Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lifting the veil

FRENCH lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to ban the wearing of full-face veils in public, a similar bill is awaiting Senate approval in Belgium, and several European countries are pushing for a similar ban. But not Britain, according to its immigration minister, Damian Green, as it would be "a rather un-British thing" to tell people what they can or can't wear. Nevertheless, it's a view that is not shared by two-thirds of the Britons who said in a poll on Friday they would back such a ban, and it has not stopped a fellow Tory member of parliament, Philip Hollobone, from tabling a bill to make it unlawful for people to cover their faces as it was "against the British way of life".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy also saw the veil as an "affront" to his country's "republican values" and the proposed ban as a reaffirmation of France's secularism. When there is an emphasis on the secular nature of the state, as in France, it would seem that visible religious symbols would be at odds with such principles. Even a less secular state such as Syria has seen it fit to outlaw the veil in its universities as it is deemed to be "inconsistent with the values and ethics of academic traditions". Other Muslim countries have also restricted face coverings as they do not regard them to be obligatory. On the other hand, while more conservative Muslim societies require women to cover their heads and bodies, veils covering the face are rare.

Of course, just as there's no such thing as absolute freedom, there are limits to what people can wear or cover. Faces have to be shown for identities to be established, and there are times when it's important to be able to see someone's face. But as skiers clad in balaclavas, motorcyclists wearing crash helmets and carnival-goers behind fancy-dress masks have been exempted from the law approved by the French National Assembly, one suspects there is more to the ban on veils than meets the eye. In the circumstances, it is hard to see how these can be allowed but the veil is forbidden, especially when only 1,900 women in France wear it. There's certainly no cause to call veils a "walking coffin" when what seems to be dying are the hallowed European traditions of liberty, equality and fraternity. Indeed, no less than the Conseil Consitutionnel, France's highest court, has viewed the proposed ban as a violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and religion. Editorial, New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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