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Seeing Things Through

Seeing Things Through

Issue 74 November 2010

Multiculturalism has not gone far enough when a woman’s right to dress in the way she chooses continues to be debated.


France has taken the discussion on Muslim women’s dress one step further.  In September, the French Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill - 246 to 1 - that would ban wearing the Islamic full veil, which covers the face in public. The proposed measure was already backed by the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, in July. The ban will come into force in six months’ time if it is not overturned by constitutional judges.
The catchy alternative name in the English speaking world for this legal prohibition is the ‘burqa ban’. When it comes to discussing the full face veil – almost always referred to emotively in Western Europe as the the ‘burqa’ - there is almost always one missing constant in the debate. And it was missing throughout the discussion in France: the woman who wears the ‘burqa’.
If, as the opponents of the ‘burqa’ claim, it is a form of oppression, then it is doubly oppressing that the woman cannot represent herself and air her own views. 
So the other possibility for the absence of these voices is that there are in fact, very few women who wear the ‘burqa’, and maybe there are just not enough to go around and speak at all the events, political posturing debates and media interviews, discussing their clothing choices. In fact, in Western Europe there are probably only a handful, if any, who wear the burqa - the Afghan style of covering. Those few who do cover their faces wear a niqab, a simple face veil. This might seem a small visual and semantic difference, but it highlights the point that it is the most extreme instance that is used to polarise this debate – a debate which is already about an extremely small group of people in the first place.
Maybe the ‘burqa’ is a red-herring? A red herring for those who want to return to a homogenised society by claiming that there is too much difference. And as usual it is the women – in this case the Muslim women – who are caught as the scapegoats, and are paying the price.
When it comes to numbers, the Danish government quotes 100 – 200 such women who cover their faces. In France, it’s somewhere between 367 and 2000.  In Sweden, the estimate is around 400, Holland around 100, and in Belgium a paltry 30.
So, why is something so incredibly miniscule in number, and in size and shape, the source of so much angst?
By protecting the right of women to dress in the way they choose, under the freedom of religion, some say that multiculturalism has gone too far, because the face covering is a sign of visible difference. I think it is the opposite. Today the face-veil engenders vitriol because it antagonises the basest elements of society who can’t bear to see society change. The vitriol is not present because multiculturalism has gone too far. It is present because it has not yet gone far enough.
These are the squeams and squirms of those who do not want society to change in any way, the Alf Garnetts of our age, but we just need to ride it out, and in time, society will adjust to this change.
When people say that women who cover are anti-western, or do not stem from European heritage, I would remind them that women’s covering was common till 50 years ago. Just recently, Cherie Blair was snapped with her hair covered with a black veil during the Pope’s visit. Even that much vaunted symbol of western women’s liberation – the mini skirt - wasn’t a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ piece of clothing inherited from any kind of European civilisational values. If anything, in earlier eras, Europeans were horrified with seemingly scantily clad heathen women that they found in their imperial travels across the world.
Society adjusted to the changes in women’s dress in the mid 20th century, and got used to the fact that women determined how they would dress. Society can adjust again. We shouldn’t stop and back-pedal now and claim that multiculturalism has failed. Instead, we must keep moving forward and see it through to its logical conclusion.
What the presence today of women who cover offers us, is the knowledge that we can live in the kind of society that allows us to be proud of the heritage, culture and backgrounds that have made each of us what we are on the inside and allows us to express ourselves with tolerance, freedom and mutual respect on the outside.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf, and writes a blog at

Click here to read more our articles from Shelina on emel

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