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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid

Published on Oct 25, 2006 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for National Review Online

An Unveiling Separate, but Acceptable?

A Symposium


Muslim women veiling has become the subject of intense controversy in Britain in recent days, with Prime Minister Tony Blair calling the veil a "mark of separation." National Review Online asked a group of commentators — including Bill Bennett, Mona Charen, Phyllis Chesler, Andrew McCarthy, Emanuele Ottolenghi, and Daniel Pipes, to weigh in on the questions: Should the nikab be banned? CAN it be?

Western democracies pride themselves on religious freedom and on the separation of religion and state. From this point of view, we are upholding our own most cherished values by allowing diverse expressions of faith. However, this may also prove to be our downfall. The veil in Muslim lands is imposed upon women whose religious training and opportunities for scholarship and ritual authority is practically nonexistent. The veil is no more freely chosen than is their religion, which neither women nor men are allowed to leave without risking exile or death. Muslim women in Muslim lands or in immigrant communities in the West might gain their only access to public attention and approval if and when they espouse a fundamentalist point of view, namely one that favors Islamic gender and religious apartheid and that upholds the view that women must be veiled.

However, when Muslim women in Western countries wear the veil it has some additional connotations. Veiling is a visible, public, symbolic, and very aggressive statement about refusing to assimilate into a Jewish-Christian and modern democracy. It is a way of remaining apart, different. Also, a professional who is fully veiled (a teacher, physician, lawyer, driving instructor), cannot really do her job. In addition, veiling oneself may also be a way of rebelling in a romantic and nihilistic fashion against a grandparental pro-assimilation generation who worked long hours for small wages in countries now perceived as "colonialist" and "racist." For such young women, often encouraged by their male counterparts, they are literally "taking the veil" for Islam, Allah, and the caliphate. It is a way of rejecting sexual promiscuity, sexual availability in the West and paradoxically, embracing Islamic gender apartheid (arranged marriage, polygamy, wife-beating, segregation, female genital cutting, honor killing, etc.).

If veiling did not mean any of the above I might have one view about it — but might still view it as a slippery-slope problem. But since veiling does have the above meanings I say this: If we allow our Western views about tolerance to force us to tolerate the intolerant; if we allow human-rights violations to flourish as expressions of religious liberty — then we are lost. Thus, I would ban veiling in the workplace, at school, and in public venues but at this time take no position about it at home or in the mosque in the West.


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