Show us your face


National Post - Wednesday August 4th, 2010

In its Aug. 2 round-up of “Good News” and “Bad News,” Maclean’s magazine included under “Bad News” the Syrian government’s decision to ban niqabs and burkas on university campuses. Macleans said the ban “infringe[s] on the grounds of individual freedoms.” But their reasoning was spurious: “Head coverings don’t turn countries into theocracies,” they said. “People do.”

Of course, head coverings do not harm democracies. But the niqab is not a head covering any more than a shroud is a kerchief. It is a face covering. Socially, psychologically, politically, there is a world between them. Both are thought by lazy thinkers to be indicators of religious piety. That isn’t true of the niqab, which messages many things, amongst them anti-Westernism and female depersonalization in the service of fetishistic honour/shame codes. But as countless Muslim authorities have agreed, and as numerous bans in self-identifying Islamic countries surely make clear, Islam itself does not demand face cover.

I have also before me the July 26 edition of Maclean’s, and in it, under their National news section, a half-page photograph of G20 Black Bloc protesters in their black hoodies and masks. At first glance, they resemble a cluster of niqab’d women. But no, they were only a group of mischief-makers — men and women — going about their own idea of pious expression, fairly secure in the knowledge they would not be held accountable for their anti-social behaviour.

Apart from ski slopes, the theatre and Halloween Balls, all purposeful adult face cover is by nature anti-democratic and socially subversive. As with bans on public nudity, bans on burqas are immune from the reflexive shibboleth of “slippery slope” (“What will they ban next?” some Islamist apologists ask). Slippery slope to what? Both forms of social messaging represent the rock bottom of the slope to social indecency, with nowhere further down to go.

In his latest book, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, psychiatrist and cultural observer Theodore Dalrymple turns his always-penetrating gaze onto the “woman question” amongst England’s young Muslims. He recounts a telling anecdote concerning four female Muslim medical students in London. They had always dressed conventionally, but suddenly appeared for rounds in niqabs. Their discombobulated supervisors were too paralyzed by political correctness to voice objections. To their great relief, a regulation dating from 1857 was unearthed, dictating that a doctor must show his face to a patient under examination.

The women were told they must remove the niqab or leave the medical school. They happily complied, privately informing the dean that they hadn’t wanted to wear the niqabs at all, but had been bullied by male Muslim students, who had threatened to tell their parents they were behaving promiscuously, at which point their parents would have forced them to quit school.

The vignette should serve to remind rights-obsessed Westerners that the addition of the niqab to Muslim women’s clothing — for although it is sartorial lamination, it is not clothing in itself — should never be assumed to be a free choice.

These students, as Dalrymple points out, represent the problematic situation of a number of high-achieving Muslim women in our midst who only superficially resemble free Western women in their studies and careers. It is often revealed that their freedom to pursue their own ambitions and desires hangs on the fragile and quixotic ego needs of male cultural peers and relatives, conditioned to regard female autonomy as emasculating. Tragically, such women are educated enough to appreciate their rights, but not liberated enough to exercise them without fear of clan retribution.

In the case of the medical school, the cowardly officials achieved their goal through serendipity. In removing their niqabs, the women defused a cultural detonator. The men accepted the intervention, as bullies will in the face of force majeure. And so, four intelligent, productive women maintained their self-respect and freedom, rather than being forced to choose between a public avowal of social disenfranchisement or withdrawal from their rightful role in society.

There is no human right to social anonymity. If a ban on face cover had already been in effect this summer, the security risks and damages at the G20 would doubtless have been slashed to near-zero effect.

A ban on face cover would protect women under cultural siege and enhance public security, while not impinging on any equality-compatible religious values. Where’s the downside here? Surely logic, our democratically honed instincts for fairness and common sense must all agree that a legislated face-cover ban for men and women, far from being “Bad News,” should fall under the heading of “Very Good News Indeed!”

National Post
bkay@videotron.ca