British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has hinted at making face masks mandatory in shops. Earlier, Scotland passed a law that requires people to wear a face covering in public places. At this moment, Twitter is trending a hashtag #facecovering while the British media, members of the public and prominent personalities have started campaigning in favor of face coverings in public.
Times have changed! Now the Europeans have no qualms with embracing face coverings as a protection against the coronavirus. After all, it is in the best “public interest” and as the slogan says, “For Your Safety.” But what about Muslim women wearing face veils?
I reminisce how sections of the same Western media campaigned to ban face veils and argued that a Muslim woman wearing one is a sign of oppression and backwardness, contradicting the Western values and way of life.
Can you recall The Guardian headline, “I felt uneasy talking to someone I couldn’t see”? So how will British politician Jack Straw react to Johnson’s decision now?
I do remember a day in 2006 when I was a master of arts journalism student at the University of Leeds. Like many other academics, I was shocked to know that the British parliamentarian Straw, who had provoked anger and outrage among the British Muslim community by saying that the face veil is a “visible statement of separation and difference,” was actually one of the former student union presidents.
I found that the University of Leeds students banned him “in protest at what they said were his anti-libertarian policies.”
Since then, there has been a never-ending veil debate as people have written doctorate theses, thousands of newspapers, journal articles, books and manuscripts have been printed, public discussions held, lectures delivered, documentaries and films produced, and teasing caricatures made.
Some time ago, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced a coronavirus mask to the public, calling it “national pride” because it was 100% made in France.
So what is so special about a piece of cloth that makes it a “national pride”? Obviously, if it fits into government policy, it is pride, otherwise, the veil can be regarded as a “shame” and “outdated.”
That is understandable. But is this not the same France that once made wearing a face veil illegal for only a handful of Muslim women including French reverts? At that time, the face veil ban was presented as protection against French liberal values.
Further, in the best interests of French society, it was revealed to the public that the face veil is a “symbol of oppression,” a “health risk,” a “threat” and even a “national shame” because it is outdated and does not fit with a modern secular society.
Now compare the French and the Taliban's views of Muslim women's veils. Are they any different? Both forced women to accept their way of dress, with the French banning face veils and the Taliban making them mandatory.
Hence, women were left with no choice but to obey the so-called moderate French and conservative Taliban. In this way, the veil has become a political weapon.
So, if the West really values women's freedom, it should not force them to wear or not to wear but rather give them a choice.
But it is all politics, as British journalist Katharine Viner wrote in her The Guardian article “Feminism as imperialism,” which unknotted the false claims of Western leaders, especially those of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who “bombed Afghanistan to liberate women from burkas” then used the same logic to bomb Iraq because he could not bear the pain of Iraqi women suffering.
Viner raised a logical point – female suffering is everywhere “to justify another war. Where next? China because of its anti-girl one-child policy? India because of widow-burning outrages? Britain because of its criminally low rape conviction rate?”
Researcher Janine Rich disclosed the popular Western discourse on Islam and Muslims, turning “oppressed Muslim women” into political tools. For decades, Western powers have successfully used it to legalize their attacks on Muslim countries. Too often, sections of the Western media push for debates on Muslim women using “oppression” as fascination.
Rich argues that “The complex discourses surrounding women in the Islamic world have a long and deeply political history and this narrative has been renewed and re-utilized numerous times to garner widespread public support for Western military intervention in the Middle East.”
More worryingly, European newspapers and broadcasters ran disgraceful campaigns that demonized Muslim veil wearing women to such an extent that countries, including France, banned it.
My own research on veils shows how British conservative and liberal broadsheets and tabloids published a series of articles, editorials, features and comment pieces on the veil that made it a “national debate,” bigger than the U.K.’s illegal wars and climate change.
The Western press perceives the veil as a clash between Muslims and non-Muslims and presents it as a “terror threat.” Mostly, the Western media portrays veil-wearing women as “oppressed” and “backward.” The conservative press supports a ban on the veil while the liberal press suggests that women should be free to decide whether they wear it or not.
Besides, several leading European parliamentarians have made it a regular habit to attack the veil because it is an easy way of getting media publicity.
True, the veil is a political weapon of the European political elite that shows nothing but their “double standards" – one rule for a minority and the other rule for the elites.
Pity though, how a piece of cloth fosters divisions during the coronavirus crisis? Probably because Muslims are easy targets of racism as The Guardian’s education editor Richard Adams summed it up, saying the situation is "hijabs as racism 'dressed up as liberalism.'”
So if the face veil is an outdated practice and a terror threat, then why are France, Britain and Scotland now driving their people to adopt it? In the words of British thinker George Orwell, the veil is a perfect example of “double speak.”
In France, it is prohibited for a Muslim woman to wear a face veil, but she will also be fined for not wearing a face mask. So what is the difference? Is it not racism or a form of mental torture or abuse?
Think: If someone demands a ban on drinking, smoking and drug use because it is all deadly and costs the National Health Service (NHS) 2.7 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) each year, does a veil cost anything?
The irony is that we take what we like and leave what we do not like. Think about Christianity, Judaism and other religions that preach modesty. So why is Europe so worried about only Muslim women? After all, it is just a piece of cloth, isn’t it?
If the European democracy has sunk to such a low level, then Europe must rethink and revisit its ideas of liberty, human rights and personal freedoms.
*Academic, analyst and activist based in the U.K., Ph.D. holder at the University of Huddersfield
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