Face-Veiling, National Identity, and Higher Education
The issue of “face-veiling”, that is a Muslim woman covering all or most of her face (in addition to her hair and the rest of her body), has exploded in the past few months from Canada to Egypt, but particularly – for now – in France. Why in France and why now, and what’s the situation in Canada, Italy, and the rest of the West? We’ll get to that shortly. I’ll discuss the situation in Egypt in Part 2 of this contribution, both because the Egyptian context is largely different from that of western countries and because it is directly related to what concerns us here, mainly, higher education. (This issue doesn’t have much to do with science, at least for now, but it is relevant to this blog through the higher-education connection…)
But before we get to those socio-political contexts, I need to sort out the terms that are so commonly used nowadays and which may confuse the outside observers. In France, the whole controversy revolves around “burqa” (which is the full head cover, just slightly transparent for the woman to see); in Egypt, it’s about “niqab” (which leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes); and digging just a bit, one will find references to “jilbab” (full-body cover, including the hands, but not necessarily the face), “hijab” (the “normal” Islamic cover, which leaves the face and hands uncovered), and many other variations in names and style, reflecting the ethnic, cultural, and level of conservatism of the Muslim person or society.
Now, I should immediately note that over the past decade or so, I have witnessed an explosion in the numbers of women deciding to veil their faces in places that had no such tradition, e.g. Egypt, not to mention France and other European countries. Previous to that, from the seventies and until the nineties, the “normal” Islamic covering (leaving the face and hands “open”) had slowly become the norm, even in countries that had become largely secular (at least officially), e.g. Turkey and Tunisia. The reasons for such major sociological shifts are probably being studied by experts with more depth than I could provide here, but I think that in addition to the general religious (and especially Islamic) resurgence of greater observance, one must “credit” (or blame) the Saudis, who exported their brand of Islam with money or resources in the form of books, trained Imams and preachers, religious schools and built mosques, etc… We may come back to this hugely important issue some other time.
Now, in France, the emergence of this trend, although small in numbers (face-veiling women are estimated at between 300 and 2,000 out of some 3 million Muslim women), occurred at the same time as the country was veering to the right (with the election of Sarkozy, the right’s dominance of the Parliament for many years now, and the spectacular rise of the far right, though lately it has dimmed a bit) – leading to the expected clash.
In 2004 France voted a law forbidding girls from wearing their headscarves to the classrooms, and in 2009 an official debate was started around “national identity” (led by the Minister of Immigration), which quickly degenerated into a discussion of “burqa”. A parliamentary panel was formed to issue recommendations on whether to ban the wearing of the “burqa”, and pro and con voices shouted from both sides of the fence, including Catholics and Jews who oppose such a proposed ban and Muslims who favor it, and Socialists mostly abhorring the practice but seeing a ban as counterproductive, if not unconstitutional.
What are the arguments of each side? Those calling for the ban see the “burqa” as a sign of oppression of the women wearing it, mostly implying that it’s the Muslim men (husbands, fathers) who impose it upon the women (Sarkozy referred to it as “a sign of submission, a sign of corruption”). This was countered by several face-veiling women appearing on TV shows and in documentaries explaining that not only have they done that on their full free will, but that many of them are French converts who are not even married. Still others add that it is just not concordant with the cultural “values” of the French society, which any citizen or resident must accept and abide by, as such values are transformed into rules or laws. (A year ago, the application of a fully veiled woman was rejected because “she was not sufficiently assimilated into French society.”) In general, there is a feeling that allowing this trend to go unopposed would just give ground to the latent fundamentalism that’s lurking within the Muslim community.
On the other side, the opposers of the ban see it as – paradoxically – a limitation of women’s freedom, the freedom to cover from (and even shut themselves off of) society instead of being sexually “liberated” (in the sense of wearing as little as they want and going by the sexual norms of the society). Furthermore, the defenders of the right to wear the “burqa” believe it is counterproductive to ban the practice, and that it is much better to educate by opening a dialogue.
The latest developments: in late January the parliamentary panel submitted its recommendations to the prime minister, calling for a ban in public places (schools, hospitals, administrations, and public transports) – at least in a first phase. In early February, a man’s application for citizenship was denied for his having declared that he would not allow his wife to go out with her face uncovered.
This debate and these developments will undoubtedly have repercussions in other western countries. In Italy, the Minister of Equal Opportunities has declared that she favors a similar ban as the coming French one. But just like in France, although the public is largely in favor (around 70 % supporting a ban), some lawmakers and public figures are strongly against. One leftist senator said that while she sees the burqa as “a prison and a form of male dominance”, she thinks “it’s wrong to ban it… because it would not help emancipate women.” In Canada, a judge recently ruled that a Muslim woman had to take off her face veil while giving testimony in a court trial.
We will surely be hearing much more such discussion of Islamic covering in various corners of the globe. In Part 2, I will describe the latest situation in Egypt and how issues of higher education have gotten entangled in this debate. Stay tuned.