“And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not found then a man and two women.” Qur’an 2:282, regarding the lesser value of women’s testimony in court.
It’s been decided this week by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that bans on Muslim employees wearing headscarves can be legally put in place, so long as they are part of a greater ban on the wearing of anything pertaining to ones political, philosophical or religious beliefs.
Of course, the ruling has been met with opposition – UK Prime Minister Theresa May being one prominent advocate for women’s right to wear hijab and other such coverings.
It’s been suggested that for a ban on religious symbolism in the workplace to be legitimate, it should cover the wearing of the Christian crucifix and the Jewish kippah.
While the obvious differences between the veiling of women in Islamic culture and the wearing of religious hats and necklaces in other traditions require no explanation, what may be pointed out is the emphasis made by the ECJ that these bans should have nothing to do with the preference of customers to any employer considering a similar policy.
There are very few reasons to object to a Christian wearing a crucifix round the neck, as it is a fairly non obtrusive expression of ones beliefs. Similarly, the kippah (a small cap worn by Jewish men) often goes without notice as it covers such a small area of the head.
The covering of women’s heads in Islam however, pertains to a much more drastic change in aesthetic and comes with certain connotations and baggage which should not be overlooked.
There simply does not exist a Christian or Jewish nation today which enforces a strict code of dress upon its citizens.
The debate began with the dismissal of two Muslim women in France and Belgium after refusing to remove their hijab while at work.
The issue of workplace dress raises a more pressing conflict, however: the argument of whether religion should hold a place of respect in our culture above that of any secular ideology, and whether the same criticisms and censorship may be applied to religion as to political ideologies, such as Nazism (heavily censored in parts of Europe), for example.
It seems that in many European countries, the UK being one, religions occupy a special place in discourse when it comes to exemption in public discussion on the merit of ideas.
The comparison between Communism in particular and Islam is one that interests me very much.
When implemented on a national level, both are totalitarian in nature.
When drawn from liberally, both fall prey to accusations of cherry picking by the more hard line adherents of either group.
Between them, they are the biggest producers of ideologically motivated violence in the world today. Communism comes second only to Islam as the professed ideology of the top terror groups of the past thirty years, when rated by either number of attacks or death toll.
Both often implement cult like deification of their leaders, whether it be the banning of artistic portrayals of Muhammad, or the characterisation of Joseph Stalin as a wise father figure and loyal Soviets as his children by the press of the Soviet era; or alternatively, the presentation of both as men of the people and of peace, while neither fell too far from the definition of despotism.
Although Islam is known primarily as a faith and Communism as a political ideology, in practise both seem to blur the lines of faith (or at least, faith like devotion) and politics; and the clear practical similarities between the two demonstrate that religious groups, when given sufficient opportunity, will operate in much the same way as secular political groups.
In fact, when it comes to the veiling of women in Islam there is an undeniable relation to politics.
If you would like to know more about debate in the Islamic world on covering women, please check out my previous blog: Iranian Feminism and the Fight Against Hijab.
The wearing of religious symbolism historically has been at once a show of ideological allegiance on the part of willing participants, and a means to obtain ideological dominance on the part of enforcers.
In many cultures throughout the ages, to a greater or lesser extent, certain classes have been denigrated by means of enforced forms of dress.
In Nazi Germany, Jews were made to wear a clothes patch or badge of the Star of David to differentiate them from the rest of society along with identifying documentation; in North Korea to this day one might pick out members of an elite class by the imported Italian suit fabrics they wear (in contrast to the dress of ordinary North Koreans), or failing that the special travel passes they carry.
The veiling of women in Islamic culture has represented one of the most extreme attempts at such a societal division to date.
It’s been speculated that perhaps the propensity of Islamic nations to behave in a more extreme way than the other Abrahamic faiths, is the sense within Islam of being the third and final of the monotheistic religions. This may explain the greater room for reformation and open debate within other religions when compared to Islam: Islam comes with the claim of being the final word, and for those who believe that word to be the word of God there can surely be no further debate.
Although facial coverings are now illegal in some European countries such as France, examples of Islamic dress such as niqab and burqa are still compulsory in some Islamic nations.
Veils which cover the face and figure not only remove the possibility of visual expression of the individual through manner of dress, figure and facial expression; but in my view, serve to dehumanise the women who wear them in a very literal sense: the removal of the most human aspects of their appearance.
Such coverings leave the appearance of women devoid of sex or empathy, and if one controls the expression of both sex and empathy, one controls virtually everything.
It is, I believe, this objection which forms the basis of the distaste of many in secular societies directed towards the wearing of even less extreme forms of veil.
I know, for example, through my experience in the social care sector, that a common issue faced is the mistrust amongst many physically disabled service users, or those suffering from learning disabilities, towards people with their faces or bodies covered.
Should those who rely on carers, or even clients of other sectors have to accept that they will be served or assisted by someone who – so far as our perception is allowed by their style of dress – cannot take part in the 55% of communication commonly attributed to body language, as first suggested in 1971 by Albert Mehrabian, now Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA – or have their ability to do so at least partially jeopardised in the case of less extreme headscarves?
And, perhaps most importantly of all: should those who find offence in the traditional dress which has run alongside, and been so closely equated to the suppression of women’s legal voice, refusal of education, threat of violence and countless other areas of concern in modern Islamic nations, be expected to find no issue with the veil when confronted with it?
No doubt, such objections will often be met with accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ – one of those most perplexing of prejudices: a prejudice which finds no issue in skin colour, sexuality, race or class – but merely beliefs and ideas.
I see no issue or prejudice in the criticism (or, for that matter, satirising) of religion. By wearing the garb of your beliefs, any criticism levelled against you for those beliefs cannot be considered prejudicial by very definition.
So, does the ECJ ruling on the matter open the door to ‘Islamophobia’?
I think not, as such a thing does not exist anymore than a phobia of Liberals, Nazis or Christians.
Does it move us one step closer to a society in which adherence to religion will not grant special immunity from debate or regulation?
I certainly hope so.