Combating oppressive use of veils by banning veils is like trying to combat sexual abuse by banning sex.
So many who raise their voices against the use of veils are good people, who want to do good and just help people. So many who even would want to ban veils aren’t racists, aren’t nationalists, not even traditionalists. To so many the veil is purely a tool of oppression, and as such it is to be combated. Anyone defending the veil becomes pro-oppression. Any woman who voluntarily uses the veil becomes a misguided, brainwashed victim who has been indoctrinated into maintaining her own oppression.
Well there are veils, and there are veils, right? The veil worn by a Catholic nun isn’t a sign of oppression, right? Or maybe it is? How about a Sikh man covering his hair with a turban? Oh but then it’s a man and the context is different. Sortof? Or for that matter, a pagan making the choice to wear a veil as a part of her religious practice? There are those too. Veiled neo-heathens covering their hair and/or face when in public as a part of their personal faith. Not usually the ones we think of as oppressed anyway, quite the opposite. It’s the use of veils among Muslim women we should be wary of, no? That’s where the oppression is, or…? Or maybe it’s a matter of how much the veil covers? Say, maybe it’s alright to cover the hair but not the neck? Not the face?
It’s undeniable that in some cultures, be it now or in the past, the veil has been used as a tool of oppression. There is no denying it! It can be a textile prison, veiled bondage, keeping the woman under male control, keeping her concealed and hidden from the world – and in the process also hiding the world from the woman. Hopefully all who may stumble upon this blog can agree on this at least, oppressive, forced veiling is a terrible thing that should be combated.
But we need to realize that not all veiling is oppressive. A person may in fact choose to wear a veil, even one that covers the face, and not be a victim. Be it a Muslim, a Christian, a Pagan, or whatever religion and/or culture the person identifies as.
We don’t have a ban against veils here in Sweden, but like in so many western countries there is an anti-veil movement. Or well, “movement” may indicate that it’s a bit more organized than it in fact is. But it’s there, both those who are against veils because, well, they are anti-muslim, and those who are against veils because they believe it a symbol of oppression. Wide, vocal protests against veils at work, or in public places, or in adverts.
Forget any why’s for a moment, and just think of what it is. It’s cloth. A garment. Does society really have the right to forbid people from using certain garments? Or rather, should society have that right? Well, there are already all sorts of other standards, aren’t there? Rules against being nude in public, for example? Rules against wearing certain symbols maybe, symbols that are associated with hate and racism? And now, is it really reasonable to allow people to mask their faces? I for one would be quite happy to not see masked violent hooligans, covering your identity in order to anonymously commit crimes is after all a big no-no in my book. So maybe it’s not so far fetched after all to ban certain items of clothing?
It really is not a simple question, even though it may seem like one. But if we leave out the identification aspect, and just look at the idea of banning an item of clothing for ideological or moral reasons, it comes back to if the garment is offensive or not. Many would think it offensive to see men walk around in public with their genitals exposed, for example, so we don’t allow that. Walking around with a swastika may be offensive if it is seen as a symbol to encourage Nazism, obviously. And… the veil could similarly be an offensive symbol to encourage oppression, even when the wearer isn’t being forced to wear one?
The veil is a symbol of oppression. But it is also not a symbol of oppression. If we deny people the right to wear veils we try to save them from oppression by…. oppressing them? Yeah, that makes sense.
To me, the only relevant argument is that of identification. A veil that covers you from head to toe does conceal your identity, after all. It is as a mask. In public spaces, should people be allowed to be completely anonymous? I must admit this is where I still can not quite reach a solid conclusion, it’s that age old problem of freedom vs safety. Should people be allowed to wear masks, for whatever reason, in public spaces? I am inclined to say yes, and no. Depends on situation. And if need be a person should be ready to actually take the mask off to verify ones identity, probably.
But that question, of identification, is still not what makes people protest the use of most veils, or headscarves. The central issue here is still, should veils be allowed even though veiling sometimes is a part of an oppressive system?
And here I got back to my initial, crude analogy. Sex. Sex that is not done for the sake of procreation, I should perhaps say. Some like it, some don’t. It may be empowering, it may give pleasure, self confidence and strength. Or it can be absolutely devastating to a person’s psyche, it can be abusive, and even when not directly violent it may be a part of an oppressive practice. How do we combat the negative aspects? Do we combat sexual abuse by banning sex overall? Well of course not, because sex and sexual abuse are not the same. Physically it may be the same but, it’s not the same.
It’s the same with veiling. Physically a veil is a veil. But in reality, it may be anything. It may be a symbol of personal beliefs, of faith. It may be a fashion statement. It may be something that brings higher self esteem or strength. Or it may be what drags you down, what hurts you, what cuts you off from the world and keeps you under the control of another.
The only reasonable way of combating oppressive veiling is by combating the oppression, not the veil. Just as we are so good at teaching girls that it is alright to say no to sex, that no one is allowed to force you to sex, be it by violent means or by blackmail or by implicit threats, it is not ok for anyone to force you into it. Have sex if you want to have sex but know that it is your choice, it is your body. How hard can it be to see the same principles used in the veiling issue? Wear a veil if you want, but it is never ok for people to force you to wear one, be it by threats of physical punishment or threats of being shamed in the eyes of your community. It is your choice, it is your body.
But what about all those who are manipulated into wearing veils? Well, there are those who are manipulated into having sex too. It still doesn’t mean we can ban sex overall in order to get to the sexual abuse. All we can do is make sure every single person is free to make the choice. To have help ready for those who raise a hand and say help, I don’t want this but I am forced to. To see legal consequences for those that attempt to force others into veiling against their will.
Don’t try to free people by taking away their freedom to choose.