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The Right to Not be Seen: How a Piece of Cloth is Dividing Europe

Denmark recently followed France’s example of banning face coverings in public places, hitting niqab-wearing Muslim women the hardest. Shortly after, a Muslim couple were denied Swiss citizenship for refusing to shake hands with people of the opposite sex.  Do these cases represent a justifiable attempt to limit crime and facilitate cultural integration, or an unnecessary attack on freedom of religion, of dress, and of personal boundaries? The question of one’s right to cover their face doesn’t only affect one religious or gender group, but touches on a question which applies to us all.

How we dress ourselves is above all a personal choice. The only exceptions are when it negatively affects others – but of course, this is not always measurable. Just as some would argue that certain provocative slogans should be banned, others would call it harmless self-expression or freedom of speech. And while some look away in horror at the sight of what they deem too much flesh on display in public – even labelling it offensive or immoral – others would claim that it is the person’s choice how much of their body they wish to expose and need not be up for debate. This presents a deeper issue of to what extent we should sacrifice our own self-expression to accommodate to the tastes of others.

Denmark #NiqabBan

It recently hit the news that Denmark has decided to criminalise the niqab – i.e. the full facial covering where only the eyes are visible, which is worn by a small minority of Muslim women. This has been banned in France since 2011.

Although deemed an Islamophobic move by some, as reported by Time, Denmark’s new law ‘does not specifically mention the niqab (a veil that covers the face except for the eyes) or burqa (more conservative headwear that covers the head and body and includes a mesh screen over the eyes). It is up to police to judge whether a face covering is in violation of the ban and to instruct the offender to go home. Fines range from 1,000 krone ($156) up to 10,000 krone ($1,568) for repeat offenses.’

You could argue that although we all have the right to cover our bodies as much as we wish, covering the face is another issue altogether. There is a clear difference in terms of public security between women choosing to wear long skirts and a headscarf, to women completely covering themselves from head to toe, to the point that they are unidentifiable.

Even many devout Muslims would agree that the niqab is an unnecessary step too far. While the argument still stands that how much of ourselves we expose is no one’s decision but our own, criminalising the concealment of one’s face in public places could potentially limit crime, depriving those with ill intentions from their anonymity.

That being said, another key argument selected by Denmark was that the face veil creates a barrier to integration. There is certainly something to be said here, as the niqab would no doubt deter many who do not wear it from initiating a conversation with them. But is this really a political matter? Some people are shy and choose not to spark conversations with strangers. Should this be made a criminal offense too?

This ban begs the question of whether we really have an obligation to expose our face. And when this rule is enforced, are there any exceptions? Could someone get stopped by the Police for shielding their face on a windy day, for instance, or if their face is covered due to an injury? Indeed, these examples are unlikely to be debated at such a high level and with such seriousness. What is it about covering one’s face with a niqab which specifically sparks such fierce opposition?

In reality, we all know the answer: it is not the piece of cloth itself, but rather the ideology that this garment represents. Some would call it oppressive, or associate it with radicalism; there is a stubborn stigma attached to this look. But should law-abiding, well-meaning women be punished for this?

Switzerland #Handshake

Another recent divisive event happened in Switzerland, where a Muslim couple’s refusal to shake the hands of officials from the opposite sex. Shunned by Swiss Immigration Authorities as a demonstration of a ‘lack of gender equality,’ others argue that one should not have to touch anyone or make themselves feel physically comfortable in order to be granted citizenship to a country.

On the one hand, one must comply to certain standards of a country to be accepted, and to benefit from the status as citizen. That said, there are many reasons why somebody may not feel comfortable touching the hand of another person – from sufferers of OCD to sexual assault survivors – there are a plethora of reasons why someone might feel uncomfortable touching a stranger.

Cultural or religious values is just one of the many reasons – just as Brits often shudder at the continental European custom of kissing strangers on the cheek, many European men would opt out of the Saudi Arabian norm of men rubbing noses when meeting. It comes as no surprise that normal to one person is just plain awkward or even intrusive to another. Overall, forcing a human to touch another human in a way that violates their personal boundaries, however trivial it may appear to others, is not a good or progressive thing. But should this couple and others like them be forced to conform to every miniscule custom of their host country to demonstrate their integration?

Katarina Premfors/Getty Images Source: This Insider

Indeed, the question of immigration and integration is nuanced. There are certain customs that countries require new citizens to respect – whether it be a dress code, drug and alcohol restrictions, or the status of women and LGBTQ (with Norway’s’ recent controversial introduction of “rape prevention classes” for Syrian refugees). Maybe we just need to accept that multiculturalism is hard and societies which embrace it will inevitably be presented with an array of challenges and quirks –  so handshakes or women’s dress should perhaps be a little lower on the list of priorities.

France #BurkiniBan

A similar debate surrounding Muslim women choice of attire came about in 2016 with France’s questionable criminalisation of the “burkini” – that is – a full-length swimming costume which also covers the hair. This may be old news now, but the root cause of the polemic is more relevant than ever.

Is this social progress? Photograph:

This ban was ridiculed by the global community due to the lack of clarity and undetermined motivation of the law – which essentially made it compulsory for women to reveal their bodies at the beach. This utter disbelief peaked when news broke that French police forced a woman to remove her clothing on a beach following the ban. Is it the garment itself that the government forbids? Or the very action of a woman daring not to reveal her body in a setting where, in Western societies, it is the norm?

Again, it seems the real reason why French authorities felt such extreme measures necessary was because such conservative clothing allegedly did not correspond with French liberal culture. But in reality, what is liberal about the police dictating what you can wear while you mind your own business at the seaside? Thankfully, they were mostly condemned for this move, but we still see echoes of this sinister breed of supposed “liberalism” sprouting up over Europe.

The reality is that regardless of personal religious beliefs, everyone has different degrees of how much of their body they feel comfortable showing to the world – and this is (usually) accepted. Some women choose to wear bikinis, some prefer a little more coverage. It is a personal choice. In many European countries, it is not uncommon to find women going completely topless, whereas in others you would get aghast looks at best, and arrested at worse!

How we dress and how we display our bodies is a profoundly personal thing – and should perhaps not be a topic for political debate. And since this is not a question of face covering it cannot be deemed a security threat – what then is excusable about punishing women for not showing their bodies?

Muslim lifestyle & Fashion blogger Dina Torkia / “Dina Tokio” Source: Huffington Post UK

UK-based Muslim lifestyle and fashion blogger, Dina Torkia makes it her mission to normalise more modest fashion choices. (And let’s not forget that modest clothing such as longer hems and even head coverings are certainly not unique to Islamic culture, with the headscarf in particular having been a fashion symbol in Europe in decades past, making the stigma associated to a piece of fabric even more confusing.)

On the topic of France’s controversial ban, for which several mainstream British news outlets had used Torkia’s photo while sporting an alleged burkini on the beach, she used the fact that she was actually wearing cycling gear to prove her point that it was the act of women covering their bodies at the beach which had been criminalised, and not a garment. If it was legal for her to wear cycling clothes, then why not on the beach? And if cycling clothes are allowed, then why not an almost identical outfit which had the word “burkini” on the tag?  

The fact is, this particular ban lacked substance. In Torkia’s own words: ‘This is just men telling women what to wear again and again.’

The Issue of Security

When it comes to restrictions on how much of our bodies we may keep covered in public places, the most serious issue is that of public safety and security. As much as it is up to the individual how much of their body they cover, covering the face is an issue, as it allows a worrying level of anonymity.

Indeed, most niqab-wearers have no bad intentions, but if it is not obligatory to show one’s face in public, then in theory there is no problem with a gang of men to march down the street, or into a school or bank, wearing balaclavas or masks. If Muslim women are allowed to cover their entire faces, then the law cannot discriminate against others who wish to do the same.  

Public safety and security is perhaps a fair justification for banning the niqab; This is about requiring people to show their face when concealing it could be a potential threat to security. And while in some countries this requirement may be limited to airports or banks, other states may choose to require you to show your face the moment you step out of the front door. Like with any law, the state has a certain degree of choice to determine their own boundaries.

The Issue of Oppression of Women

The subject of female oppression is often raised when it comes to Islamic modest dress. Some would claim that even when a woman is not forced into covering herself, the decision is a result of being either brought up in or brainwashed by the seemingly oppressive ideology that women’s bodies should not be seen. However, similar claims can be made for any custom!

You could argue that Western women have been brainwashed into wearing more revealing clothes, that Europe cultivates a belief-system that shaking hands or kissing the cheeks of the opposite sex is okay. While there certainly will be cases of oppressed hijab or niqab-wearing women, it is hypocritical and close-minded for non-Muslims to make sweeping generalisations about a vast and diverse religious group, when according to Oxfam, no society is actually 100% free of gender discrimination. On top of that, isn’t telling women what they can and can’t wear under the argument that otherwise they will be oppressed a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Perhaps the niqab is problematic due to it fuelling the ideology that women should not be seen. That it is not the responsibility of men not to harass, but that the woman should be responsible. Nowadays more than ever, widespread “rape culture” – a term coined in the 1970s meaning a society which normalises sexual violence and objectification of women, which teaches women to hide themselves, rather than teaching men not to be aggressors in the first place – is being called out like never before.

While some feminists support niqabis and their plea to choose how they dress, others will not get on board with an ideology which promotes the concealment of women, as it suggests that women are responsible for being harassed by men. It could even be said that rather than the suggestion that women should cover up being an insult to women, it is more so an insult to men, by suggesting that they are unable to control their own impulses.

However, it is a commonly held belief by non-Muslims that women who dress this way have no real choice. They have either been directly told to cover up, or have been brought up in a culture which has manipulated their perspective into one that makes them feel the need to do so. Although there is no doubt that these stories of oppression exist, it is simply not the case that all niqab-wearing women have been forced into this lifestyle. Many even claim that this choice doesn’t even have anything to do with men, but is rather an act of worship and personal devotion. And indeed, freedom of religion is a basic human right.

An increasing number of women in the West – either from non-Muslim families or less strict Muslim backgrounds where it is not the norm to cover – are choosing to wear the niqab, often against their own families’ wishes.

The rising Finnish YouTuber, ‘Niqabi Nextdoor,’ is an example of this group of increasingly visible European Muslim converts. Having come from a non-Muslim Finnish family, the young woman now covers not only her body, hair and face, but even wears gloves to conceal her hands, so that not even a centimeter of skin can be seen. She makes videos offering support to other niqabi women, or Muslim women considering to start wearing the niqab, from tips on how to store her niqab collection, to how to eat in public while wearing it.

Her soft-spoken yet unapologetic demeanor means that the young influencer has not only brought a previously lacking niqab-wearing voice to the growing polemic, but it also challenges the commonly held stereotype of “niqabi” women as oppressed voiceless victims, who until recently did not have a noticeable social media presence and were expected to be seen and not heard.

The Issue of Culture

The fact is that there is no “absolute” when it comes to culture – and when it comes to the more minor differences there is no definitive list of right or wrong. Yet few are willing to look past the way that their own culture has constructed their sense of normal ways to present themselves or interact with others – we as humans are simply wired to assimilate into the crowd which we have come to know.

Muslim women may be called out for being “brainwashed” into covering themselves – but have we not all been influenced by our environments? Whether or not to wear makeup, what style of clothes we choose, how we demonstrate our gender,  the foods we deem acceptable to eat, and every element of how we live our lives, is more often than not a choice based on our personal environments – either from our upbringing or influences which touched us later in life. Implying that Muslim women have any less free will than the rest of us is really rather ignorant.

Moving Forwards or Backwards?

The question at the core of it all is this: Does anyone have the right, namely the authority of a supposedly tolerant and multicultural society, to assert their own cultural norms over another? In many ways, European societies are more progressive, accepting and tolerant than ever before. From women’s liberation, to LGBTQ rights, to social mobility – although not perfect and at varying stages from country to country, overall Europe is doing pretty well as a region.

That said, the European community is also potentially taking a U-turn in other areas – women’s dress and sexuality being a prime example of how we are at risk of going back on progress we have already made. Essentially, the paradox of modern liberalism is that it must also, by definition, allow people to not be liberal. Jacques Derrida referred to this as an “autoimmunity” – in that liberalism by its very nature is vulnerable to self-sabotage. By allowing people to live as they wish, in theory, they should also be able make more conservative choices.

When it comes to cultural clashes such as these, we must ask ourselves: is multiculturalism about conforming, or about diversity? Perhaps countries such as Switzerland and France who – claim to house diverse, tolerant, multicultural societies – need to accept that they can’t then expect this array of newcomers to conform to their relatively narrow perception of “normality.” Diversity means being open to and accepting new ways of doing things.

While a degree of integration into the host society is essential (although the jury is out as to how much is acceptable), it is both unrealistic and unethical to expect a complete shedding of one’s home culture.

That said, when it comes to public safety, lines sometimes have to be drawn, even when it means sacrifices have to be made by well-meaning citizens. Perhaps the right to cover one’s face in public, when doing so could allow less well-meaning citizens to take advantage of this right to commit crimes anonymously, is an example of where the individual must pass up a personal freedom for the greater good of the community.

Roxanna Azimy
Roxanna is a British and Iranian advocacy writer specialised in human rights, health, and welfare. With a languages degree from King's College London, a Masters in European Studies from LSE, and an EU communications background, she strives to increase the visibility of ethical and sociocultural issues in Europe and beyond. Twitter: @RoxannaYasmin Medium: @RoxannaAzimy

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