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Hisham Wyne Headshot

Wailing Over Veiling

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The Islamic veil has been a particularly polarizing garment since the turn of the century. Of course, I use the term 'Islamic veil' loosely because the cacophonous variety of veils can be confusing, from the all-encompassing tent-like burqa of the Afghans to the more contoured face-baring dress of the United Arab Emirates, with the loose-fitted burqa of Pakistan straddling middle ground. And veils are not necessarily Islamic but sometimes more an instrument of socio-cultural projection. Many theologists argue that Islam does not in fact mandate full cover, but requests an appreciation of modesty.

The debate on the veil has intensified to the extent that opposing camps are busy sniping at one another, far too busy to note that that reason and thoroughness both lie dead courtesy of stray shots. There is much to be said about the veil, and opinions are varied. But opinions not grounded in principle are like old pop records- everyone has at least one, and most aren't worth a listen.

In the West, particularly parts of Europe, the veil is under attack by a loose coalition of the willing. There is an emergence of a xenophobic right that is suspicious of Muslim immigrants. Strangely, they enjoy the support of some on the left, who fight against what they see as subjugation. Loosely ringing this auspicious alliance are lipstick feminists striking out against women being imprisoned behind a wall of thick cloth. Of course, countries with an Islamic bent gleefully seize on any such issues as further signs of racism and xenophobia, choosing to temporarily not remember that their dress codes can be far more restrictive of personal choice.

All very well. But let me make my alliances clear on this. I am liberal, and happen to not incline right. But divisions of left and right are political and economic - and largely concern the running of the economy and social services. Liberalism believes in personal autonomy and a strict belief in minimizing the state's role in personal decisions -- to the extent these personal decisions do not harm other individuals. And while I believe the feminist movement is a force of good, I support political feminism more than the lipstick variety. The former fights for freedom of choice, while the latter advocates lifestyle choices where sexual emancipation is a key weapon in the gender war.

Not that the latter is necessarily wrong. But it risks replacing one ideology with another. Pre-feminism, women were advised to not be sexually emancipated. Lipstick feminism offered them a template for just the opposite. But true emancipation lies in having the choice to be either, or neither. As a fellow sociologist currently sifting research papers at the University of Oxford, UK, once noted, feminism should not be about being a high powered executive as opposed to a housewife, but to have the power to be either without sanction.

Misguided actions towards supposed emancipation are dangerous; particularly because emancipation cannot be enforced from above. Circa 2004, France banned all overt symbols of religious expression in schools. While it targeted most visible symbols, the most easily identifiable recipients of such generous intervention seemed to be those clad in full veils. Members of the left and the right rejoiced at a decisive blow for freedom. Meanwhile, those following the ideology of liberalism that necessitates personal freedoms mourned yet another erosion of personal space in favour of state decree.

In 2008, France again was the subject of yet another veiled battle, when a Moroccan woman was denied citizenship due in part to the fact that she followed a branch of puritanical Islam that necessitated the veil. France is again in the news in 2009, with parliament currently debating whether to ban the burqa in all public places.

Debate is of course necessary. But is well worth examining what we're arguing about. Is it mere sartorial choice? A projection of one's culture? Or, as many in the anti-burqa camp would insist, a weapon of subjugation; a flexible mobile prison that cuts the wearer off from the rest of the world?

If the veil is mere sartorial choice, then it is no more or less relevant than the push-up bra, Christian Louboutin stilettos and the mini-skirt. All of them offer clues to the wearer's worldview, and all can be imposed on people through peer pressure, and a collective desire to look and behave a certain way. And just as these can be personal choices, so can the veil. Some wearers of the veil make a strictly personal choice to don it.

If the veil is a projection of one's culture, are Western societies deciding that they would much rather support some elements of cultural projection over others? If that is the case, it is far more honest to come out and say so rather than play tag with notions of supposed liberalism, egalitarianism and republicanism. If France, for instance, believes in enforced secularism, it should admit that such secularism is mandatory and possibly disenfranchising to the individual. Some anti-veil campaigners point to a link between the veil and Islamic violence, which is an argument best left to the imaginative. Short of a brief period during a Gazan skirmish where Hamas tried smuggling through weapons with veil-clad men and women, and an instance in Pakistan where drive-by shooters were disguised under the veil, there is little evidence that links the veil incontrovertibly with acts of violence globally.

If some in anti-veil camp believe the veil is in fact a walking prison and a visible symbol of oppression, they must also realize that changing sartorial codes is not going to change any of subjugation and inequality that leads to veil-wearing. Treating the symptoms and not the disease is the worst form of placation. And it is worth pointing out again that forced emancipation from a certain form of dress can be an erosion of personal choice and not a step towards freedom.

So let's debate, shall we? But let's do so in a well-grounded framework. First, let us ask what societies in the West represent. If one argues for personal freedom, then any sartorial choice must be allowed to stay unless it can be proved inimical.

Then, let us voice our socio-political ideologies. If one believes in state control and conformity, then differences in ideology, culture and sartorial choices cannot be tolerated. Everyone needs to be a Stepford wife, male or female. In with the jeans, out with the veil. Out also with harem trousers, dreadlocks, the designer face stubble and anything that looks ethnic or alien.

Last, let us consider what ethical framework we're using. A fairly generic rule of thumb is that one must endeavor for personal freedom unless it hurts others' personal freedoms. The right to swing our fist ends at others' noses.

If one subscribes to a liberal, ethically consistent viewpoint, the veil must stay. But not unconditionally. In places where personal interaction is absolutely essential and facial gestures must be observable, e.g. as a psychologist or counsellor, at the airport or in a bank, no form of face obfuscation can be allowed. Even full veils must be temporarily lifted. But blanket bans run contrary to the very goals the anti-veil campaign espouses in the name of liberty and tolerance.

In short, we come to the crux of a contradiction inherent in liberalism. While I personally may be somewhat discomfited at the idea of the full veil, my ideology compels me to defend it as a personal choice that has not demonstrably harmed its host countries.

My personal likes and dislikes do not offer a sufficient raison de'etre to unveil anyone. And neither do yours.