It began in France where Muslim schoolgirls were banned from
wearing the hijab. In Britain, politicians are mulling over whether to ban the
niqab, which covers the face. In the Netherlands, there is serious talk of
bringing in a new law forbidding Muslim women to cover their faces supposedly
for reasons of security. And now the Vatican has jumped into the fray.
A senior cardinal, Renato Martino, told members of the press
that immigrants should adhere to the laws of their host country, including any
ban on face covering, while Archbishop Agostino Marchetto indicated Muslims
must be made to realize that some of their religious traditions might be perceived
as negative in Western societies.
It�s surely an odd line for the Vatican to take when for
centuries the nun�s habit was pretty much all-encompassing. Members of some
orders went a step further spending their entire lives in seclusion without
speaking. Is there anything more separating than that?
Western brides traditionally wore veils (many still do) and
so did Spanish and Portuguese duennas, while all over the world masked balls
were common among the aristocracy.
The veil has long been perceived as a garment to protect a
woman�s modesty and this is the main reason Muslim women choose to wear it
It is true there is no compulsion in Islam for women to
cover their faces and, indeed, there is an ongoing debate among Muslims whether
this trend is advisable but surely this is a matter for the individual
concerned rather than the state.
People who live in democracies traditionally have the right
to dress as they please so this is much more than a debate over the veil. It�s
rather an attack on human rights and civil liberties.
If covering one�s face is banned where does this leave
people who don costumes for fancy dress parties? Will Mickey Mouse or Bugs
Bunny outfits become a no-no? What about men who dress up as Father Christmas,
their faces obscured by hoods and thick white beards? Will Halloween masks be
removed from stores? Will kids be denied a Zorro mask and cape?
And if that isn�t the case, why isn�t it? How could it
possibly be acceptable for people to wear a Dracula or Frankenstein mask to a
party but unacceptable for Muslim women to don the veil out of cultural or
One may also speculate on how these new laws will affect
accident victims, whose facial disfigurements preclude them from going out in
public without some kind of covering. There may come a day when the police will
be empowered to forcibly remove them under the guise of anti-terrorism laws.
In truth, there are very few Muslim women in Europe who wear
the full face-veil and none to my knowledge have been responsible for any
violent incident. Estimates suggest the new law would only affect around 50
women in the Netherlands, for instance. So, in this case, why are these women
being targeted in such a high-profile fashion?
In reality, the veil is a mere pretext for something that
goes far deeper -- growing European bigotry against Islam emanating from
governments, which is dangerously permeating down to the level of the street.
The problem is government actions are having the opposite
effect of that intended. In many European countries, including Britain, Muslims
feel under siege.
Following the announcement by the former British Foreign
Secretary Jack Straw that he would prefer Muslim visitors to his constituency
office not to wear the niqab, young British Muslim women began adopting the
garment as a mark of protest. At the same time, attacks on Muslims and mosques
were stepped up.
In other words, a �them and us� situation is being created
where formerly none existed. Holland, in particular was always famously
tolerant of ethnic and religious minorities. It�s a great pity that attitudes
toward Muslims have changed so dramatically.
It�s the same in Britain that once prided itself on its
multicultural richness and tolerance of all faiths. What happened to that
innate sense of fair play?
Tony Blair must take a large part of the blame with his
frequent references to an evil ideology to cover up his terrible foreign policy
blunders in concert with George W. Bush that have led to so much devastation
and bloodshed throughout the Muslim world.
Britons, in particular, should remember that there was no
serious division between Muslims and the rest of society before Iraq and
Blair�s refusal to call for a cease-fire during the recent Israel-Lebanon
Traditionally dressed ladies from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia
have been holidaying in Britain for decades and nobody objected when they wore
a burqa while shopping in London�s Oxford or Bond Street.
Nowadays, mere pieces of cloth -- the burqa, the niqab or
even the hijab -- are being demonized as symbols of Islam. If European Muslims
succumb to pressure and remove them, one wonders where this will all end.
Perhaps Muslim men will be forbidden beards. Maybe the thob will one day be
outlawed in this Christian club, which has erected barriers to Turkey�s entry,
supported by the Vatican.
It seems to me that the world I grew up in is becoming
unrecognizable. There used to be a sense of live and let live in the Britain of
my youth. If you wanted to walk down the street with spiky purple and orange
hair, a painted face and a pierced nose, wearing a leather jacket covered with
giant safety pins, you could.
Few felt uncomfortable coming across such apparitions in a
dark lane, yet a modest young woman whose face is obscured by a wedge of fabric
is seen as a major threat to society. How utterly ridiculous is that? Can
anyone say mass paranoia?
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.