Jaime Cundy

Jaime Booth Cundy BSW, MAPP

The Beauty in the Beast

The Mystery of the Veil

How good intentions can sometimes have a negative effect.

Posted Aug 08, 2011

"Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
I'm exposed and it's no big surprise
Don't you think I know exactly where I stand
This world is forcing me to hold your hand
'Cause I'm just a girl, oh little 'ol me
Don't let me out of your sight
I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don't let me have any rights"
- No Doubt

On July 23rd Belgium joined France as the second European Union country to pass legislation that essentially bans the full face traditional Muslim Niqab or Burqa (see graphic for clarification on which head covering this refers to).  More specifically the law prohibits anything that hides a persons face in public places.  While this may apply to more situations than simply a Niqab or a Burqa, it is hard to imagine that it has been put in place to quash elaborate Halloween costumes.

Many people that support such bans claim that they are interested in promoting woman's rights, and see these head coverings as symbols of oppression.  To argue that there is no oppression of women in the Arab world would be a foolish stance to take.  There are just too many stories of honor killings and of girls not being able to access basic education to reasonably make the argument that women are considered equals.  I have little doubt that the people that support the banning of the Niqab and Burqa do incredible work, and more than likely have helped thousands of women who have been abused or subjugated find their freedom.  

I do however feel that when it comes to the banning of the Niqab and Burqa these good intentions have crossed over into murkier waters.  There is a certain amount of misunderstanding and misinformation surrounding the wearing of the veil in Western Culture.  When we look at a woman in a veil our first reaction is that she must be oppressed, abused, and undervalued.  Actually that isn't correct, when we see a Muslim woman in a veil or in a head covering we assume the worst.  For some reason other forms of head coverings do not receive the same reaction.  We pity her, and wish that there were something that we could do to help her out of her situation.  It is this desire to do something that I believe is the intent behind the laws banning the Niqab and Burqa.  What we fail to recognize when we bring these laws into practice however, is that there are some women that choose to wear these garments.  These women will be unfairly judged and fined for exercising their rights to freedom of religion and expression.

There is an inherent contradiction within the law that states that no woman can be in public wearing a full-face covering.  If they are discovered out in public, they are faced with fines, and in France repeat offenders are forced to attend 're-education classes' (more on that in a minute).  I challenge anyone to show me the differentiation between forcing a woman to wear a veil and forcing her to NOT wear one.  Both seemingly take away the woman's right to express her religion in the way that she chooses.  There is the real problem, the problem of choice.

We may not understand why, we can point out that according to our interpretation of the Qur'an it does not say that a woman must remain covered, but yet there are women in the world that believe that they should be fully covered, and they make the choice to do so.  What are we saying to these women if we tell them that they are brainwashed, or that they are misinterpreting their own religion?  Are we not telling them that they aren't intelligent enough, or free enough, to make their own decisions?

I find it ironic that in an effort to show women that they are equal to men, and are able to make their own decisions...we tell them that unless they decide to think the same way we do...they are wrong. How exactly does this further women's rights?

The ban came into force in Belgium on July 23rd, with offenders facing a fine of $197 and up to seven days in jail.  In France, a person who repeatedly insists on appearing veiled in public can be fined $215 and ordered to attend re-education classes.

Just hearing the word 're-education' makes me shudder and reminds me of standing beside a mass grave at one of the most recent places that people were 're-educated': the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  The choice of words in France reveals a little bit more about the alternative intentions behind the ban.  Is it possible that instead of being to help woman who are being oppressed, this law is more about our Western Xenophobia of all things Islam?

If the goal of these laws really is to help women escape from their domineering husbands, then why doesn't the punishment reflect that?  Could the implementation of these fines and jail only serve to further anger the oppressors? It is reasonable to assume that women who are being forced to wear the veil could have husbands who now, due to the risk of a fine, will force their still veiled wives to stay inside the confines of their home.  This further isolates women who are already isolated.  This is the exact opposite outcome that was originally intended.  Furthermore, these women could be punished by their husbands if they are caught and fined, which is again the opposite of what was intended. 

I am not saying that nothing should be done to help the women who are being oppressed and who are being forced to wear a veil.  What I am saying is that perhaps how we go about providing that help should be examined a little bit more closely, and we should ask the question of whom these laws make feel better.  Do they make the oppressed woman feel safer?  Or do they simply make us feel like we are doing 'something'?

A woman who is abused often feels like she has no control over her life.   This biased and unfair law further removes any power she may still have.  In her paper The Other Side of Help: Negative Effects in the Help-Seeking Processes of Abused Women (1997) Lora Lempert describes how often times those attempting to help the women, end up reinforcing the belief that they are powerless.

"In part because help providers often reduced the complexity of intimate relationships to incidents of violence, well-intentioned help provision frequently had unintended negative consequences. It was not necessarily the help women wanted and the assistance was often based on a definitional contingency, or acceptance of others' definitions of the situations and others' prescriptions for action. This contingency placed the women in the same relation to the supporters as they were to the abusers, that is, others controlled the definitions of their experiences and their identities."

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, criticized such bans after the Belgian law came into full effect.  He shares the view that such measures threaten to exclude women rather than liberating them. 

"In fact, the banning may run counter to European human rights standards, in particular the right to respect for one's private life and personal identity.  That the way of dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes." (Al Jazeera, accessed August 8, 2011)

There is no doubt in my mind that efforts need to be made to improve the status of women around the world.  Women are seen as property to be traded, objects to be raped, and slaves to be controlled too often and in too many places.  Women deserve the same rights as their male counterparts no matter where they are in the world.  Equality is something that we must continue to strive for.  However equality is not about what we wear, but about our thoughts and our actions.  While laws such as those in Belgium and France have the intention of helping the cause of women's rights, they can often have the unintended negative affect of further stepping on them.  We must stand beside women that are struggling against oppression and offer them support and a hand up... not a fine and 'reeducation classes'.  We can do better than this for women.  We MUST do better than this for us all.


Lempert, L. B. (1997). The Other Side of Help: Negative Effects in the Help-Seeking Processes of Abused Women.Qualitative Sociology20(2), 289-309.

Stefani, G. and Dumont, T (1995). Just a Girl [Recorded by No Doubt]. On Tragic Kingdom [CD]. California: Interscope.


More perspectives:

http://www.ted.com/talks/nadia_al_sakkaf_see_yemen_through_my_eyes.html - Talks about a different way of changing the behaviour.  One that utilizes role modeling and empowerment.  'Banning and making it a crime is not different than making it a crime to not wear it.  The only difference is the word 'not'.

http://www.ted.com/talks/eve_ensler_embrace_your_inner_girl.html - Talks about how by suppressing our inner girl (both men and women) we are doing ourselves and the world...a great disservice.


Photo Credits:

Malcolm Evans 'Cruel Culture' Jan 6, 2011