I once posted a Facebook comment which elaborated on the sheer magic and vitality of the human face. It was deliberately positive-subversive in its intent to stave off the creeping influence of those sub-cultures which practice face-veiling (covering the face with a mask or veil of some sort) in general civic life, especially targeting women. The communicative value, the beauty, the identity-symbolism… applying veils to women’s faces publicly has an effect akin to land being starved of water until drought sets in. To me, there are very few things which are more dehumanizing, identity-crushing, esteem-destroying, marginalizing and barrier-raising than the act of covering a face. Of course, the magnitude of these potential ill-effects for the individual will depend on how much personal volition is involved versus imposition. But I think there is a way in which the rest of society suffers for the loss of a face, regardless of the individual’s perception of it which can be relative to their personal experience.
As I see it, the practice goes right to the heart of social foundations. I wonder what the reader might consider to be the absolute foundations for their ideal society. For the average twenty-first century citizen, you could easily pluck a feel-good platitude from the barrel of political correctness: freedom, liberty, democracy, self-determination, law, justice… the list goes on. My pick from this list would be freedom. But I’d say that the human face is no less important than freedom. A healthy society requires freedom, and it needs faces equally — possibly more so! I’m risking overstating the argument here, but to me it makes sense to put it so strongly.
So to the ends of encouraging healthy foundations, I’m going to speak to those who feel that face-veiling is important, and especially to those pushing for religious face-veiling (e.g. the Muslim niqab/burqa). In the case of Islam, I do not see a convincing case that the religion requires it. There are too many Muslims globally who do not wear it for that to be true. According to the Quran, neither Allah nor Mohammed demand or expect Muslim women to wear face-veils. It would be inaccurate — and actually quite an affront to their own religious freedom — to suggest that a woman with an unveiled face is any less holy or devout than a woman with a face-veil (find a further rebuttal to the Islamist interpretation of the Quran via this link). If we were to take a sample of Muslim women from across the globe, there would be a mix of attires: some all in black with face-veils, some not even showing their eyes, some would have more colourful garments, some with just head-scarves, some without any head-covering at all. The popularized understanding of Islam in Australia is this: it is a woman’s choice as to whether they wear a face-veil. It’s a free choice! And when it’s a free choice, there is room for cultural considerations. So naturally we in Australia will encourage women to liberate their faces, as this is our cultural value here.
For my part, this is a message which ought to be put plainly to the Australian public: Islam does not require face-veiling, therefore discouraging it is not religious intolerance. It cannot be religious intolerance driving this message because we understand that Islam allows the freedom to choose; we are not rejecting the religion, we are asserting it. No, rather it is the value of the human face which is driving this message. I simply don’t think we ought to be backward about telling Muslim women what our preference here is! It’s their choice: the Aussie way or not, but we would truly be blessed if they would allow their face to be seen. (Of course, they can still be Aussie with a face-veil, but honestly, they are opting out of a liberty which is as fair-dinkum at the heart of Aussie identity as the Simpson Desert and as true blue as the surf).
The reality is that there are “cultures” (or communities and political groups) which do enforce face-veils, but rejecting these cultural practices is far from attacking Islam or practicing religious intolerance. Here in Australia it has not traditionally been our culture to encourage face-veiling. But we are also a nation which generously opens our borders and welcomes the world, so our culture will have a fluidity to it. As I said above, there is too much at stake at the foundations of our society to encourage face-veiling, so I’m interested in shaping our culture for the better.
In order for cultural practices to be meaningfully swayed, one looks to authorities to set the tone and direction. So who are the authorities in Muslim countries and communities where face-veiling is prevalent? It seems to me that it’s largely men. In Muslim communities typically the men appear to have the positions of authority in public civic matters, and if this is true then the burden of responsibility rests more on their shoulders at this time; minimally, men in such contexts have more power to influence attitudes towards wearing face-veils (whether rightly or wrongly, and regardless of Western ideals). To bring this point to a head: men, do you wish for the faces of women to be covered in public? I’m asking that, in Australia, you use your roles and positions (whatever they may be) to encourage and nurture the benefits of veil-free living in Australia — we here value women’s faces in public. Clearly this would not be crossing Allah…so what could possibly be convincing men to do otherwise? Hmmm…
Folks say that in Australia, individuals are free under law to wear what they wish: face-veil or no-face-veil ought not to be anyone’s concern. But this is only one layer in the picture. In reality, folks are bound by the behaviour of those around them, as well as expectations. Let me give a few analogies to illustrate. If someone were to be living in a household which hates witches and practices violence against them, it would be very difficult for that individual to own up to having taken up witchcraft. Of course by law they are “free” to proudly practice witchcraft but they will not have that sense of freedom due to their surroundings. Other examples: peer-pressure in schools; “coming out” sexually; admitting that you are dating or marrying cross-culturally. These are all scenarios where “freedom” according to law is a false reality, or at least they are situations where the law only facilitates a shallow experience of freedom.
There are also laws under laws. An eighteen-year-old is legally permitted to buy and drink alcohol in Australia, but not if he’s at school; the school law binds him in that context. And there are general “laws” of authority in place culturally — social norms if you will. One crucial social norm for the matter at hand is the persistent idea that a man has authority or superiority over a woman in some way. Wherever this is a cultural norm, even in Australia, then the assertion of “male-female equality” is no more than a façade; what the male expects will be the law that holds sway there. Another important social norm is Sharia Law, even if it is not legislated at a federal level. The crucial question is this: does Sharia Law encourage women to wear face-veils? If not, then it’s all the more weight upon the shoulders of Muslim authorities in Australia to discourage face-veiling. But if it does, then clearly women are not as “free” to choose whether they wear face-veils as Australian law suggests.
Appendix: My Assumptions in this article.
Did this article stimulate some thoughts? Are you interested in supporting or alternatively opposing any of my or others’ thoughts on the matter? Go for it! Rigorous, honest and passionate dialogue is what we need. This appendix is designed to be a source of suggestions for where debate may be helpfully and practically directed. In this article, my assumptions include:
- Islam does not require face-veiling as a religious imposition, or a requirement of Allah or Mohammed.
- Australian culture does not encourage face-mask wearing as a public norm. (Despite Ned Kelly’s legendary status 😛 ).
- In Australia, men and women, boys and girls are equally valued.
- In some countries, men and women are not valued equally.
- Men do not have authority over women as a natural right; women have equal eligibility for authority as men, including equal social status and are equal value in civic, business and governmental spheres.
- Those in a position of privilege and authority have more power, and a burden of responsibility, to initiate changes for good in society.