If We Love Personal Freedom So Much, Why Are Westerners Outlawing Veils?

ByDanielle Paradis

Late Sunday night, while many people directed their anger at the Emmys and Modern Family beating out Veep, Reuters reported that people in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino voted to impose the country's first ban on face-covering veils.

It isn't final yet; the decision still needs to be backed by federal parliament before it becomes law. Still, this is part of an increasing trend set in motion by France in April 2011, when it became the first European nation to ban the public use of veils.

The charge in Ticino was led by former journalist and political campaigner Giorgio Ghiringhelli, who drew up the proposal to apparently send a message to "Islamist fundamentalists" he said were in Ticino and across Switzerland. "Those who want to integrate are welcome irrespective of their religion," he said in a statement on the website ilguastafeste.ch. "But those who rebuff our values and aim to build a parallel society based on religious laws, and want to place it over our society, are not welcome."

Others have spoken up in agreement with the ban. "I would also have voted 'yes' if I had been in Ticino. The burqa is a symbol of female oppression," said Christophe Darbellay of the Christian Democratic People's Party on Swiss television. Funny, I never hear the same argument about nuns. No one ever praises the work of Mother Teresa while saying that the habit she wore oppressed her.

Erica Aisha Charves, a millennial blogger, journalist, and gender researcher, is also a Muslim feminist living in Egypt. She has worn a hijab for the majority of the last 10 years and she's used to people telling her that the hijab is oppressive to women. "I wouldn't have chosen Islam if I felt it was unfair toward women at its base," she said in an email interview, adding that there are issues with most religions surrounding patriarchal structure which has been, as she pointed out, "historically unfair toward women."

Charves says she has chosen to wear the hijab and modest clothes for a lot of reasons. One is a rejection of the over-sexualized society that puts impossible pressure on women's bodies. Hijabi fashion isn't necessarily dowdy, however: there are Tumblrs and blogs illustrating that. Charves says she wears a hijab because she likes to "keep the sexy parts of me for me." When you think of the high rates of body issues in our "liberated" Western culture, Charves may be on to something.

"I am not a currently fan of the niqab or burqa, which cover the face fully, however I don't  believe it's anyone's business to tell women what to wear at any time,whether to wear less or more," Charves wrote.

Charves says that in Egypt, and worldwide, there has been a return to the veil. In the 1960s and even through the '80s it was not very common to see women wearing the hijab. "Women in the West and converts may choose to wear the hijab as a way to claim their identity," Charves said. She likes to put a cheeky spin on it. "To borrow from one of my favorite LGTBQ lines: We're here; we're Muslim. Get over it."

With many countries and courts seeking to regulate, restrict, or ban the wearing of Muslim headscarves we have to ask why they are trumpeting freedom while simultaneously stomping on it. According to Charves, only in Saudi Arabia and Iran are there laws upheld to force veiling. In the Western world, where individualism and personal freedoms are a foundation of society, banning the ability for a woman to choose to wear a religious garment does not create a free world for her, but one filled with restrictions.

Imagine the way hijabis view the Western tendency to bare-it-all and therefore fall under the scrutiny of the male gaze. In places like Ticino and France, the lack of integration with non-native Muslim populations is cited as a reason for banning the veil. Charves says that while the ban in France probably affected less than 300 women, those women face a cruel irony: they lost their liberty not out of a choice to wear a face veil, but because their Western government decided for them what "freedom" looks like.