Norman Geras demolishes Hitchens on niqab ban (partly)

I was directed by Islamophobia Watch to an article on Normblog taking apart Christopher Hitchen’s arguments on the Slate website in favour of banning the niqaab in France and elsewhere. The Belgian parliament has already approved a ban, the French parliament is debating it (although the prospect of Arab divestment and the likelihood of it being declared unconstitutional may prove to be stumbling blocks), while in Italy, a number of towns controlled by the Northern League have attempted to fine women for wearing them. What seems to be missing from all of these debates is the voice of women who actually wear the niqaab, as the assumption always seems to be that no woman would choose to, because the commentators wouldn’t themselves, therefore most if not all of them are forced by their husbands or fathers. Most of the arguments are baseless and some are downright lies, and Geras doesn’t go far enough in refuting Hitchens’s nonsense.

Regarding the “choice” argument, Norm quotes from Hitchens’s article and then comments:

To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority…

This is sophistical. For any woman wanting and choosing to wear the burqa or the veil, a law against doing so imposes a ban. Christopher is consequently obliged to suggest that there are no such women: ‘we have no assurance’, he says, ‘that Muslim women put on the burqa or don the veil as a matter of their own choice. A huge amount of evidence goes the other way’. He says, again, that ‘the right of women to show their faces… easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise’. Well, I don’t know what the proportions are as between Muslim women covering their faces out of choice and those doing so because they are compelled to, but I’ll give Christopher good odds that the number in the former category is not insignificant, and for all of them the law would constitute a ban. As for ‘the right of women to show their faces’, in democratic societies this is already protected by law, and if there are men breaching that law to force women to cover their faces against their will, then it can and should be activated accordingly.

I have personally been in contact with Muslim women for a number of years, both online and offline. I do know for a fact that nearly all those who have chosen to wear it in the West (the story may well be different in the Gulf and elsewhere, but since this ban applies to women here and not there, that hardly matters) have done so of their own accord. Some have worn it for a time and then removed it, but all wore it because they regarded it as meritorious or, sometimes, compulsory in the religion. None of those I’ve come across have done it simply because someone else told them to; as with the hijaab, some faced opposition from their parents or spouses when starting to wear it. Any Muslim could have told Norm or Hitchens this.

Second, regarding niqaab in banks:

Christopher writes, second, about the state of affairs in banks: ‘A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt.’ OK, so that’s banks. The burqa can be banned from banks.

But actually, does any bank ban niqaabs? Not that I have seen a woman in a niqaab in a bank recently, but I have never seen one get turned away, or seen a message on a forum from a niqaabi saying that she would not go into a bank or that she had been turned away from one in the UK. This is likely because, unlike motorcycle helmets and balaclavas, niqaab is not associated with criminals but with women innocently going about their normal business. Similarly with the argument about male criminals using them for disguise: there has been only one reported, and unproved, incident and that involved a suspected terrorist fleeing the country in one, and who was able to do that (supposedly) because airport security did not do their job properly. This past week, it was reported that a woman in a so-called burqa stabbed a Labour MP and was promptly caught and charged with attempted murder. If criminals cannot wear niqaabs and disguise themselves as women, they will resort to the time-honoured disguise of a balaclava. Nobody is talking about banning that, and in any case, criminals are likely to dress in clothes which better enable a quick getaway than does the long dress commonly worn with a niqaab.

Regarding public officials in niqaab:

Third, he writes that he ‘would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official’. He’s free to refuse to have dealings with whomever he wants to. That might or might not create a legal difficulty for him, but mostly, I suspect, it wouldn’t. However, our freedoms not to deal with certain others in life, according to principle or inclination, don’t necessarily establish a right to dictate to them how they may dress as they go about the world.

However, the debate is not about public officials in niqaab. Even for those who regard niqaab as mandatory for women in Islam, there are exceptions made for when business is being done and when testimony is given in court, i.e. when identification is actually necessary, so that women can remove their veils while doing this. Women are not expected to wear niqaab in Islam while treating a patient or representing a body (including the state) to individuals, by any standard, and those who insist on covering their faces all the time shouldn’t do a job that requires this. I’ve known Muslim women who have worn niqaab in a back office role, both in the UK and in Canada, fairly successfully for some time. Hitchens’s argument is a total irrelevance.

Norm gets it pretty much right on the ridiculous association with the Ku Klux Klan:

Fourth, ‘[w]hat about the Ku Klux Klan?’ Christopher asks. What about them? Why are they relevant? OK, they also cover their faces. But, leaving aside the issue of how that should be dealt with in terms of the permissibility or otherwise of public displays, why aren’t the differences between the Ku Klux Klan’s reasons for covering their faces and the reasons of Muslim women more important than the similarities? In one case, we’re talking about a type of political uniform and its use in the spreading of hatred, and in the other case… we aren’t.

However, he stops short when it comes to niqaab and driving:

The covered face, fifth, ‘is incompatible - because of its effect on peripheral vision - with activities such as driving a car or negotiating traffic’. Fine. If this is unavoidably so, there can be legislation to outlaw driving while wearing a burqa or face veil.

Did either he or Hitchens ever ask a woman who wears niqaab and drives whether it obstructs their vision? Women driving in niqaab is common, both in the West and in the Muslim world. Admittedly, probably fewer women drive in many Muslim countries than here (particularly in countries where driving by women is banned — but even in Saudi Arabia that only applies to highways; Bedouin women actually do drive off-road), but I have never heard of it being cited as a factor in causing an accident. It’s true that a woman was recently fined for wearing it while driving in France, but this seems to be a case of a policeman making up the law as he goes along and an example of the kind of petty harassment and exclusion that women who wear hijaab, let alone niqaab, already face in France every day. Much of it is actually illegal even there, but there is no need to replicate it anywhere else.

Hitchens concludes his article with an invocation of his supposed “right to see your face” and your right to see his. What right is this? Where did he get it from? In what country’s constitution is there a right to see the face of whoever happens to be nearby? In what UN declaration? The only time you have a right to see someone’s face is when you need to identify them. Any other time, you don’t, any more than you have the right to see any other part of their body. Hitchens has pretty much pulled this out of somewhere, since it’s not a recognised right. There is no such right.

There’s other nonsense in Hitchens’s article which Geras doesn’t take up. Regarding Muslim women’s choice to wear the “veil”, Hitchens claims:

Mothers, wives, and daughters have been threatened with acid in the face, or honor-killing, or vicious beating, if they do not adopt the humiliating outer clothing that is mandated by their menfolk. This is why, in many Muslim societies, such as Tunisia and Turkey, the shrouded look is illegal in government buildings, schools, and universities. Why should Europeans and Americans, seeking perhaps to accommodate Muslim immigrants, adopt the standard only of the most backward and primitive Muslim states?

He offers no evidence whatsoever that a significant proportion of honour killings concern hijaab or niqaab. The usual reason for them, in fact, seems to be rumours about a woman’s conduct with men, such as losing her virginity before marriage or having relationships before or outside marriage, not with anything to do with hijaab or niqaab. Turkey and Tunisia do not ban hijaab in public buildings because of this but because of the states’ adherence to an ideology they have invented. And the countries in which niqaab is common are hardly more primitive than Tunisia, a country under a long-standing dictatorship with one of the most stringent censorship regimes even in that region and which is notorious for torture. Honour killing is rife in Turkey, particularly among the Kurdish population (among which the niqaab is not that common). Furthermore, his reference to Muslim “immigrants” is irrelevant given that many of those women who wear niqaab are those born here, some of them converts and some to mixed parentage. Muslims are not immigrants, but those who seek to criminalise Muslim customs conveniently discuss the issue in terms of accommodating “immigrants”. When Muslims in the UK were mostly immigrants, niqaab was much less common than it is now, in fact, and western cultures have tolerated niqaab as worn by Gulf Arab tourists for decades because they had money to spend. When it’s British or French citizens of Moroccan or Pakistani origin doing it, it suddenly became less acceptable.

He also makes repeated reference to common phrases like “nice to see you” which supposedly indicate how seeing people’s faces is so fundamental to our (western) culture. Well guess what folks: blind people use these expressions too, and they apply to other senses and faculties, such as when we talk of things we’ve “heard” when we mean perhaps having read about them, or something someone “said” when they were “speaking” in text over the internet or even using sign language. Still, even if it were, it wouldn’t matter, since there is no obligation to follow the dominant culture, only to avoid anti-social and illegal behaviour, and anti-social means what disturbs others rather than what they merely don’t like. A woman in niqaab who walks up to an old lady or small child and makes strange noises so as to frighten them is being anti-social; one who just goes about her business and bothers nobody isn’t.

The pattern of commentators (usually white) advancing arguments against niqaab without actually listening to Muslim women who wear it or have worn it is repeated right across the media; arguments are put forward about “the dignity of women” based on stereotypes about how Muslims in this culture or that view women (converts or second-generation Muslims of mixed parentage are hardly likely to hold opinions traditional to Arab societies or some part of Pakistan about the role of women), as if what they themselves believe about that subject is the only valid opinion. Muslimah Media Watch shares a video here of a conference in Toronto on this subject, in which the matter of stereotypes of niqaabis and the lack of input that these women are allowed to have into a discussion about their form of dress were discussed.

Norm also linked an article in the Economist which concluded by putting a strong argument against a ban, but also brought up a few irrelevant arguments of its own:

Europeans’ hostility to the burqa is understandable. It doesn’t just deprive them of the beauty of women’s faces; it offends the secularism that goes deep in European—and especially French—culture.

Secularism in France concerns the state. It does not require citizens not to display religion in other public places, such as the street. (French law also requires the state maintenance of pre-20th-century churches as “heritage”, and there are other convenient holes in French secularism such that the Catholic church is in fact privileged.)

Its spread goes hand in hand with the growth of a fundamentalist version of Islam some of whose proponents have attacked the secular societies they live in; and, at a time when those societies feel under threat, the burqa makes it harder for police to identify security risks.

No, it makes it easier to identify who isn’t a security risk, because the wearers are female and the people who are “security risks” are almost always male. The “threat” is also exaggerated: it’s true that there have been some terrorist plots, some of them hatched in Europe for execution elsewhere, and most of which have been unsuccessful anyway, and there have also been riots, no doubt prompted by such factors as police harassment and unemployment. But the main “threat” which supposedly exists is demographic — the growing Muslim population against a declining white one, which is largely the fault of white families for failing to produce enough children so as to avoid cramping their lifestyles.

For people raised outside the Gulf or Afghanistan, dealing with somebody whose facial expressions are hidden is uncomfortable. Unlike the headscarf, the burqa appears, in itself, to be a restraint on female freedom, and also symbolises what many Europeans see as the repression that women can suffer in Islam.

Oh, here we go again with the “symbols”. People who don’t know much about Islam or what goes on in any Muslim society call the Arabian-style niqaab with the name of the Afghan burqa and use it to symbolise the suffering of women in Pakistan (where most women don’t wear either) or honour killings in Kurdistan or Jordan (ditto). Of course, the headscarf is widely considered to be all the things they claim the niqaab is, so as soon as they have got the niqaab out of the way, the headscarf will be next in their sights (it is already banned in schools in several countries).

However, the conclusion is spot on. The insistence on forcing Muslim women to “do the white thing” in order to protect the supposed mass of oppressed young Muslim women, rather than providing ways out for those who need them, is always striking:

Yet the very values which Europeans feel are threatened by the burqa demand that they oppose a ban. Liberal societies should let people wear what they want unless there is a strong argument otherwise. And, in this case, the three arguments for a ban—security, sexual equality and secularism—do not stand up. On security, women can be required to lift their veils if necessary. On sexual equality, women would be better protected by the enforcement of existing laws against domestic violence than by the enactment of new laws forcing them to dress in a way that may be against their will. On secularism, even if Europeans would prefer not to have others’ religiosity paraded on the streets, the tolerance that Westerners claim to value requires them to put up with it.

European governments are entitled to limit women’s rights to wear the burqa. In schools, for instance, pupils should be able to see teachers’ faces, as should judges and juries in court. But Europeans should accept that, however much they dislike the burqa, banning it altogether would be an infringement on the individual rights which their culture normally struggles to protect. The French, of all people, should know that. As Voltaire might have said, “I disapprove of your dress, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it.”

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