Masks, Veils, Vice and Virtue

In this week’s Speakers’ Corner, Zara Faris of the Muslim Debate Initiative discusses the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab in western liberal democracies, and the fallacies of feminist arguments against it.

The situation of the Muslim woman, and particularly the wearing of the veil, has persistently been used through recent history as the “theme of action” by those working to intellectually subdue Muslim communities. In colonial Egypt, British colonial officials specifically cited the veil and treatment of women under Islam as their justification for colonialism and, in the US, the Bush Administration specifically cited the liberation of women as their key interest in the lead up to the Iraq war. It was noted by Frantz Fanon, anti-colonialist philosopher and revolutionary, that the political doctrine of the French colonial administration in Algeria, was that in order to “destroy the structures of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, [the administration] must first of all conquer the women; [they] must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves”.[1]

From the colonial world to the liberal West today, the niqab (the Muslim face veil) has similarly been used as the pretext of this “theme of action” on many occasion, leading to the sowing of seeds of fear and distance between Muslims and others. Last year in the UK, a national debate on the niqab was rekindled when MP Sarah Wollaston surfaced the political arena calling for a ban of the niqab in schools. Whilst a ban was not enacted, the idea that the niqab ought to be banned from public places was nevertheless planted. Since then, under the mask of ensuing “national debates”, and newspapers publishing titles like, “Civilised society must not draw a veil over the niqab”, that seed has been relentlessly manured with “reasons” (i.e. excuses) as to why such a ban should be pursued or, at the very least, why the veil should be “strongly discouraged” (i.e. bullied out of society).

niqab-veil-5873278 Opponents of the niqab have cited an array of excuses ranging from security, practicalities, personal identity, oppression, hindrance to work opportunities, and even the discomfort of people around the niqab as arguments against its presence.

Thus, last week, we not only saw a young woman being banned from wearing the niqab at a top London school renowned for its liberal attitudes, claiming that that they would challenge any clothing that did not allow pupil teacher interaction, but we also saw Australia’s plan to segregate niqab-wearing women in parliament, for “security” purposes. This segregation provides that if Muslim women wish to watch parliamentary proceedings in Canberra, they have to be separately confined to a glass enclosure. Not only would these few, if any, women already have been through the same security measures as everybody else, but they would additionally be confined to a box. Interestingly, if these women genuinely posed such a risk, one may ask why they would be sat in the same glass box ordinarily occupied by school children visiting parliament?

The arguments being used, are merely tentative attempts to guide public opinion toward advocating a ban of the veil in liberal countries, and they have always been, to say the least, full of contradictions. With niqab wearing women being classed as either intimidating social deviants or intimidated victims needing rescuing, it is clear that the opposition is invoking something other than rational thought when formulating its claims.

The following is a summation and analysis of the chorus of contradictory arguments against the niqab:

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zarapic1The niqab is both demeaning to men but also imposed by men”, so men imposed the niqab to demean themselves?

The niqab makes women invisible”, yet the same people claim women in niqab are being publicly conspicuous, with the sight of women in niqab apparently “intimidating the public”.

The niqab is forced on women against their will”, so these women must be forced to remove it?

The niqab is a restriction on women’s life choices”, so women should be denied the choice to wear it?

The niqab is a form of sexual objectification”, so Muslim women should be compelled to wear more revealing clothes and “express their sexuality”?


The niqab is antisocial”, so let’s ban it and confine these women to their homes?

The niqab inhibits communication”, especially when niqab wearing women communicate to us otherwise.

The niqab makes women invisible”, so let’s camouflage them by making them dress the same as everybody else? “The niqab makes women oppressed and powerless” – but it also makes them “dangerous and deceptive” apparently!

The niqab implies that women’s natural sexual power is dangerous”, so they’re oppressed…but considered powerful.

The niqab is designed to control the sexuality of women”, it is also designed to ward off the sexuality of men.

The niqab is offensive to men because it suggests that men cannot be trusted to control themselves” – yes, in the same way that door locks are offensive to strangers.

The niqab symbolises an overriding social concern with a woman’s body”; so let’s have a national debate about these women’s bodies.

So, when The Telegraph published the call that “Civilised society must not draw a veil over the niqab“, were the supposedly ‘uncivilised’ Muslims simply expected to compromise their beliefs without a rational argument as to why? The contradictions in their claims demonstrates that the issue with the niqab is not really about the niqab at all. As Victor Hugo once wrote, “Virtue has a veil; vice a mask”, and, as we will see, the quest against the veil has often masked a darker vice than simply that some feel a little uncomfortable around the niqab. It is not any real objection to the veil but, rather, liberalism’s natural rejection of the manifestation of a belief system (Islam, and submission to the creator of the Universe) that fundamentally is completely opposite to its own worldview and creed (the supremacy of the individual over all other considerations – i.e. Individualism).

Forced Absorption

Should Muslim women living under liberal democracies in the West have same the freedom to wear the niqab as they have to not wear the niqab? Whilst one may think it obvious to invoke personal freedom under an ideology that claims to defend all kinds of personal freedoms including mutilation under the guise of plastic surgery, incest (in Germany), and same-sex marriage, it is actually a mistake to invoke the freedoms of liberalism as grounds to defend the niqab because liberalism does not in fact propose to defend all kinds of personal freedoms. Liberalism actually considers it necessary to force people to exercise different “freedoms” to those they may personally want to. This is not a contradiction within liberalism, but a necessary feature of it.

systemPolitical theorist, Judith Shklar, explained that the overriding aim of Liberalism is “to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom. Every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every adult. That belief is the original and only defensible meaning of liberalism. [2]

This seemingly foundational concept of equal freedom already reveals cracks by highlighting that it is not that every adult should have an equal right to any freedom, but rather that every adult should have the right to an equal type of freedom. What this actually translates to is that every adult should have the right to an equal set of freedoms, rendering them really freedoms no more, but simply pre-approved options.

Political philosopher, Joseph Raz, endorses and explains Shklar’s view, and further and states that, “[a] person is autonomous only if he has a variety of acceptable options available to him to choose from, and his life became as it is through his choice of some of these options [3]. Raz goes on to say that “autonomy is valuable only if it is directed at the good”; that there is “no reason to provide, nor reason to protect, worthless let alone bad options”; and that it is justified “to use coercion in order to force [people] to take actions which are required to improve peoples options and opportunities”; and finally stipulates that “people are justified in taking action to assimilate [a] minority group, at the cost of letting its [i.e. the minority groups] culture die or at least be considerably changed by absorption”. According to these formulations, there is a mysterious arbiter in liberal thought who decides what is “good”, “bad”, “worthless”, and when it is “required” to intervene in the “personal freedom” of an individual or a minority group. According to these formulations, “personal freedoms” are therefore simply reserved for some to exercise over others.

This inherent discrimination is not, therefore, a contradiction of liberalism, but rather is a necessary mechanism of it in order to preserve its overarching ideology. The reality is that such a system can never foster conditions that allow “every adult” to exercise his or her personal freedom because it must decide on a conception of what is “good” and “bad” and what are the “acceptable options” that should be available to individuals. It is to be expected, therefore, that a liberal society can decide to refuse the “freedom” of a woman to wear the niqab – and it does so without contradicting its own values. It is not ‘illiberal’ to clamour against the niqab – it is in fact to be expected of liberalism to forcefully subsume overtly different minority groups into its mould.

Islamic systems of the past, for example that of the Ottoman Caliphate, understood that in order to host multiple communities of different cultural or religious groups, the communities had to have scope to govern themselves and their own affairs. Thus, the truly multicultural arrangement under the Ottomans saw Christian and Jewish communities, amongst others, flourish in living their own cultures, pursuing the trades of their preference, celebrating their own food and languages, and having access to their own legal courts that represented their own respective legal systems for settling their affairs. Highly diverse communities lived side by side, as fellow human beings, prospering without being forced to conform by compromising their beliefs or become another shade of Muslim.

Conviction, not choice

The concept of forced assimilation is liberalism’s method of hosting different cultural or religious groups. Rather than striving for the highest moral values, all belief systems under liberalism must be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Thus, liberal societies struggle to cultivate truly plural societies – what we end up with are simply secularised versions of Christianity or Judaism, for example, existing under liberal democracies as just another iteration of liberalism.

Islam on the other hand has, for a long time, been a tough nut to crack for liberalism, due to its robust intellectual foundations, and the comprehensively holistic pattern for living that it prescribes and requires. One of the fundamental differences between Islamic thought and liberal thought is the issue of autonomy.

Islam established and protected women's rights 1400 years ago.
Islam established and protected women’s rights 1400 years ago.

When Amina Tyler nakedly protested, “my body is mine and not the source of anyone’s honour” (her body certainly was not the source of anyones honour on that occasion), she was supported by feminists because she was upholding one of the underlying fundamentals of liberal feminism (and defying her culture) – the idea of ownership over ones own body, and reinforcing the feminist drive for women’s autonomy (i.e. Individualism).

Liberal feminists have long complained that the female has been regarded as enmeshed in her bodily existence in a way that makes the attainment of rationality questionable. In other words, they argue that women, unlike men, are perceived as being bodies instead of rational beings having bodies. They call this concept ‘enmeshment’ or ‘embodiment’. According to feminists, “Women are somehow more biological, more corporeal, and more natural than men” [4]. In other words, they seek to argue “I am not my body – I own my body”.

How exactly do any of us, men or women, own our bodies? If ownership is control, then neither men nor women own their bodies. Did we give birth to ourselves? Did we make ourselves? Did we decide our shape and size? If ownership is maintenance, can we survive without depending on other bodies looking after us when we were older, or trading with us? Are we independent of our environment and the need for social interaction, for our continued existence and mental wellbeing? Did we teach ourselves language (and therefore how to think)? Did we discover for ourselves, the collected knowledge of centuries? Islam recognises that we do not own our bodies and we therefore do not have complete autonomy over what we do with them. We are instead entrusted with them and have duties toward each other with them. Muslim women who wear the niqab in most cases would not do so out of a sense of choice in the liberal sense but actually out of a sense of conviction and duty.

Feminists who complain of enmeshment, even go as far as to say the same enmeshment is attributed to colonised bodies and the lower classes [5], which is especially ironic when they treat Muslim women as bodies mindlessly veiled, rather than rational beings who deliberate on whether or not to submit to their Creator, and whether or not veil. As one American University Professor explains, for feminist discourse, “[n]on-western people are assumed to be governed by cultural dictates, whereas the capacity to reason is thought to characterise [only] the west.” [6]

muslimFor Muslims, covering up is a passport to participate fully in public life. It is interesting to note that the etymology for the Arabic word for veil (‘niqab’) is n-q-b, which means to perforate, excavate, investigate, traverse, or travel through a place. For many who wear the niqab, the notion of traversing through a place, perforating society with one’s presence, enabling them to explore the world without themselves being a subject for public exploration, traveling whilst remaining covered and protected, is what the niqab enables them to do.

For feminists, however, the idea that a woman should practice modesty, or the idea that society can tell you how much of your body to reveal or hide actually implies that your body does not belong to you. This is not just a denial of autonomy, but is in itself an affirmation of a “patriarch” (i.e. men telling her what she should or should not do). Of course, acting as a patriarch is a ‘right’ only reserved for liberal feminists!


So, should Muslim women living under liberal democracies in the West have the same freedom to wear the niqab, as they have to not wear the niqab? We can see that it is actually a mistake to invoke the freedoms of liberalism as grounds to defend the niqab because liberalism does not in fact propose to defend all kinds of personal freedoms, and deems it necessary to force people to exercise different “freedoms” to those they may personally want to. As noted, this is not a contradiction within liberalism, but a necessary feature of it. Instead of invoking liberalism, a system entitled by its own principles to suppress certain peoples’ rights, we should instead present the examples of truly pluralistic Islamic societies of the past, as an example to be adopted by ever increasingly diverse societies today.

Zara Faris is a graduate in Arabic & Islamic Studies from SOAS University (School of Oriental and African Studies). She has lived for a year in Egypt studying the Arabic language. She is now a Researcher and International Speaker for the Muslim Debate Initiative (MDI). She is of Kurdish/Pakistani origin.

You can follow Zara on Twitter @zarafaris


[1] Fanon, Frantz, “Algeria Unveiled”, in Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp37-38

[2] Shklar, Judith, “The Liberalism of Fear”, in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenbaum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp21.

[3] Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp2, 204, 411, 416, 424

[4] Grosz, Elizabeth, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (London: Routledge, 1994), pp14

[5] McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995); Alcoff, Linda Martin, Visible Identities, Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp103.

[6] Volpp, Leti Feminism versus Multiculturalism, in Columbia Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 5 (Jun, 2001), pp1181-1218.

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