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If Muslim men like the veil so much, let them wear it

By Martina Devlin
Thursday May 22 2008


If Muslim men are so keen on seeing their headscarf introduced into Irish society, they should wear it as well as their women. Let them cover up, too.

Otherwise there must be no place for the hijab in civic life here. Not in banks, hospitals or libraries, not in the guards or civil service and most definitely not in schools.

You hear a constant stream of hooey about why we can't ban the headscarf. But this is not about Islamophobia. It's not about prejudice on race or religion grounds. It's not about equating the Muslim scarf with terrorism. It's not about denial of civil rights.

Here's what banning the headscarf is about: the State demonstrating our belief in gender equality. It's about removing a symbol of repression and submission. Showing we don't condone marks of separation -- either between men and women, Muslim and Christian, or native born and immigrant.

And it's about refusing point blank to make allowances for anything which could lead to a creeping erosion of women's rights.

Today the hijab which covers the hair and shoulders, tomorrow the niqab or full-face veil, the day after the burqa hiding everything from tip to toe -- described as a mobile prison by women obliged to wear it.

The rest of Europe is wrestling with the same issue, often in courts and employment tribunals, but France broke new ground four years ago by outlawing the headscarf and other prominent religious symbols in state schools. I say let's take the bull by the horns and follow the French lead.

You can bet your bottom dollar Islam will complain about discrimination. That's fine, we allow freedom of protest unlike many Islamic counties. But it is not discriminatory to ban the hijab in a country that is culturally Christian.

Muslim boys are raised to value women who wear the hijab and disrespect women who don't.

If born here, those boys are Irish as well as Muslim. Is it right to give the green light to a situation where Irish people make those distinctions? Or where other Irish people may be subjected to them?

Islam claims women who abandon the hijab are laying themselves open to rape, adultery and divorce.

That's obviously scaremongering. But if you want to read some eye-popping attempts to justify the unjustifiable, take a look at the World Islamic Network's website. It argues the traditional scarf guards women against assault, implying those who don't wear it lay themselves open to attack.

It suggests a pretty woman cannot be treated as a man's equal. That's damaging enough, but more dangerous still is the idea that a man is not responsible for his behaviour towards her. She will arouse passion and it's her fault if he is incapable of restraining himself.

"A woman going out exposing her charms attracts men, which sets off a chain of undesirable events ... Who is to be blamed for all the consequences but the person who caused them," asks the website.

So, the onus to control male behaviour falls on a woman's headscarf-shrouded shoulders. Handy, that.

The headscarf denies a woman her attractiveness. Her looks belong not to her but to her male relatives. Islam believes hair should not be exposed because it represents half the total beauty of a woman, and only her husband should appreciate it.

But in our society it is important for faces to be visible; people who mask themselves even partially risk isolation from the host community. We need to strike a balance between multiculturalism and integration. There is nothing wrong with dressing modestly; some of us could do with a reminder in that department.

The headscarf signals a world of difference and makes integration much more difficult, however.

Of course, some nuns wear veils but that's of their own volition as adult women -- not a custom they are railroaded into as children.

Muslim women are under huge social pressure to cover up -- it can't truly be called freedom of choice. Nor do I buy the counter argument about equal social pressure on western women to dress seductively. Some do, some don't, but there isn't the same level of coercion.

Ironically there are no clear Koranic injunctions about wearing veils. Muslim history says the wives of the Prophet covered their heads, so it has become an Islamic obligation in a number of countries.

Turkey has vetoed it in schools or civic spaces, though, while the European Court of Human Rights has upheld the ban.

The Koran uses similar language regarding decorum for male dress as for female, but today only the importance of modesty for women is emphasised.

By focusing on women, Muslim men eliminate checks on their own behaviour, meanwhile legitimising inequality of the sexes to their own advantage.

I don't regard the hijab as a harmless expression of religious and cultural diversity. A veiled woman carries regressive connotations.

If we accept it in schools, we open the door to other practices in the Muslim world even more repressive to women, among them arranged marriages and female circumcision.

How can teachers tell girls swathed in scarves they are anyone's equal? Their male-imposed dress code makes them subordinate before lessons even begin.

It's unfair and more than a little cowardly to expect individual schools to formulate policies on this. We need clear, strong Department of Education guidelines -- ones which forbid the headscarf, and in so doing outlaw apartheid, institutionalised inequality and estrangement between the sexes.

No pupil should be singled out as different.

- Martina Devlin 

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