Civil Liberties

Muslim Women Who Wear Veils Are Choosing to Be Unequal

Even in liberal democracies, Muslim women who cover their faces relegate themselves to second-class citizenship.


Credit: flequi / photo on flickr

In October, Canadians voted out Stephen Harper's Conservative Party in favor of Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party. The election sideshow that captivated me most centered on whether a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, Zunera Ishaq, should wear a niqab during her citizenship ceremony (a niqab is face covering that leaves only a women's eyes visible). Courts had recently struck down the government's ban on niqabs, though it only covered citizenship ceremonies. Harper favored the ban, saying the the niqab is part of an "anti-women" culture. His position gave him momentum in the polls, but also raised cries of Islamophobia and intolerance. Ironically, Harper's take on the niqab is precisely that which liberals and feminists once held.

A long time ago, I was engaged to a woman who wore a hijab, a head scarf that frames the face and, unlike the niqab, leaves a woman's face fully visible. I later lived in the United Arab Emirates, where I taught English to Arab women. All wore the hijab. The differences between the hijab and the niqab are significant. The hijab in no way impedes a women's ability to communicate. In some forms of Islam, extensive covering of a woman's face and body is related to female modesty because it's believed that women seduce men merely by revealing themselves. In any case, women are held responsible for whatever feelings they arouse in men. Billboards all over the Middle East reinforce this as they show variations of two pieces of candy, one wrapped and "safe," one "uncovered" and swarmed by flies, with captions of "Hijab/niqab is security," or "Which candy would you eat?"

Yet all the hijabis I've known personally have spoken out against the niqab as a demeaning practice, something only used by ultra-fundamentalist Muslims. That's because covering the face limits women's opportunity. By taking away the ability to communicate and interact with other humans, face coverings obliterate identity and thus ensure second-class status.

Yet as the Canadian controversy was playing out, voices on the feminist left seemed united in favor of the niqab. Writing at Huffington Post Canada, Shahla Khan Salter lamented that Muslims are "on the brink of losing our fundamental freedoms" if women were forced to remove their face coverings during citizenship ceremonies. I'm not sure why Salter feels the mandate to show your face at a citizenship oath equates to tyranny, but she believes that the anti-niqabi stance derives from "hatred," and she says the 3.4 percent of Canadians who are Muslims all felt threatened by Harper and his minions. She's wrong.

Indeed, a poll found that 57 percent of Toronto's citizens—including 48 percent of its Muslims—support a ban at citizenship ceremonies. At HuffPo Canada, Raheel Raza argued in favor of a more extensive ban of "the niqab and burka in public." She writes, "As a Muslim mother who never saw a niqab when I was growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, I am astonished to see Canada's judiciary caving in to Islamists who have nothing but contempt for Canada's values of gender equality."

Philosophically, I am against state bans of this sort, but that's only one part of the discussion (albeit arguably the most important part from a libertarian perspective). But I agree with Muslims such as Raza who think the niqab is by definition dehumanizing and sexist. Tolerance implies a two-way street, and the niqab is a narrow, one-way alley. Yes, some women choose the niqab, and to chide them as suffering from theological Stockholm Syndrome may be unfair and patronizing. But the fact remains that such women have willfully chosen to be unequal.

That Saudi Arabia has strict dress codes is connected to why women are not allowed to drive or vote. The most powerful Saudi Arabian woman still takes a back seat to any Saudi male. The more covered women are, the less equality they have, and this is quantifiable. Consider life for women under the Taliban, the Islamic State, or Boko Haram. Could Benazir Bhutto have led Pakistan in a niqab?

In secular democracies that protect individual rights and religious expression and practice, we can champion a woman's right to cover herself. But should we be blind to or silent about what the niqab represents? Though we may unequivocally support the right of individuals to make wrong choices, we also reserve the right to criticize such decisions (and to have our decisions criticized as well). The notion that niqab offers women freedom or power should be excoriated for the delusion that it is. Simply, women can have equality or the niqab, but not both.