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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Hijab & Burqa

Published on Jul 19, 2010 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for NewsRealBlog

Syria Bans Face Veil, British Minister and American Feminists Defend the Burqa


Syria—yes, Syria—Bashar Asad's Syria–has just banned full face veils in their universities.

According to Syria's minister of higher education, "All female students wearing the full face veil will be barred from Syrian university campuses … the niqab contradicts university ethics and compromises the government's secular identity."

Amazingly, the Minister confirmed that "hundreds of primary school teachers who were wearing the niqab at government-run schools were transferred last month to administrative jobs."

Other Arab, Muslim countries with long and hard-won secular identities are now also under attack by fundamentalists and Islamists who want to face-veil women or at least to have them wear headscarves. Thus, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are now also at risk. Jordan's government has tried to discourage face veils by "playing up reports of robbers who wear veils as masks. Turkey also bans Muslim headscarves in universities, with many saying "attempts to allow them in schools amount to an attack on modern Turkey's secular laws."

Whoa, Nellie!

So, Syria, Venezuela's and Iran's partner—Syria!—is banning the female Islamic face veil. And yet just today, none other than British Minister Carolyn Spelman, the Environment Secretary, indeed, the second most powerful woman in the Cabinet, giddily described the burqa as "empowering." Furthermore, she said: "I don't, living in this country as a woman, want to be told what I can and can't wear. One of the things we pride ourselves on in this country is being free, and being free to choose what you wear is part of that, so banning the burka is absolutely contrary I think to what this country is about."

She goes further. Based on a visit to Afghanistan, she says that she better understands why Muslim women want to wear the chaudry/burqa/niqab: "For them [in Afghanistan], it confers dignity."

Of course, Britain is not joining France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, and Italy in proposing any kind of ban on face coverings (or the Islamic Veil).

In America, as I've written elsewhere, our president is proud of our efforts on behalf of a Muslim girl's right to wear hijab in school. (Yes, hijab, the headscarf that Turkey, France, and parts of Germany have banned in public schools. More: Various American feminists view the essentially non-existent "choice" to wear the Islamic Veil as akin to a feminist choice, a feminist right. (For a long time I and a handful of other feminists have despaired of the use of feminist concepts to justify, even glorify, being a "sex worker," a "surrogate uterus," etc. My Body, Myself—Because My Mind Is Sure Gone).

Indeed, feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in the august pages of the New York Times, recently insisted that the burqa wearers are not coerced into wearing the shroud-like garment, nor is it really uncomfortable, dangerous to one's health, or associated with violence against women. She doesn't believe that showing one's face for purposes of identification is even really necessary—and that, of course, banning the burqa would be "discriminatory." Nussbaum deftly marshals all her arguments without even getting to the "delicate issue of religiously grounded accomodation." In her view, a ban would be "unacceptable in a society committed to equal liberty. Equal respect for conscience requires us to reject" all the arguments that have been made against face veiling.

Oh yeah. And, in a response to reader comments Nussbaum brings it all back to herself. Once, a nearby construction project filled her office with dust. Allergic, she started wearing a mask and a scarf to protect herself. And she felt just fine, thank you very much. She did not feel as if she'd lost any individuality or dignity.

Martha: Tell that to a non-professor, non-teacher, non-literate ten year old Afghan girl who is being forced to wear the chaudry/burqa and to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. Tell that to someone who has been threatened with being honor-murdered if her headscarf slips or if she refuses to face veil.

Finally, Stuart Schneiderman, at his own witty blog, has written a piece called "Burqaphilia." I will let him have the last word here. Schneiderman says that:

Burqaphilia is a philosophical affliction that besets the mind of an otherwise intelligent feminist, making it impossible for her to support a ban on the most conspicuous modern form of female oppression.

When a feminist who has railed against female objectification, both real and imagined, cannot bring herself to denounce an instrument that reduces women to the status of objects, she is suffering from burqaphilia.

A feminist philosopher can explain to you with the most exquisitely twisted logic why miniskirts and lip gloss make women into sexual objects, but when it comes to a cultural practice, enforced by terror, that makes women into social non-entities, she feels that it is beneath her liberal dignity to support a ban on the practice.


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