Istanbul — I moved here five years ago. In the beginning, I was sympathetic to the argument that Turkey’s ban on headscarves in universities and public institutions was grossly discriminatory. I spoke to many women who described veiling themselves as an uncoerced act of faith. One businesswoman in her mid-30s told me that she began veiling in high school, defying her secular family. Her schoolteacher gasped when she saw her: “If Atatürk could see you now, he would weep!” Her pain at the memory of the opprobrium she had suffered was clearly real.
Why had she decided to cover herself? I asked. As a teenager, she told me, she had experienced a religious revelation. She described this in terms anyone familiar with William James would recognize. She began veiling to affirm her connection with the Ineffable. “Every time I look in the mirror,” she said, “I see a religious woman looking back. It reminds me that I’ve chosen to have a particular kind of relationship with God.”
Seen thus, the covering of the head is no more radical than many other religious rituals that demand symbolic acts of renunciation or daily inconvenience. I have heard Jews describe the spiritual rewards of following the laws of kashrut in much the same way. It is inconvenient, they say, and seemingly arbitrary; it demands daily sacrifice. But a Jew who keeps kosher cannot eat a meal without being reminded that he is a Jew, and thus the simple act of eating is elevated to a religious rite.
One woman here told me of her humiliation in childhood when her family was ejected from a swimming pool because her mother was veiled. I believed her. All stories of childhood humiliation sound alike and are told in the same way. It was perverse, she said to me, that she should be free to cover her head in an American university but not in a Turkish one. It seemed perverse to me as well. It would to any American; politically, we all descend from men and women persecuted for their faith. I was, I decided, on the side of these women.
But that was when I could still visit the neighborhood of Balat without being called a whore.
The French National Assembly’s recent vote to ban face-covering veils including the burqa — which conceals even the eyes — is the latest such measure taken by governments across Europe. In April, the Belgian parliament became the first to ban the burqa; shortly afterward, police in northern Italy fined a woman for wearing a niqab, which covers the entire face save for the eyes, appealing to a 1975 law prohibiting the covering of the face in public. Conservative backbencher Philip Hollobone has called for a burqa ban in Britain. Last week in Spain, a measure to ban the burqa was narrowly defeated. The broad term for veiling, curtaining, or covering is hijab, and all forms of it, even those exposing the face, have been banned in French public schools since 2004.
Let’s be perfectly frank. These bans are outrages against religious freedom and freedom of expression. They stigmatize Muslims. No modern state should be in the business of dictating what women should wear. The security arguments are spurious; there are a million ways to hide a bomb, and one hardly need wear a burqa to do so. It is not necessarily the case that the burqa is imposed upon women against their will; when it is the case, there are already laws on the books against physical coercion.