Last year, I lived and reported from Yemen and grew to loathe the niqab (the face veil) on the grounds that it's an oppressive and anti-feminist tool to keep women both fearful and subservient. In speaking with both educated and illiterate Yemeni women, as well as Muslim women's rights activists, I learned that many of them also loathe the niqab for all the same reasons. (And also because the Quran does not say women must have their faces covered. And also because it's hot and itchy.)
That said, all of those women, me included, think the " burqa ban," which passed the French legislature Tuesday -on the rationale that covering one’s face is an affront to France’s "republican values" and, according to President Nicolas Sarkozy, "a sign of enslavement and debasement"-is a step in the wrong direction. For one, it will serve only to alienate and further marginalize the small group of conservative Muslim women who, perhaps more than any other group in France, would benefit enormously from access to schools, public spaces, and interactions with women outside their religious circle.
Certainly, the niqab is both a side effect and a symbol of the resurgence of ultra-conservative Islam, but it is not the cause of that resurgence. The burqa ban not only doesn’t address the problem of hateful, radical Islamic terrorism; it debases Western society by playing by those hateful, radical terrorists’ world view, which pivots on the idea that there is no room for religious tolerance. Are we really going to play that game, too, by alienating Muslims on the grounds that their outfits are an affront to our "republican" society’s world view? Isn’t the entire point of a republican society to be more tolerant than our totalitarian foes?
I’m no fan of the burqa or the niqab, but legislating intolerance in the name of freedom is illogical and wrong.
Photograph of a woman in a niqab Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images.