I don’t like niqabs and burqas — but they should be legal

It's hard to think of a way to more quickly alienate new neighbors we want to fully buy in to our way of life than to mock and restrict their clothing, writes John G. Stackhouse Jr.

In this Nov. 30, 2006, file photo, unidentified women are seen wearing a niqab during a demonstration outside the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, Netherlands. AP photo/ Fred Ernst, File

(RNS) — Those laid-back, liberal-libertine Scandinavians have found a place to draw the line. Denmark will soon become the latest country to ban face coverings for women — which is to say, to ban the niqab, or face veil, and burqas, which include gauze over the eyes.

As Reuters recently reported, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria all ban some form of face covering.

But this isn’t about persecuting Muslims immigrants, of course. Heavens, no. After his Liberal Party, the largest in the coalition government, supported the ban, spokesman Jacob Ellemann-Jensen made it clear that “this is not a ban on religious clothing, this is a ban on masking.”

Yet Denmark, like France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Bavaria, is not widely known for the widespread wearing of face masks. Not a lot of Guy Fawkes masks or Spider-Man masks to be seen on the Champs d’Elysées or the Damrak. Not a lot of hockey goalie face masks or glamorous Venetian masque masks in the shopping malls of Brussels, Sofia or Munich.

No, even Mr. Ellemann-Jensen had to admit, this measure could be predicted to affect precisely one population: those who want to wear a niqab or burqa. Reuters then helpfully reports that this law thus would affect the roughly 200 women in Denmark who wear such garments.

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Two hundred women. No wonder the issue got national attention.

Up here in left-leaning Canada, the issue has surfaced, too. The reasons for banning face coverings have ranged from security concerns to maintenance of our traditional “open-faced society.” Such rationales have rung hollow, however, when Muslim women are willing to unveil themselves to female officers and when most Canadians cover our faces for much of the year because of our traditional desire to avoid frostbite.

Down in the Excited States, one must only wait a little longer, one feels certain, for the White House weather vane to spin around to bans on face coverings. Yet such a ban would be a mistake there, just as it would be here in Canada or across the Atlantic.

To be sure, I strongly dislike niqabs and burqas. When I encounter them, I cannot help but be repelled by what I take to be symbols not only of the subjugation of women, but of a refusal to participate properly in public life. They unnerve me, frankly, and I wish they weren’t worn.

Federal laws, however, aren’t supposed to be tailored to my preference and comfort. Laws against public wearing of such clothes amount instead to cultural chauvinism and, in fact, a compromise of women’s rights.

To those who say, “Our culture prizes open faces in public,” I reply that if we really mean that, we should start to regulate the much more common incidences of sunglasses, full beards, heavy makeup or even the medical masks so many Asian tourists wear.

To those who say, “Such clothes oppress women,” I reply that I tend to think so, too. But when women themselves tell us that they prefer to wear them — some as a proud statement of their faith, others as a device to preserve their privacy — it is simply condescending to accuse them of “false consciousness” and impose our form of enlightenment upon them.

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Indeed, it’s hard to think of a way to more quickly alienate new neighbors we want to fully buy in to our way of life than to mock and restrict their clothing. And to do so isn’t even consonant with the values of that way of life we want to commend to them.

Feminism means, if nothing else, women having the freedom to choose what they put on their heads and faces so long as public order is not compromised.

Liberty means, for all of us, choosing your traditions, your authorities, even your masters.

It certainly ought to mean the freedom to choose your clothes.

(John G. Stackhouse Jr. holds the Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada. His 10th book is just out: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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