One main reason the French government felt justified in banning the niqab
-- a face veil that reveals only the eyes -- in public is because it
believed the law would protect Muslim women who are being coerced by male
members of their family into covering.
Yet in the weeks since the law went into effect on April 11th, the
relatively few Muslim women who wear the niqab in France are not suddenly
walking out their front doors uncovered, grateful for the freedom to expose
their faces. Instead, the fear of getting fined by the police or enduring
attacks by fellow Frenchman, some of whom now feel licensed to openly jeer
or spit at women in niqab, is forcing these women back into their homes.
Nelly Moussaid, who was interviewed by The New York Times (“France Enforces
Ban on Full-Face Veils in Public” by Steven Erlanger, April 11, 2001) is
quoted as saying that the stares she was accustomed to receiving on the
streets have turned into hostile glares. “... Now people look at us as if
we had killed their mothers,” she says in the article. Women are dropping
out of activities as significant as working outside the home or attending
classes to leisurely ones like window shopping. Ironically, rather than
affording more freedom the ban has stripped these women of even the most
Perhaps the only people who will be surprised by this outcome are the
French Commission members who passed the law without considering why some
of their own citizens veil. According to a report released by the Open
Society Foundation, Unveiling the Truth: Why 32 Muslim Women Wear the Full
Face Veil in France, all but one woman in the study veiled because of her
husband -- and she was married to an imam. The rest of the thirty-one
women had freely chosen to cover as an expression of their spirituality.
Further, many of the women who covered did so against the wishes of their
parents or husbands. One woman went so far as to leave the house uncovered
only to don the niqab when she was a safe distance away -- a kind of
rebellious act a teenager from any background would understand.
Oddly enough, by banning the niqab France has come down on the side of
fathers and husbands, not of the women it’s trying to protect.
Some had hoped the debate about the niqab would serve as a catalyst to
addressing violence against women that is often excused as religious
practice, such as honor killings.
The environment evolving in France is proving otherwise. Women affected by
this ban no longer believe that a police force issuing fines and unfairly
detaining them will turn around and protect them. Many don’t report the
abuse they’re enduring on public streets. To expect them to report domestic
violence is farfetched.
In the months ahead, more European countries will be introducing similar
legislation: Italy, Spain, Belgian, the Netherlands. If the intention
behind such bans is truly intended to protect Muslim women, parliaments of
these countries should learn from France’s mistakes. Unlike French
Commission members who heard testimony from just one Muslim woman at the
very end of the process (and only after they demanded she unveil her face
when she speak), parliaments of other European countries must hear
testimonies from a variety of Muslim women to understand the ramifications
that such a ban would have on their lives. Even better, let Muslim women
from these immigrant communities voice what legislation they believe should
be passed to best protect them against abuse.
Currently, France’s ban is as disempowering and insulting to Muslim women
as bans in certain Middle Eastern countries against wearing Western
clothes. Women are not being protected but targeted -- by governments who
pass such insidious bans, then by Muslim and nonMuslim members of society
who feel licensed to enforce them. True acts of feminism are not about
using power to limit a woman’s choices of dress, thereby excluding her from
public spaces and stripping her of her rights. True feminism is protecting
a woman by protecting her rights -- which includes the right to freely wear
clothing that she, not others, find appropriate.
Causes Samina Ali Supports
Women for Women International
WISE: Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity...