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Why Some Cultures Require Women to Wear Veils

By: Molly Edmonds & Yves Jeffcoat  | 

Are Burqa Bans Reasonable?

burqa ban
Many countries, including Switzerland, have enacted bans on veiling. But is banning veils a human rights violation? Sirio Tessitore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The burqa is banned partially and nationwide in many countries around the world. (A note on terminology: So-called "burqa bans" often prohibit the public wearing of a range of face and full-body coverings.) Some people who support burqa bans cite reasons of politeness and respect to local customs.

Other people who support burqa bans focus solely on the garment as a sign of a human rights violation. These people would argue that the veil should be removed in order for women to have any chance of achieving equality. They may view veils as sexist representations of the burden that women face to be responsible for men's sexual desires. They suggest that women cannot ever be seen as full people if their face is covered, and if they continue to wear the veil then they are complicit in their own subordination.

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Burqa ban advocates may also say that women who wear veils stick out like sore thumbs in the West and can face anti-foreign and anti-Muslim harassment. But one major defense of burqa bans is the need to ensure public safety. According to this argument, criminals can conceal their identities and weapons beneath veils. Add to this the garb's association with extremist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and veils have been targeted as harbingers of terror.

Sri Lanka approved a ban on full-face veils, including the burqa, in 2021 due to national security concerns. But while the need to remove a face veil to confirm someone's identity is reasonable, some people argue that a blanket ban is extreme and violates rights to freedom of religion. They also conclude that burqa bans exacerbate discrimination against and repression of Muslims, potentially inciting Muslims' radicalization. Therefore, the bans are more of a security threat than the veils themselves.

However, to women who choose to wear a veil, the call from the West to remove it seems hypocritical. Women are objectified through dress in the West, too, and patriarchal norms sometimes dictate what is appropriate and safe for women to wear in public. Who has the right to decide what is oppressive to women and what is not, especially when the women themselves defend their decisions as matters of preference?

Yes, girls and women have been oppressed in some countries where veiling is the norm. The Taliban, for instance, has limited education for girls and women, shut down women's clinics, and prohibited women from leaving their homes without a male relative. Some Muslim women claim these are the causes worth fighting for, and matters of wardrobe are less pressing [source: Abu-Lughod].

And if certain Western religious coverings are considered acceptable, you might wonder why the hijab is not. After all, no country has banned nuns from wearing wimples or Jews from donning the yarmulke, though some places have banned people from wearing religious symbols in schools and the workplace.

While a nun's habit may be seen as a sign of devotion to a morally respectable religion, a Muslim veil is viewed as a sign of submission and a disturbance to others. A ban on the hijab and burqini is then justified as a boon to secularism, public safety and gender equality. In the years since the 9/11 attacks, Islam has become increasingly associated with violence, and Islamophobia and counterterrorism policies aimed at Muslims have been on the rise in Europe and the United States.

Whether freedom of religion and expression is truly extended to everyone in Western countries is a point of contention. Does it make any sense to say women have freedom of expression, yet aren't allowed to decide what they can or cannot wear? Or is a burqa truly a threat to others' ways of life? In a world where people have to take off their shoes before boarding an airplane, is it fair to ignore security concerns about a full-body garment?

These questions will be debated for a long time, and the answers will likely be imperfect when it comes to this controversial piece of cloth.

Originally Published: Feb 19, 2010

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