Wearing face veils in modern Ireland is preposterous, but don’t ban them

WITH perhaps 50,000 Muslims now living in Ireland, it’s imperative we find a modus vivendi. No one pretends it’s going to be easy but there is no alternative to trying.

Unfortunately, the task was made that bit more difficult by two bits of news last week. First, it emerged that a Lebanese man, having claimed asylum, settled here, managed to secure a visa for one of his two wives and is now seeking to bring a second wife in as well.

The matter is before the High Court. Hopefully it will take a robust view (If there are any variants of Islam which allow women to have more than one husband, I’m not aware of them).

Finding a consensus on the second issue will be more difficult, one suspects. The (all-male) Irish Council of Imams, as well as calling on Muslims to contribute positively to society and on Irish financial institutions to provide sharia-compliant savings mechanisms, has spoken out against attempts across Europe to ban the niqab, the face veil — worn only by women — which usually (but not always) leaves a slit for the eyes.

According to the council, a ban would be a violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by democratic systems.

Personally, I can’t recall seeing any women in Ireland wearing this kind of veil so it rather makes you wonder why the council has intervened.

Are there hundreds of Irish niqab-wearers who don’t go out in public with them on, for whatever reason? Are they subjected to threats of violence? If so, there needs to be a determined response from the gardaí. Or are they confined to their homes for some other reason? If so, we need to know why so the State can assist.

Alternatively, perhaps there aren’t any (or many) Irish niqab-wearers and the imams are sending out a subtle message that they would really rather prefer it if women wore what is effectively a mask. Again, perhaps it was just a gesture of solidarity. Who knows?

It’s remarkable how emotive a simple piece of cloth has become. It’s hard to think of another form of dress which is so highly politicised — or so rejectionist of mainstream culture. Yet across the West, Muslim women are increasingly choosing to cover up where their mothers did not. In republican France, President Nicolas Sarkozy doesn’t pull his punches: “It’s a question of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement ... That is not our idea of freedom.”

Niqab-wearers, however, tend not to use the language of religious piety but the language of personal choice: “It’s my right.” That argument would be easier to accept if Muslim women in tyrannical countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran were not subjected to 80 lashes or thrown into jail if they choose not to claim this so-called “right”. They are forced prisoners, pure and simple. If covering everything except the eyes protected women from rape and sexual harassment, these countries would be feminist paradises, but that isn’t quite how I’d describe them. Besides, choice is culturally determined. What kind of choice is it if all “good” Muslims are forced to prove their faith by submission?

My view is that just because some people might take offence or some racists may jump on the bandwagon to attack Muslims, that’s no reason to be squeamish and pretend face veils are OK. They are symbols of an ideology, not a fashion statement, and we shouldn’t be afraid of making a robust ideological response to them. They are quite plainly designed by men for the subjugation of women.

One cannot be absolutely sure that no woman has ever donned it voluntarily, but one can certainly say that, in countries where women can choose not to wear it, then not wearing it is the choice they generally make.

The face veil turns women into things for it is through face-to-face contact that we recognise our common humanity. Others’ emotions are hard to interpret from behind a screen. The veil is profoundly divisive — and deliberately designed to be. It has no place in education, at airports or in the courts. Anyone might lurk under those shrouds.

Nor do you need to be a Muslim to understand the ideology of the veil. Covering and controlling women has been a near-universal practice in most cultures and religions the world over, whether by being forced to have children, having their feet bound, being beaten up, throwing themselves on funeral pyres — or covering their faces. If rights are really at issue, don’t others have the right to be able to read the facial expressions? It’s an elemental part of personal communication.

Islam doesn’t demand that men cover their faces before they go out, but its more extreme advocates place special conditions on how women dress outside the home. It isn’t mentioned in the Koran. Rather, it’s a typical example of patriarchal practice, based on the notion that women should be under the control of their male relatives at all times, and it’s incompatible with any notion of universal human rights.

It limits women’s contact with non-relatives and maintains barriers between people who have different ethnic and religious backgrounds (Of course it does. That’s what it’s for).

But — and it’s a big but — having said all that, the niqab is, to repeat, only a piece of cloth: it’s not in itself responsible for social divisions. The veil may express some Muslims’ sense of estrangement; it doesn’t cause it. It’s naïve to think that the removal of the niqab will necessarily lead to peaceable understanding between faiths. The reality is that we probably cannot hope to share many of our fundamental values. But we can still rub along together, if we can learn and relearn the habit of tolerance.

That does not mean any cultural expression must be tolerated without criticism, for fear of giving offence. Nor does it mean cracking down on anything that is deemed intolerant. Instead, genuine tolerance ought to mean a willingness to live with the expression of views and lifestyles which you object to or even abhor. But it also means the freedom to criticise them ruthlessly, regardless of who might take offence.

So, it’s perfectly reasonable to object to women wearing veils in a 21st century Western society. Equally, women have the personal right to wear one if they so wish (although schools, courts and other public bodies should also be free to bar them).

No one would ban it in the street — even if it’s tempting so that Muslim women have protection against cruel pressure to wear radical Islamic dress. Where would fashion dictatorship end? But between teachers and pupils, or public officials and their clients, the State should discourage the hiding of women. No citizen’s face can be indecent because of their gender.

So, for very different reasons, I actually agree with the imams. I don’t believe a face veil ban is justified — although some Muslim countries have one — precisely because the arguments for wearing them are so feeble. I don’t want to ban niqabs but I do reserve the right to say, as politely as possible, that wearing them in 21st-century Ireland is preposterous.

Good sense calls for modesty to be modest.

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