I recently came across two articles regarding the debate surrounding the veil, one by the Berliner Morgenpost (Germany) and one in the Guardian (UK), and I was intrigued that both the German and the British press were discussing this on the same day. The Morgenpost article reports on a Berlin judge’s decision to ban a female lawyer from wearing a headscarf (or ‘hijab’) in court, while the Guardian article considers the ‘niqab’.
First things first, let me clear up the difference between the ‘hijab’, the ‘niqab’ and the ‘burqa’ (also spelt ‘burka’). The ‘hijab’ is commonly referred to as a headscarf and covers a woman’s hair and shoulders/chest, leaving her face exposed. The ‘niqab’ refers to a veil that covers the entire face and leave only the eyes visible (as pictured above). This is not to be confused with a ‘burqa’ (which it often is), as a ‘burqa’ is especially loose and features a thin cloth section over the eyes.
There are so many different arguments surrounding this issue it is difficult to know where to begin. From the articles, we can see that, even from the surface, this issue is hugely contentious and very current. The German article, is, to my mind, more contentious as it merely regards the ‘hijab’, which is much less controversial than the ‘niqab’ or the ‘burka’ – Full veiling of the face, raises many more questions. The judge argues that a court of law is a neutral ground where the law is in place without the influence of personal beliefs. This is an interesting sentiment considering that Germany is far from a secular state. The Government is (currently) represented by a Christian party (the CSU, or the Christian Conservative party), the church is still entwined with the tax system (there is still a Kirchensteuer of between 8-9% of income) and shops still close on a Sunday to observe the Sabbath. Furthermore Article 4 of the Federal Constitution (‘Grundgesetz’) claims:
“1. Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, shall be inviolable. 2. The undisturbed practice of religion shall be guaranteed.”
This raises questions regarding the ruling made by the judge and furthermore raises issues regarding bias towards Christianity. It also raises questions regarding the fine line between integration and assimilation – what happens if you live in a predominately Christian country, or in a predominately Muslim country? How far should people expect you to integrate? And furthermore, in the interest of freedom of choice and individuality, how far should you be willing assimilate?
From this more questions arise, as we start to consider who decides if a woman wears a veil in the first place? It is a personal choice, social and religious pressures, or patriarchy?
From all of these questions we see that there isn’t one simple answer, and this means there shouldn’t be one simple solution. One thing is for certain – a general ban is not the answer, as we have seen from France in recent years. You can’t speak for every woman who wears a veil, whether she chooses to, or not and for these reasons it seems unlikely that these stories will change in the near future.
Recently, I wrote about Wadjda – the first film to be fully recorded in Saudi Arabia. This film raises interesting questions about the veil and the role of women in this Islamic State, and most significantly the influence men have on the women in this state. It is a very interesting film and I would highly recommend it, particularly because it comes from within Saudi Arabia and therefore avoids the distortion of a Western view on the issues that arise.
As the Guardian article points out, discussions in the UK so far seem to have left Muslim women out and have instead decided to speak for them and about them, without allowing them to express an opinion or a counterargument. If something is to be discussed, both sides should be represented. It is ironic that parliamentary discussions talk of the repression of women, and the lack of a female voice as reasons for a ban, while promoting a repression of women through the discussion of the topic by disconnected parties.
(I do not own the rights to this image)