What is freedom? Is it as Merriam-Webster says the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or is it the imposition of abstract ‘liberal values’ defined by set sections of society? Is it a particular or a universal? Questions like these pertaining to cultural ethos and values have come to the fore since rigorous debates concerning the “veil” ban erupted across Europe and the Middle East in recent months. The most obvious illustration of which was the landslide passing of the ‘veil ban’ bill by the lower house in the French parliament last week and concurrent considerations in the Belgian and Spanish legislative houses. The bill which is yet to be passed by the Senate will, if accepted and turned into law, deem a fine of 150 Euros for women who wear the niqaab or burqa in public and 30,000 Euros accompanied by a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to do so in France. Moreover, according to polls, the bill is supported by a vast majority of French citizens who see the ‘veil’ largely as a threat and symbol of oppression what with politicians calling it, “a walking coffin” and “a sign of alienation”.
By the very nature of the discourse though, the ban is being viewed by Muslims as a personal attack and Islamophobic in essence guised in vows of ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’. But, more than the specificities of the bill causing a ruckus, in my opinion, it’s the principles of deliberation here that are the problem. If women wear the veil out of personal choice, whether for religious reasons or as a means to assert their identity, shouldn’t they be allowed to exercise their individual rights? Since when is it okay to call for ‘liberalization’ and ‘freedom’ by squelching those very ideals? Is freedom not objective anymore?
Surprisingly, this wave of ‘anti-veilism’ has also spread to the Middle East as the Syrian Education Ministry banned the wearing of veils in universities by both teachers and students last week. Although, imposed in order to protect so called ‘secular’ Syrian values from radical Islamic furor, the dialogue in each of these countries carries undertones of political motives. France, Spain, Belgium and even the Netherlands have claimed the ‘veil’ goes against the liberal European mindset and prevents Muslim women from assimilating into society thereby leading to internal segregation and divisiveness. What is ironic however, is the fact that there are only an estimated 2000 women in France who actually wear the full veil and the numbers are just as low throughout Europe. So, why infuriate over five million Muslims for 2000 women who pose no threat and largely do it out of personal choice? Let’s just say the recent elections in which Mr. Sarkozy’s party received a thrashing from the Socialist led opposition and widespread French support for the ban may have been a factor. Regardless of motive though, the paradoxes are clear. If it was segregation or alienation that the French were afraid of, they have now managed to successfully alienate almost 10% of their population comprised of Muslims from the world over- conservative and liberal alike. Additionally, what poses an even bigger problem is the actual imposition of the ban itself if it is passed. Many Muslim women are refusing to take off the veil regardless of consequences as they see it as a personal infringement of their rights and dubiously blur the lines between the private and public spheres of governance. If it’s okay for skimpily clad women to roam European streets, why is it wrong for fully clothed women to do so?
This brings us to the core of the argument; who decides cultural values? How is freedom no longer governed by choice when it is done without harming others? In this case, I feel, the pronounced bias should put liberal philosophers to shame. If personal choices carried tags of exception gauged by the state, is that not a curtailment of freedom anyways? Really, when did subjugation become a blanket term to be stamped on people who live differently than others especially when causing absolutely no harm? As pointed out by Madeleine Bunting. “It is not difficult to see the racism which permeates this debate. It is about assertion of identity – under the soubriquet of protecting "our way of life" – and crucial to that is forcing a choice: do you subscribe or don't you?” Unfortunately, if your answer to that question is no, you might as well leave and that in my opinion is the most troubling implication of this entire issue. The very clear separation of the majority and minority and the general recognition of state set ideals as being the only acceptable way of life is against all that ‘liberalism’ preaches. This is after all a debate in which both sides claim to aspire to the same ideal-freedom. The European parliamentarians believe themselves to be ‘liberating’ women by imposing this law whilst on the other hand, Muslims and other opponents believe it to be a violation of liberty to begin with.
Nevertheless, if there is one thing I’ve learnt from the ‘veil’ ban in face of my disillusionment with ‘European liberal values’, it’s the relativity of everything. Be it morality or even ideals like freedom that I once believed to be universal-if its timely to do away with them in whatever garb, objectivity loses potency. So, what will go next? Maybe skirts below the knee-after all, enjoying summer is a known tradition and should be forced upon people. We all know you can’t do that when trudging around and how could you possibly be happy otherwise? And besides long-skirt wearers are dangerous.