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Removing the Veil on the Streets of Paris - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In any country that boasts that it respects freedom, the laws have never been tested as they are tested today with France starting to ban the wearing of veils covering the face by women in public institutions and when driving. Is it a law that protects freedom on the pretext that it refuses the veiling of women? Or is it a law that is hostile to freedom because it deprives a woman of wearing the veil, which she considers to be a religious necessity, or at least a personal choice?

Who is harmed? In the French Muslim community a minority of women, who wear full cover over their faces, has emerged within the conservative religious tide that reached that community. Conservative Muslim women in France used to find it sufficient to cover their hair only, and the majority of Muslim women in France from the beginning did not wear veils. Now the Niqab, i.e. covering the entire face, is one of the characteristics of the new women hardliners in France, and they are a minority.

Moreover, those harmed by the new law are the tourists coming from the Gulf countries, where the Niqab is the rule not the exception, especially in Saudi Arabia. However, this is a limited harm, because tourism includes a big world, and the women banned from wearing the Niqab can go to nearby Britain rather than France. Thus, the problem is limited as long as the European Union does not adopt the French law and impose its implementation on all EU countries, which currently is a remote possibility.

Who is behind the new legislations?

Most probably it is the women societies together with some human rights societies, which consider that a woman would not cover her entire face unless someone forces her, such as her father or her tribal society. Therefore, these organizations consider that the law ought to protect women from total veil, even if the woman says that she is covering her face voluntarily. These organizations consider themselves engaged in a confrontation with the hardliners, and will not allow women to implement the hardliners laws whatever their justifications might be.

There is a group enthusiastic about the ban that has a less ideological opinion, which considers the ban as its tactical goal. This group considers that the banning of the Niqab limits the spread of the phenomenon of extremism, which starts with clothes, and progresses to rejecting the society, and even rebelling against it by using violence.

Banning the Niqab will not become a major issue in France and most of the European countries, because the number of Niqab-wearers is a few hundreds, while the number of veiled women is in the thousands, and it is difficult to ban the veil.

The truth is that the issue is not the harm, but it is the principle of banning, which includes a clear violation of personal liberties. Whatever is said, and whatever the justifications might be for the hunting down of wearers of the Niqab, which has started, the truth is that this is a violation of the fundamental principle on which the European systems are based, namely the respect of personal liberty. This liberal principle is collapsing at the worst possible time, as the Muslim woman is being prevented from practicing her right to be veiled at a politically-suspicious time. Had this happened at a different time, perhaps it would have had less negative reflections.

The only justification that can be accepted for banning the Niqab is the security fear that terrorist or thieves might disguise themselves as women wearing Niqabs; such incidents indeed have taken place. However, the new law has not said that, as it has generalized the ban everywhere and at every time, while it would have been reasonable to impose it at the points of entry into the country, and at the security-sensitive places.

However frightening or disturbing the Niqab might look in the eyes of the feminist organizations, it remains an individual issue that falls in the domain of the right of the individual to choose. By oppressing the Niqab-wearing women France becomes the same as the rest of the countries that are accused of oppression and of limiting freedom. It is true that the Niqab is merely a cover, and the number of those harmed by the law is a few dozens, but it is an issue of principle. We all know that the most difficult issue in the concept of freedom is tolerating the others when they practice their freedoms.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

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