Interpretation, Customs and Norms

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

14 Replies to “Interpretation, Customs and Norms”

  1. FYI —

    This has been against the law in Virginia for a very long time.
    Va. Code § 18.2-422. Prohibition of wearing of masks in certain places; exceptions.

    It shall be unlawful for any person over sixteen years of age while wearing any mask, hood or other device whereby a substantial portion of the face is hidden or covered so as to conceal the identity of the wearer, to be or appear in any public place, or upon any private property in this Commonwealth without first having obtained from the owner or tenant thereof consent to do so in writing. However, the provisions of this section shall not apply to persons (i) wearing traditional holiday costumes; (ii) engaged in professions, trades, employment or other activities and wearing protective masks which are deemed necessary for the physical safety of the wearer or other persons; (iii) engaged in any bona fide theatrical production or masquerade ball; or (iv) wearing a mask, hood or other device for bona fide medical reasons upon the advice of a licensed physician or osteopath and carrying on his person an affidavit from the physician or osteopath specifying the medical necessity for wearing the device and the date on which the wearing of the device will no longer be necessary and providing a brief description of the device. The violation of any provisions of this section shall constitute a Class 6 felony.

    Is this some assault on religious liberty?? No, it was enacted in reaction to KKK-type activity, where people would conceal their identity in order to commit criminal acts, including terrorism.

    So, there are long-standing public-safety reasons, apart from religion, for requiring people to keep their faces visible while in public.

    1. Doesn’t it seem likely that if this law was enforced against someone who claimed it was a form of religious expression, that the law would be challenged as unconstitutional?

      1. If memory serves, several years ago a Virginian woman sued because the DMV would not allow her to wear her veil (that left only her eyes visible) in her driver’s license photo. She lost.

      2. My understanding is that President Sarkosy knows full well the law is unconstitutional and will be defeated in court some day – but he’s prepared to reap political benefit now.

        Truly, it is a ridiculous law. Only a few thousand women wear the full garb in public. For many of these women, it is a deliberate choice based on cultural and/or religious issues. I have spoken firsthand with young Afghani and Pakistani Muslim women who defended their wearing of the burka (while scorning the degree to which “Western” women displayed their bodies, a subject of Msgr Pope’s recent posts). They are harming no one. For the minority of women who may be forced to dress this way, well, the law will not improve their lives at all and may make them worse – unable to cover them up legally in public, their oppressors may just keep them at home.

  2. When I was living in Belgium twelve years ago, I read that Muslim headscarves would not be allowed in French public schools. They did not want any overt religious symbols. A cross tucked away inside a shirt was fine, but not the head-scarf. This was a terrible blow to the Muslim community.

    But the complete hijab is definitely a safety issue (for others, really) as Bender points out. I’ve read of many terrorist acts done by people dressed in a hijab because it granted them safety. But I wonder whether the proportion of crimes committed by people in hijab warrant a law like this that clearly affects the Muslim women who are only observing a religious practice. Criminals will commit crimes no matter what the law. Have studies shown that banning face coverings of any kind reduce crime?

    Growing up in India, which has a large Muslim population (about 20%) it is normal to see completely covered women going about their day.

  3. Thanks for this information about the VA law, I was not aware of this and it does seem to point out the relationship of the issue to the larger community and not targeting one practice. The French debate raises the issue of the difference between a “simple head scarf” and the full face veil. I think the discipline of modesty can be practiced without resorting to the dehumanizing practice of the full face veil. Thanks for all the comments.

  4. Thanks, Susan, for your post – I think this is an important issue.

    I work in IT and have done overseas assignments in Eastern Europe and, briefly, in Qatar.

    France was significantly dechristianized both during and after the French Revolution. Priests were deported to penal colonies or imprisoned; the ringing of church bells, the public display of the cross, and public church processions were banned. Europe is highly secularized today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe seems to be following suit.

    My gut feeling is that the veil issue is related to this secularization. I think that some of the recent ideas about “Eurabia” (that is, Europe developing a Muslim majority) are overstated. On the other hand, it seems to me that if France had higher levels of authentic Catholic faith and a vibrant Cathlic culture, the veil issue would somehow be framed very differently.

    Best Regards, Mary

    1. “My gut feeling is that the veil issue is related to this secularization.”
      Yes. No religious symbols in public. Leave your God at home … but it won’t last.

      “I think that some of the recent ideas about “Eurabia” (that is, Europe developing a Muslim majority) are overstated.”
      But why? The demographics show that Muslims will become a majority in a few generations … and frankly, it is a good thing. We share common values with practicing Muslims than we do with nonpracticing Christians.

      1. it would be a good thing is the history showed an ability for that “majority of muslims” to be peacable to us when they are a majority. but their own laws require them to impose extra taxes on Jews and Christians….

        and their own writings, even the non violent ones. mimic the evangelical protestants in their opinion of Catholics….we are not “real Christians, but idol worshipers” according to MOST of the books in a local Muslim bookstore.

  5. The article that Terrence suggests picks up the theme of France’s commitment to secularization and that is a whole other blog topic and one about which we should be concerned. I travel to Austria annually to visit my in-laws and last year one of the candidates running for election had yard signs with his platform of which one piece was “no more mosques” so Europe and Muslims are struggling with inculturation issues on a number of levels.

    It also brings to mind a story my sister-in-law tells about living in Saudi Arabia. When she first moved there and found that shopping malls and markets would close for the period of aftenoon prayer, it drove her crazy as such an inconvenience…then she realized it seemed silly to get angry that people were stopping to pray and she started using the time to pray the rosary! That is a good experience of inculturation.

  6. The letter of the Virginia law would seem to suggest that, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s title character, the minister in the black veil, anyone using the hood or cowl of an Order habit, anyone protecting their face on a wintry day or in windy, dusty circumstances, would, as soon as they stepped off documentedly consenting private property, technically be a felon in the eyes of the law, merely waiting for the sufficiently assiduous officer of the law to enforce the consequences. Is that so? If so, there seems to be lots of room for the abuse of innocent freedoms built in, however inadvertently.

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