be allowed to continue wearing her veil outside of a security checkpoint. A woman should be allowed to go to school with a veil, be allowed to walk in public with a veil, and should be allowed to access government services with a veil. To deny her such basic necessities would be sexist and prejudicial towards Muslims. I also do not agree with France’s ban of religious symbols in classrooms. It is ludicrous to think that a society can ever truly be secular. The banning of symbols sends the message that religion is not tolerated and coupled with the public ban on burqas, it sends the message that Muslim women are second class citizens in their own country. You must be exposed to cultures different than your own if you are to be tolerant and accepting of them. That is why I prefer Canada’s model of accommodation. Canada recognizes the rights of women as well as their rights to practice their religion in the way they choose. It builds understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, instead of breeding islamophobia. The veil is empowering to women who wear them because it gives them a way to openly display their faith, as well as support to pursue education and employment. To take away the right for women to wear the veil would not be a victory for feminism and womankind; instead, it would be a crushing defeat to minority women everywhere.
- Barnett, Laura. (2011). Freedom of religion and religious symbols in the public sphere (Publication No. 2011-60-E). Ottawa, Canada: Library of Parliament.
- Honig, Bonnie. (1999). My culture made me do it, In Is muliculuralism bad for women?, 35-40.
- Okin, M. Susan (1999). Is muliculuralism bad for women?. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.