Thursday, 6 May 2010

Banning face-covering veils: one form of oppression turns into two more

As soon as I read that some countries were considering banning the burqa or niqab, I was pretty sure I knew what would happen to the women concerned if such a ban went ahead. Sure enough, a news item in today's Dom-Post confirmed my fears. A Google search showed that this incident was reported around the world, and some of these reports gave additional information.

An Italian law that bans people from covering their face in public - whether it be with a veil or motorcycle helmet - has been in place since 1975. In January a statute under this law banned clothing preventing identification of the wearer near "sensitive" public buildings in Novara, Italy.

On Friday a Tunisian-born woman was stopped by police outside a Novara post office. She was walking with her husband to prayers wearing a black niqab, which covers the wearer's face but leaves the eyes exposed. She was fined 500 euros.

We don't know what the woman thought - she was not quoted in any of the news items. But in some of them, her husband was. He has lived in Italy for ten years. He said he would respect the regulation, "but would now confine his wife at home because the Koran forbade other men from seeing her face." ((The Al-Jazeera report did not include this response.)

Where such convictions hold sway, women can't win, and a ban will mean they simply pay twice - once for transgressing the new law, and again for being caught in a religious catch-22. If they can't go out with their faces covered, they won't be permitted to go out at all. As far as the law and the neighbours are concerned, the problem will be solved.  The burqa will no longer offend European sensibiliities, feminist or otherwise. Don't get me wrong - it certainly offends mine. But in terms of actually helping the women concerned lead a less constrained life, a ban like this is worse than useless.


Giovanni said...

To clarify: the laws about face covering date back to 1975 and domestic terrorism. The mayor of Novara, who belongs to the racist and secessionist Northern League, saw a woman wearing a burqa a few weeks ago and invited the municipal police to ascertain her identity; he discovered then that the law over the years had become unclear and difficult to enforce, so passed a new local statute as you note, banning again in theory all kinds of face coverings - ski masks as much as burqas - but in practice was always aimed at the burqa, and obviously the municipal police had been instructed to keep their eye out for the women in question (can't be very many, Novara is a small town). It was deliberate harassment for political publicity.

You didn't hear the woman's reaction because there wasn't any. It was only the man who spoke. And the woman's identity was finally ascertained by a policewoman, as a compromise of sorts, since initially the man refused to let her be seen by a man of course.

The 500 Euro fine stands.

Anonymous said...

As with everything else that brings Islam into disrepute today, the Muslim clergy relies on secondary sources, particularly the hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to support their questionable theological views, including the need for women to hide their faces. But it is a historical fact that the hadith, many of which are suspect or spurious, were compiled about 250 years after the death of the Prophet. Clearly, where these human statements conflict with the divine text, they have no legitimacy. (This is an excerpt from a letter to The Times by Dr T. Hargey, Chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford.

In a somewhat obtuse way the bans are a statement against the imams that, unfortunately, inevitably impact on the 'innocent parties', the women who are required by their husbands and fathers to cover up.