France Votes on Veil Ban -- Why It's Bad for Muslim Women

France voted to ban it, and a handful of other European countries are considering the same. Iranian Roja Heydarpour on how the law drives conservative Muslim women back into their homes.

Toussaint Kluiters / Reuters

This week, the French came one step closer to enacting a law that’s supposed to set women free but which will, in effect, imprison women in their own homes. The bill making its way through the French Parliament would ban women from wearing full veils in public, effectively driving thousands of women inside.

For the veiled women who either won’t or can’t be seen in public with their hair and face uncovered, Paris will come to resemble Kabul, if the ban is passed this fall. In some ways, living in Paris will be even worse. At least in Afghanistan, women can leave the house if accompanied by a man.

Putting aside the fact that some of these women may feel more comfortable behind the veil, the law would hurt even those who aren’t.

In France, we’re talking about a law that would affect about 2,000 women. But the president has found it worthy of his time and attention, and tempers are—predictably—flaring.

France, of course, is just the latest European country where politicians are trying to criminalize the veil in public. Other European countries have aggressively rallied to ban what they consider a symbol of oppression.

“The full veil is a walking coffin, a muzzle,” said one French male MP last week.

Earlier this year, a British politician called the burka “the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes.”

Point taken.

I am Iranian but not a practicing Muslim, and I come from a long line of non-practicing Muslims. There are even—gasp—atheists among us. But my family has lived among women who chose to cover up and, and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, among women who didn’t have a choice.

If anyone were to detest that piece of cloth, it would be me. But I don’t detest it. On the plane, when we occasionally go back to Tehran, I put on the veil without protest. And while some women whisper about how terrible and ridiculous the hijab is, as they angrily tie a knot under their chins, I find a strange comfort in the soft cloth around my head. Of course, if I weren’t an American citizen, free to come and go as I please, that cloth would mean something completely different. But just as I understand the rebellion against the veil, I understand the comfort and freedom of not being exposed. And it’s just as much of an intrusion to force a woman to cover, as it is to force her to take it off.

The veil is such a deep-rooted part of so many cultures that many don’t want to live without it. For them, showing their hair is the equivalent of strolling down the street in nothing but a thong.

The cloth that covers a woman from head-to-toe and leaves her face hidden—the kind of clothing, which the French would ban—has different names in different countries. But it is the kind of veil that is the most mystifying and fascinating to Westerners. What is happening under that dark, flowing cloth? What does the woman really look like? What am I missing?

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If the woman is Iranian or Saudi, chances are she is wearing a dazzling dress and bright red lipstick. But that is for her husband’s eyes only (and other women.)

Putting aside the fact that some of these women may feel more comfortable behind the veil, the law would hurt even those who aren’t. The niqabi woman, who bows to her husband but sneaks to the outdoor café while he’s away, will no longer even be able to do that much.

Ultimately, supporters of the ban are yet again using the issue of women’s freedom to push other agendas. Hard-line Muslim radicals may throw the cloth over women; anti-immigrant zealots, worried about a Muslim invasion, rip it off in the name of liberalism.

In Europe, the ban seems to have been almost contagious. Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Britain, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain have all either introduced legislation or publicly debated a ban. And, according to the Pew Research Center, there is overwhelming support for a ban. According to a recent poll, 82 percent approve of the ban in France compared with 71 percent in Germany, 62 percent in Britain, and 59 percent in Spain. In the U.S., by contrast, most of those polled said they would be against the proposed legislation in France—65 percent of Americans say they would disapprove of a ban on women wearing full veils in public.

Perhaps Americans see the issue for what it is—a question of personal liberty, and the freedom to wear whatever strikes your fancy.

Roja Heydarpour is an editor at The Daily Beast. She has reported for the The New York Times and The Times-Tribune.