Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Faced with a dilemma

I had an interesting dinner discussion tonight with some Americans about the case brought against the AUC’s decision to ban the niqab. The advisory report recently presented to the Supreme Administrative Court states that such a ban breaches women’s freedom of religious belief, their personal freedom and is discriminatory. The American woman was appalled by the issue on several levels, but her overriding objection was that as a private institution the AUC should be able to choose and enforce the policies which reflect its liberal democratic philosophy. By this rationale the AUC should be allowed to ban the niqab because it is not in keeping with its tight jeans and tank top outlook. However what if the shoe was on the other foot, and a top private university was demanding that all women wear the niqab or be denied admittance? Would this be acceptable as an autonomous exercise of policy?

While the main thrust of AUC’s case against the niqab was that it compromised security regulations, it is clear that the case is at least in part motivated by the same suspicion of, and repulsion against the niqab, which fuelled recent debates in the UK on the issue. And it is easy to see why liberals experience an almost visceral reaction at the sight of these faceless women. I have been scared witless on a number of occasions when, rounding a corner, an amorphous black mass has suddenly descended on me. Beyond the sinister appearance, there are also the deeper, intellectual challenges posed by the niqab; the implication of separation, the seemingly contradictory exultation of beauty yet transformation of the female face and form into something so formless…

But as any female who has walked the streets of Cairo will tell you, to have your sartorial choices (and therefore part of your identity) dictated by others’ perception of what is right and wrong is suffocating. It seems somehow disingenuous to fight for women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want except where their choice offends liberal sensibilities. If – as is almost certainly the case here – the objection to the niqab is primarily political/cultural then this should be stated frankly (rather than hiding behind the facade of security concerns), so that the arguments for and against can be fully explored.

The European Court of Human Rights arrived at some hard, very non-PC, conclusions when faced with this issue. One Layla Saheen brought a case challenging Turkey’s ban on the higab in public institutions. The Court (which jealousy guards its European conception of democracy and religious pluralism) referred to an earlier case where it had stated that the higab “had a proselytising effect” and that as a religious precept imposed on women, it was hard to reconcile with gender equality. Turkey and its rigorous secularism is an entirely different context from that of Egypt however. In the absence of an all encompassing official policy of secularism, Egypt would surely be in violation of its human rights obligations if it allowed private institutions to implement such a clearly discriminatory policy targeting only one section of a religious group.

Liberals may be repelled by what women choose to do with the freedom liberalism affords them, but ultimately to place conditions on this freedom is surely to rob it of all meaning.


Anonymous said...

yeah but private institutions do have the right to dictate clothing rules, except in the case of labour law. it is not in breach of human rights codes. if it is framed as a freedom of religion issue, then yes, it is.

Anonymous said...

I know this doesnt apply to AUC. But in US the interests of the state override those of the individual. This would include certain personal freedoms. The courts have ruled that the full veils must be removed in certain circumstances.

Will E. said...

Well in the habit of Egypt to force women into practically anything, this whole niqab issue isn't so bad really. It's a hot country anyway and the black is just self torture. I think that for health reasons niqab should be banned in summer.

But on a more serious note, there are places that restrict its visitors to more clothing, it's all about where that place is really. In Italy it's forbiden that people enter churches in shorts or being sleeveless. In certain places you can't wear extra clothes.

The real issue of a niqab is that it's the best camouflage for anyone.. I'm sure if I were ever hunted down by any authority I would resort to wearing that. Niqab terrorizes people from dealing with it's bearers.

When people choose public symbols to display their faith, while it may not be proselityzing it's a statment whether they want to say it or not.

Moderation is key to a moderate society.. it's not nice to have nude people walking around, there's a law for this extreme, and it's not good to deal with faceless people in human form. If we were all meant to be the same, we would have been created faceless.