Academic journal article Nottingham Law Journal

Face Veils and the Law: A Critical Reflection

Academic journal article Nottingham Law Journal

Face Veils and the Law: A Critical Reflection

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The face veil (or niqab) generates a remarkable amount of media attention. Public debate was re-ignited in the UK in 2010 by France passing legislation to ban the concealment of the face in public places. (1) Although the law is neutrally drafted it was drafted with the principal aim of banning the Muslim face veil in public. (2) The law was challenged by a French Muslim who wished to wear a face veil in public places. She lost both before the domestic courts and in the European Court of Human Rights in 2014, which found no violation of the ECHR and accepted the argument of the French government that the law was based on a "certain idea of living together". (3) The Telegraph hailed the French law with the following headline: "France's burka ban is a victory for tolerance". (4) But what is tolerant about a law preventing a woman from wearing a face veil if she chooses whilst walking along the street? A woman wearing a hijab or a face veil in a public place causes no physical harm to anyone; although conversely they may experience much discrimination, abuse and negative treatment for so doing.

As always a significant proportion of the debate emanates from individuals who will never wear or have never worn any form of Islamic head or face covering. There is nothing wrong with anyone expressing a view; however the fact remains that the voice of the veiled woman is rarely heard in the media. Frequently assumptions are made on her behalf, rooted in generalisations, and stereotyping. She typically becomes either a coerced and subjugated woman who has fallen prey to her male family members and/or extreme religious doctrine, or at the other extreme a strong willed woman exercising a free choice. The reality is much more complex with as many views and reasons for choosing a face veil as there are women who do so, including it being a reaction to insensitive Western governments, a fashion statement, and a symbol of religious freedom.

The seminar at Nottingham Trent University was organized against the backdrop of the French legislation and the SAS v France decision. I assumed of course that at least one of the speakers would be a woman in a face veil. We were told that, not through want of trying, they had been unable to locate such a person. Did it matter that such a person was not there? It seemed an uncomfortable omission at the least whilst no fault of the organisers, given that the counter view was given at the outset by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a high profile journalist who has published her views against Muslim women wearing face veils for many years. (5) Alibhai-Brown accepts that there are myriad reasons for wearing the veil and that many of her friends do. She questions whether their choice, even if independently made, was fully examined. For her, a Muslim woman, the veil is loaded with negative symbolism and represents both "religious arrogance and subjugation". I understand the reasons for her view and am sympathetic to many of them. But ultimately, I do not think that face veils per se are the most important issue in tackling an underlying problem of women's subjugation. Nor do I think that a blanket ban is the way forward, a view which she in fact herself also expressed at the seminar.

The voice of the veiled Muslim woman instead was provided through Dr Rajnaara Akhtar, a Muslim female academic (who wears a hijab in public) at Warwick University. She reported on the results of empirical study into the profile of women wearing face veils in the UK and their reasons for so doing. Unsurprisingly, the results revealed a myriad of reasons. But she did report the majority of women questioned were well- educated, rejected any notion of coercion on their decision, and viewed their decision as a personal religious choice. She also reported that the decision in a number of cases was not backed by the husbands or other male members of the family. Research amongst women in France has revealed similar findings. …

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