The right to veil
19 Jan 2010

Suggesting banning women from dressing how they please is deeply offensive says Jess McCabe

Once again, the issue of veiling has resurfaced, this time after UKIP’s former party leader Nigel Farage called for Muslim women to be banned from covering their faces in public places and public buildings, according to the Guardian.

No doubt enlivened by the proposals for similar bans in France and Denmark (in the latter country, a recent study found that only the three women wear the burqa, along with a handful of women who wear the niqab). Farage wants us to believe such a ban would be neither “radical nor ridiculous”. The Guardian reports that he wants to impose such a ban in the name of: “preventing extremists from imposing their culture — including Sharia law — on Britain”.

When he talks about Muslim women who chose to wear the niqab (and other forms of veiling which involve covering their faces), as “imposing their culture” on Britain, we can learn a lot about where this illiberal and intolerant desire to uncover Muslim women comes from.

For Farage, the mere glimpse of a woman who chooses to veil in this way, and is therefore visibly ‘different’ to his concept of what British culture constitutes, is a threat. But what’s the real threat to British culture? Muslim women choosing to veil –– or UKIP, who wish to make this sartorial and religious choice illegal in public places?

Writing for the ever-so-sharp blog Muslimah Media Watch last year, Alicia said:

“It is all too easy to pounce on the weakest members of society (the women, the minorities, the Muslims) in an effort to reinforce the superiority of White European culture. To avoid appearing bigoted and xenophobic, this superiority is couched on enlightened values associated with the freedom of the individual.”

The fact that women covering their faces makes some people uncomfortable cannot, in a free, liberal society, be a justification for forcing them to conform to UKIP’s notions of what women should be wearing, or force them to choose between veiling and the right to enter public places and participate fully in society.

Given that Farage literally wants to restrict already marginalised women from accessing public space, his misuse of the rhetoric of feminism and women’s rights is ironic at best. And, perhaps it is no surprise he’s confused over what would increase women’s rights and what would restrict them, if we look at UKIP’s record on gender issues.

Jess McCabe is the editor of The F Word.

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5 responses to “The right to veil”

  1. […] expression is not only a right but the means to protect other rights, nor the social contributions women could make if their voices were not continually […]

  2. Karl Pfeifer says:

    How comes, that Muslim countries like for instance Turkey ban the veil at their Universities?
    And how about the bad example a teacher who wears such a veil would give the pupils?
    Should a woman have the right to present herself before a court in veil?

  3. Jess McCabe says:

    Yep, Emily is right, I don’t see this as a special case, all attempts to control what women wear in public places are wrong.

    That said, there’s undeniably a different texture to the calls for banning (some forms of) veiling, which a simple position against ‘censoring’ sartorial decisions would ignore. This is because it occurs in the context of ongoing Islamophobia and also, of course, sexist notions that women’s bodies are somehow ‘in the public domain’, and the intersection of these two issues with Orientalist notions about Muslim women.

    I’d really recommend reading the MMW post I linked to, which very clearly draws the connections between (overwhelmingly) male calls for ‘unveiling’ Muslim women and Orientalism.

    Those implications add layers to the debates on this ban that simply don’t apply in the same way to other cases.

    The issue of shopping centres banning teenagers wearing hoodies, though, is linked up to classism of course, and therefore has its own layers to untangle.

  4. @Cannonball Jones
    I’ll email your question onto her but I think its unlikely she’d see this as a special case just because the veil has a religious meaning.

    The idea of telling women what they can/can’t wear in public places is repugnant whether its the veil or a hoodie.

  5. It is offensive, but where was the furor over kids being banned from wearing hoodies which obscured their faces while in shopping malls? Or protestors being banned from wearing masks. Seems like half of the protests against the proposed ban come from the “it’s special because it’s religious/cultural’ camp rather than making a more general argument which would cover all forms of ‘dress code censorship’. Would be interested to hear the author’s views either way on the other two cases I mentioned.