The Debate Surrounding The Veil

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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)

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Wadjda (2012)

03Last week Wadjda finally came to cinemas here in Germany. Ever since I first saw the trailer for Haifaa al-Mansour’s film, I knew this film was going to be worth going to see – not only in a historical sense, this being the first feature film to be filmed by a woman in Saudi Arabia, but also because the concept was so appealing. Recently I have been watching a couple of documentaries about Saudi Arabia and the film provided ever more insight into what is a relative unknown. Sure, we have vague images of what Saudi Arabian life is like, and the odd film snippet, but this was the first film to be shot entirely on the streets of Riyadh and therefore offers so much more.

I watched a couple of interviews with al-Mansour before going to the cinema and was really impressed by what she had to say – I was also particularly interested in what she had to say about her previous work and this is something I would love to see.

Wadjda is a heartwarming, humorous and, at times, deeply moving portrayal of so many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia today – despite the premise that the film is about a girl and her longing for a bike, the film is about so much more. Throughout we learn about her relationship with her mother, her father, other girls, boys, religion, and social values and pressures. Wadjda lives with her mother – we see how her mother struggles with the burden of socials pressures in a different way to her daughter. Here we begin to see a generational gap, further represented by Wadjda’s friendship with Abdullah (an unrelated boy, and thus a friendship that would be frowned upon). Wadjda’s mother is mostly very supportive of her daughter, occasionally pulling her back when she thinks she is on thin ice. Wadjda is a wonderfully confident and self aware character, but al-Mansour doesn’t allow her to become unrealistic or unconvincing. When two girls at school are caught up in what the headmistress believes to be a lesbian ‘scandal’, Wadjda doesn’t seize the opportunity to save the girls from ostracisation and punishment.

Throughout the film we learn of many the many restraints that Saudi women face, but we also learn of some chances that have started to bring around change – Wadjda’s mother has a friend who works at the hospital without a full veil, for example. Wadjda’s mother is, however, still very socially immobile. Wadjda’s grandmother is looking for a bride for her father as her mother almost died while giving birth to Wadjda and can no longer provide the son the family wants. When the father finally decides to marry someone else, she loses her much needed male guardian, which shows how reliant Saudi society makes women on the men who surround them. This is obviously also seen in the need for a driver – Wadjda’s mother has to take time off work because she can’t get herself there, so that even when women try to seek independence, something outside of their control still holds them back.

At school we see how the headmistress trains the girls to accept a second place in society, ushering them inside when they are in the eye line of a man, discouraging individuality and using veiling to bring troublesome pupils back into line.

This film covers so many different levels of Saudi society in such a beautiful, and interesting way. This film is easily one the best I have seen in a long time and is truly a masterpiece. – It is well balanced, believable and honest.