An Italian parliamentary commission passed a draft law yesterday that would prohibit women from veiling their faces in public. Lawmaker Barbara Saltamartini said she approved the move that would “put an end to the suffering of many women who are often forced to wear the burka or niqab, which annihilates their dignity.”
Saltamartini’s blanket statement makes it sound like veiling is always an oppressive move by an outside force, instead of allowing for the possibility that individual women could choose the veil for their own reasons. Or, to put it another way, this is yet another example of how Westerners swoop in and make their own definitions and interpretations for the behavior of another culture.
During the year I spent in Saudi Arabia, several of my closest friends wore the niqab. I once asked one of them point-blank whether she considered the veil oppressive. By the way she looked at me, you could tell the thought had literally never occurred to her.
“Of course not,” she said.
“Saudi women are so, so beautiful,” she went on. “If I cover, I can decide who will see my beauty. I am in control.”
I couldn’t help but consider the marked difference between her own confidence in her beauty versus mine as an American. I don’t think I would ever describe myself as “so, so beautiful.” Nope, my culture conditioned me out of that pretty early, with its parade of anorexic models with Photoshopped faces attacking my self-esteem everywhere from the supermarket shelves to my living room’s TV. My culture screams that I’ll be pretty if I just lose a few pounds, spend $43 on this particular skin bronzer, and buy the right jeans that make my butt look good. The pressure on Western women to look and dress a certain way never ends. I bet we could cure cancer if we re-directed the money we spend on diet products, cosmetics, and extremes like plastic surgery.
Personally, I find all of that pretty oppressive.
Of course, my friend is just one example. Muslim women are a diverse group, and not everyone feels the same way about the veil. There are women who love it and women who hate it, women who find it a refuge and women who find it a prison, women who choose it and women whose relatives make them wear it, women who consider it a sign of piety and women who think God has bigger problems than what’s on their heads.
But that’s just the point: Because of the widely varied beliefs about the veil, a simple blanket rule—Thou shalt not cover thy face—will not work to empower women. Rather, to empower women, we need to give them the personal choice to wear what they choose, to dress in a way that will make them feel comfortable, confident, and that will not make their moral compasses go haywire.
But by forcing women to remove the veil so that they will not be forced to wear it, this law definitely won’t be granting any new dignity to women.