Pay no attention to the women behind the veil? (Actually, no, don’t do that.)

So in the on-going saga of Western countries being horrible to women who wear burqas or niqabs, Australia announced that it was going to require anyone wearing “facial coverings” to sit behind a glass partition when viewing Parliamentary procedures.

A whole lot of people immediately pointed out that this was a ridiculous decision (buzzfeed has helpful collected some of the cleverest responses), the Prime Minister Tony Abbott backtracked and said that the new rule might not be necessary, as those wearing facial coverings would already have gone through the same security screenings as everyone else, and as far as I’ve heard online, everyone is just sort of waiting to see what Parliament does next.

Obviously the rule is silly.  People go through security screenings, and people are no more likely to hide dangerous materials on their face as anywhere else on their person (I’d argue less likely, actually, but I’ve never tried to tape a gun to my face).  If the issue were identity screening, anyone wearing facial coverings could just be checked privately, and then allowed to wear the covering like usual.  The only reason to single out those wearing facial coverings once in the proceedings would be in order to stress the differences between those people and all others – the same reason there was once segregated seating for women or for people of color.

However, I do think the ongoing saga of the West’s relationship to Muslim styles of dress is a useful way to discuss why intersectionality is so important to both understanding religion in the public sphere and in understanding the treatment of women today.  Because the problem of Australia’s response to Muslim women wanting to attend Parliamentary proceedings does not lie exclusively in the fact that they are women.  Or in the fact that they are Muslims.  It’s the intersection of the two that matters.

In order to demonstrate this point, think about how many times you’ve seen this picture:


Or this one?


Or this one?


All three are from news sites discussing Western veil banning and whether Islamic styles of dress oppress women (here, here, and here).  But in looking at these images, we need to ask – who are these women?  Are these the same women over and over again?  Did they agree to be photographed?  Did they know how these photos were being used?

For all the West’s apparent discomfort with the veil, we’ve become increasingly comfortable with the use of women wearing the veil as a visible cue for the differences between Islam and the West.  These photos also reveal the continued lack of interest in knowing more about these women’s choices or these women as people – the guardian article even mislabels the woman in photo 2 as a French woman wearing the burqa – she’s wearing a niqab (as are the women in picture 1, despite being attached to an article specifically about burqas – only picture 3 is wearing a burqa).

This repeated image of an anonymous woman wearing a veil is essentially a form of objectification.  Although we most often discuss the objectification of women as objects of sexual desire (if you haven’t ready Ozy Frantz’ fantastic breakdown of women as sexual objects, you’re missing out!), objectification can take many forms – in this case, the anonymous nature of the figure in the photo encourages the perception of women in Islam as voiceless masses being forced to conform to tyrannical requirements of their religion as seen in their style of dress.  In reality, lots of women wear veils and other forms of ‘Islamic’ dress for lots of reasons – even if that reason is just “everyone else does it,” that’s still a choice, made by an autonomous human being (and the same reason millions of people around the world choose what to wear – “everyone else is wearing this” is basically how fashion works).

None of these discussions are about specific women who choose to wear the veil, or how the discrimination against them has affected them personally.  Instead, these pieces (this one included!) discuss ‘women who wear veils’ as a generic whole.

As I said, objectification of women is commonplace.  However, the specific objectification of the anonymous women in veils isn’t just a result of their being women.  It’s specifically about them being Muslims.  Indeed, one aspect of the supposed security threat of women in veils is the identity concern, that it could be anyone under there!, essentially abstracting these women’s identity beyond them even being women.  Objectification is dehumanizing – in this case, by emphasizing the supposedly anonymizing effect of the veil, it allows the people pushing anti-veil laws to claim that there’s no downside.  Banning the veil in public just makes non-veil wearing people feel better!  It’s important for security!  Veils make people uncomfortable!

All of those things might be true, but in a free society, we’re supposed to measure the benefit of these changes against the damage and inconvenience caused to the people negatively impacted by these laws, just like we do when we’re considering limiting someone’s freedom of speech or right to bear arms.  Doing so requires listening to Muslim women, those who wear veils, those who wear headscarves, and those that don’t wear either, women who occupy the whole spectrum of how women experience Islam.  We need to listen to them about their experiences, about the treatment they already receive from their choices, and how these proposed changes impact them.  Like Nahida.  And woodturtle.  And Amanda Quraishi.  And Zainab bint Younus.  And the women at altmuslimah.  And the literal millions of others who don’t have websites.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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