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.
The argument that the garment is not a religious obligation under Islam is well-founded but irrelevant; millions of Muslims the world around believe that it is, and the state is not qualified to be in the business of Koranic exegesis. The choice to cover one’s face is for many women a genuine expression of the most private kind of religious sentiment. To prevent them from doing so is discriminatory, persecutory, and incompatible with the Enlightenment traditions of the West. It is, moreover, cruel to demand of a woman that she reveal parts of her body that her sense of modesty compels her to cover; to such a woman, the demand is as tyrannical, humiliating, and arbitrary as the passage of a law dictating that women bare their breasts.
All true. And yet the burqa must be banned. All forms of veiling must be, if not banned, strongly discouraged and stigmatized. The arguments against a ban are coherent and principled. They are also shallow and insufficient. They fail to take something crucial into account, and that thing is this: If Europe does not stand up now against veiling — and the conception of women and their place in society that it represents — within a generation there will be many cities in Europe where no unveiled woman will walk comfortably or safely.
Recently, on a New York Times blog, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum not only argued against the ban, but proposed that those who wear the burqa be protected from “subtle forms of discrimination.” It was a perfect example of a philosopher at the peak of her powers operating in a cultural and historical vacuum. “My judgment about Turkey in the past,” Nussbaum writes, was
that the ban on veiling was justified, in those days, by a compelling state interest — derived from the belief that women were at risk of physical violence if they went unveiled, unless the government intervened to make the veil illegal for all. Today in Europe the situation is utterly different, and no physical violence will greet the woman who wears even scanty clothing.
Nussbaum is absolutely wrong. There are already many neighborhoods in Europe where scantily dressed women are not safe. In the benighted Islamic suburbs of Paris, as Samira Bellil writes in her autobiography Dans l’enfer des tournantes (“In Gang-Rape Hell”),
there are only two kinds of girls. Good girls stay home, clean the house, take care of their brothers and sisters, and only go out to go to school. . . . Those who . . . dare to wear make-up, to go out, to smoke, quickly earn the reputation as “easy” or as “little whores.”
Parents in these neighborhoods ask gynecologists to testify to their daughters’ virginity. Polygamy and forced marriages are commonplace. Many girls are banned from leaving the house at all. According to French-government statistics, rapes in the housing projects have risen between 15 and 20 percent every year since 1999. In these neighborhoods, women have indeed begun veiling only to escape harassment and violence. In the suburb of La Courneuve, 77 percent of veiled women report that they wear the veil to avoid the wrath of Islamic morality patrols. We are talking about France, not Iran.
The association of Islam and crime against women is seen throughout Europe: “The police in the Norwegian capital Oslo revealed that 2009 set yet another record: compared to 2008, there were twice as many cases of assault rapes,” the conservative Brussels Journal noted earlier this year. “In each and every case, not only in 2008 and 2009 but also in 2007, the offender was a non-Western immigrant.” These statistics are rarely discussed; they are too evocative of ancient racist tropes for anyone’s comfort. But they are facts.
The debate in Europe now concerns primarily the burqa, not less restrictive forms of veiling, such as the headscarf. The sheer outrageousness of the burqa makes it an easy target, as does the political viability of justifying such a ban on security grounds, particularly in the era of suicide bombings, even if such a justification does not entirely stand up to scrutiny. But the burqa is simply the extreme point on the continuum of veiling, and all forced veiling is not only an abomination, but contagious: Unless it is stopped, the natural tendency of this practice is to spread, for veiling is a political symbol as well as a religious one, and that symbol is of a dynamic, totalitarian ideology that has set its sights on Europe and will not be content until every woman on the planet is humbled, submissive, silent, and enslaved.
The cancerous spread of veiling has been seen throughout the Islamic world since the Iranian Revolution. I have watched it in Turkey. Through migration and demographic shift, neighborhoods that once were mixed have become predominantly veiled. The government has sought to lift prohibitions on the wearing of headscarves, legitimizing and emboldening advocates of the practice. Five years ago, the historically Jewish and Greek neighborhood of Balat, on the Golden Horn, was one in which many unveiled women could be seen. It is not anymore. Recently I visited a friend there who reluctantly suggested that I dress more modestly — while in his apartment. His windows faced the street. He was concerned that his neighbors would call the police and report a prostitute in their midst.
Veiling cannot be disambiguated from the problem of Islam’s conception of women, and this conception is directly tied to gender apartheid and the subjugation and abuse of women throughout the Islamic world, the greatest human-rights problem on the planet, bar none. Nor can the practice of veiling be divorced from the concept of namus — an ethical category that is often translated as “honor,” and if your first association with this word is “honor killing,” it is for a reason: That is the correct association. The path from veiling to the practice of killing unveiled women is not nearly so meandering as you might think.
At its core, the veil is the expression of the belief that female sexuality is so destructive a force that men must at all costs be protected from it; the natural correlate of this belief is that men cannot be held responsible for the desires prompted in them by an unveiled woman, including the impulse to rape her. In 2006, Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali, Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric, delivered a sermon referring to a recent rape victim thus:
If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside . . . without cover, and the cats come to eat it . . . whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.
His remarks caused a firestorm of denunciation and the usual insistence that this sentiment did not represent the true nature of Islam. But the only unusual thing about his comments was that they were made in public. If you believe these views are atypical of the Muslim community, spend five minutes in an Islamic chat room on the Internet. No need to cherry-pick; just Google “hijab” and look at the first results that come up. A typical entry:
What kind of dignity a non-believer has by the way; they conduct their life and expose themselves. They have removed the shield of protection, that modesty of Hijab and left themselves unprotected and that is the cause for the assault, which takes place once every ten seconds in rape and murder around the world. But those true Muslims who observe proper Hijab are protected from such assaults and not one [case of] this type is ever heard of.
A faraway, fire-eyed Saudi cleric? No. This site is hosted in Norway. The site’s moderator is one Espen Egil Hansen, and the managing director is someone by the name of Jo Christian Oterhals.
Some other comments:
Any woman who perfumes herself and passes by some people that they smell her scent, then she is a Zaniyah [adulteress]. . . . Examining the various conditions about the hijab one can clearly recognise that many of the young Muslim women are not fulfilling these conditions. Many just take “half-way” measures, which not only mocks the community in which she lives, but also mocks the commands of Allah. . . . The hijab fits the natural feeling of Gheerah, which is intrinsic in the straight man who does not like people to look at his wife or daughters. Gheerah is a driving emotion that drives the straight man to safeguard women who are related to him from strangers. The straight MUSLIM man has Gheerah for ALL MUSLIM women. In response to lust and desire, men look (with desire) at other women while they do not mind that other men do the same to their wives or daughters. The mixing of sexes and absence of hijab destroys the Gheera in men.
These insights were posted on the official website of the Islamic Society of the University of Essex. As they suggest, the veil is a legitimization of murderous jealousy. It sanctions the impulse of primitive men to possess the very sight of their women entirely to themselves. There is no nation on the planet where the veil is the cultural norm and where women enjoy equal rights. Not one. Nor is there such a thing as a neighborhood where the veil is the cultural norm and yet no judgment is passed upon women who do not wear it.
Like all freedoms, religious freedom is not absolute. It is said in the United States that the Constitution is not a suicide pact, and this principle is applicable to any open society. It is one thing to say I should be perfectly free to worship Baal, another to say I must be free to sacrifice children to him. Donning a burqa is not an outrage on the order of killing a child, but it is surely an outrage on just that order to permit a culture that views women as slaves to displace one that does not. We are all by now familiar with the demographic predictions: Europe’s Muslim population is growing; many cities will soon have Muslim majorities. If the conception of Islam that the veil represents is allowed to prevail in Europe, these cities will no longer be free.
It is difficult to form a position on this issue that reconciles all of the West’s legal precedents and moral intuitions. It is probably best that the burqa be banned immediately on “security” grounds, even if we all know deep down that the case is spurious; for such a ban to make perfect sense, it would have to extend to all loose clothing, suitcases, capacious handbags, beer bellies, and shoes. Yet in some cases, hypocrisy is the least awful of options; bans thus justified may be the best way of expressing a society’s entirely legitimate revulsion without setting a dangerous precedent of legislating against a targeted religious group.
Headscarves cannot at this point be banned. It is politically impossible, and it is also too late: The practice is too widespread. But the decision to wear them should be viewed much as the decision to wear Klan robes or Nazi regalia would be in the United States. Yes, you are free to do so, but no, you cannot wear that and expect to be hired by the government to teach schoolchildren, and no, we are not going to pretend collectively that this choice is devoid of a deeply sinister political and cultural meaning. Such a stance would serve the cause of liberty more than it would harm it: While it is true that some women adopt the veil voluntarily, it is also true that most veiling is forced. It is nearly impossible for the state to ascertain who is veiled by choice and who has been coerced. A woman who has been forced to veil is hardly likely to volunteer this information to authorities. Our responsibility to protect these women from coercion is greater than our responsibility to protect the freedom of those who choose to veil. Why? Because this is our culture, and in our culture, we do not veil. We do not veil because we do not believe that God demands this of women or even desires it; nor do we believe that unveiled women are whores, nor do we believe they deserve social censure, harassment, or rape. Our culture’s position on these questions is morally superior. We have every right, indeed an obligation, to ensure that our more enlightened conception of women and their proper role in society prevails in any cultural conflict, particularly one on Western soil.
When government ministers such as the British environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, legitimize the veil by babbling about the freedom and empowerment the garment affords, they reveal a colossally dangerous collapse in Europe’s cultural confidence. Instead, campaigns designed to discourage veiling should be launched. If the state is entitled to warn, say, of the unhealthful effects of cigarette smoking, it is surely also entitled to make the case against the conception of women that veiling represents.
Banning the burqa is without doubt a terrible assault on the ideal of religious liberty. It is the sign of a desperate society. No one wishes for things to have come so far that it is necessary.
But they have, and it is.
– Claire Berlinski is a freelance journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too, and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. This article first appeared in the August 16, 2010 issue of National Review.