When I first saw Msgr. Pope’s post about veils, I thought he had taken up the question of the French Government’s decision to fine women who wear full-face veils. Not much more needs to be said about that but there is a quite interesting debate in Europe about the Muslim custom of full-face veils.
I have been doing a lot of thinking about France’s decision. The French government adopted a law to fine women ($185.00 in U.S. dollars) if they appear in public with the full face veil. France is the first of a number of European countries taking up the topic and it is one of those topics that is very easy for us to dismiss because we think it is not relevant. A few years back I thought that about same-sex marriage and look how that turned out. Are you still startled when you see women at Tysons Corner and in other parts of our area in burqas or niqab or has it become unremarkable?
Thinking behind the law
My first interest in the question was out of a concern for religious liberty. There is a way in which you can liken Muslim women’s dress to a religious habit. The dress stems from a discipline of the faith. However, I also remember my father who is an attorney, involved in a legal case in the 70’s in which a religious sister had been in a car accident, in part because her driving visibility was limited by her veil. The religious community determined that indeed, modifications would need to be made to the veil if the sisters were going to be driving. One of the French arguments is that the full-face veil makes walking and moving around the city difficult and puts women in danger. Another argument is that the meaning of the full-face veil demeans women—rendering her a non-person in a way that is not compatible with Western values. A third argument is one related to security. As we move into an age where we are screened via facial recognition, the full veil does not allow for this. Furthermore, there have been cases of robberies and security infractions committed by persons in burqas.
Is it a Question of Religious Liberty?
It is indeed a complicated question. Some writers took the position that it is an affront to the dignity of women because it is an imposed rule, stemming from a customs including the veil as a sign that you belong to a man, and that women are a source of temptation and should not be seen. Certainly this is a practice that is quite hard for most of us to wrap our minds around. This line of thought also assumes that women, though they have no choice, if given a choice would opt not to wear the full-face veil. I saw an interview in which a number of Muslim women said that they appreciate the custom as an act of modesty and as part of a tradition they love. That’s not unreasonable to believe though the fact that it is imposed and not freely chosen is cause for serious consideration.
Other writers took the position that it is simply incompatible with Western values and that ought to be reason enough. This is where the conversation becomes important because of its relationship to any kind of religious habit. The religious habit is more than a uniform. It is a sign and gives testimony to a radical way of a life. Will this one day be incompatible with American values? The first amendment makes this unlikely but I think the debate over the burqa will raise related issues.
I spoke with my friend, Dr. Sandra Keating who teaches at Providence College and is a Consulter to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims. Sandra is fluent in Arabic and has studied Islam for more than 15 years. Sandra attested to the complexity of the issue because of its roots in various cultures. The Koran teaches that women ought to dress modestly, as Dr. Keating describes it; arms covered, legs covered, hair covered, much like we see Orthodox Jewish women dress. The tradition of the full –face veil is rooted in Persian culture and indeed tied to the notion that women belong to their husbands. She pointed out that across the Islamic world there is a tremendous diversity of women’s dress and the expression of the teaching on modesty in the Koran.
As Catholics and as Msgr. Pope pointed out in his blog, the combination of teaching, tradition and custom is very much intertwined and not always easy to sort out. This seems also to be the case with regard to this question. I think we need to follow the argument carefully as it is taken up in Europe and might one day find it way to the U.S. View this. French law on full-face veils