Thought Babble

What do the Burqa and GDPR have in common? Our Right to Avoid Observation

Two years back, we discussed how Denmark controversially followed France’s example of banning face coverings in public places, hitting niqab-wearing Muslim women the hardest. Was this 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 debate hasn’t really become any clearer in the time since. If anything, conflicting opinions on privacy and data protection have only complicated the question at the heart of the Islamic dress issue –  which applies to us all – and is now being challenged in various ways: our right to avoid observation.

How much or little of ourselves we expose – whether that’s our physical body or our online activity and data – are deeply personal matters. But what about when we must sacrifice this right to avoid observation for the protection of the wider community?

When it comes to clothing,  some would argue that certain provocative slogans should be banned, while 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 labeling it offensive or immoral — others have a similar reaction to the long black burqas and chadors which are commonplace among some communities.

But to what extent should we sacrifice our own self-expression to accommodate the tastes of others?

Although deemed an “Islamophobic” move by some, laws which police religious or generally modest dress — such as those in France and Denmark, often do 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). In these cases, it is up to the Police to judge whether a face covering is indeed in violation of the ban.

Could then someone get stopped by the Police for shielding their face on a windy day, 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. So 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’s 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 undoubtedly a stubborn stigma attached to this look. But should law-abiding, well-meaning women be punished for this?

One 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?

The question of 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 people (just take a look at Norway’s’ controversial introduction of “rape prevention classes” for Syrian refugees). Maybe we just need to accept that multiculturalism is hard, and societies that embrace it will inevitably be presented with an array of challenges and quirks.

A similar debate surrounding Muslim women’s 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. 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.

The utter disbelief felt by all the critics of this move peaked when news broke that French police forced a woman to remove her clothing on a beach following the ban. So… is it the garment itself that the government forbids? Or is it rather the very act of a woman daring not to reveal her body in a setting where, in Western societies, it is the norm?

Again, it seems that 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, France was mostly condemned for this move, but we still see echoes of this sinister breed of supposed “liberalism” sprouting up all over the western world. 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.

How we dress and how we display our bodies is a profoundly personal thing — and should perhaps not escalate into 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?

Public Safety vs. Personal Comfort

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.

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 a person completely covering themselves from head to toe to the point that they are unidentifiable.

Even many devout Muslims would deem the niqab 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.

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of niqab-wearers have no ill 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.

And so, 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.

Oppressing 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 similarly brainwashed into wearing more revealing clothes. 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 deemed 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 to not tempt them in the first place. 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 niqab-wearers and their plea to choose how they dress, others will not get on board with an ideology that 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 thankfully now regarded in Europe as a basic human right.

The Subjectivity of Culture

As discussed last time I addressed this issue, European policy stumbles over the fact that there is no “absolute” when it comes to culture. Islamic culture gets the most stick these days, yet few are willing to look past the way that their own culture has constructed their perception of how to themselves or interact with others. The truth is that as humans, we are 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.

The Bottom Line

The question at the core of it all is this: Don’t we have the right to opt-out of external observation?

In many ways, despite current political challenges, western societies are still more progressive, accepting, and tolerant of personal choice and privacy than ever before. However, those same societies are potentially taking a U-turn in other areas — women’s sexuality and freedom of choice being prime examples of how we are at risk of going back on the progress we have already made.

Essentially, the paradox of modern liberalism is that it must also, by definition, allow people to not be liberal. 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 to make more conservative choices.

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 precisely how much is needed to be considered acceptable), it is both unrealistic and unethical to expect a complete shedding of one’s home culture.

That being 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. Think CCVT cameras and data tracking — do we like being monitored? No. Does it help public safety? Certainly.

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 degree of personal freedom for the greater good of the community.

All in all, when it comes to CCTV cameras or data protection, arguments for privacy and the choice of how much of ourselves we expose seems to gradually become more widely understood. And just like these other privacy issues, this matter is teeming with ethical dilemmas. However, we should perhaps apply this mindset when considering a more physical form of privacy, to ensure empathy for an issue that naturally affects some individuals more than others.

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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