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Hysteria and the veil

By Gwynne Dyer

Monkey see, monkey do. Soon after France's National Assembly passed a law making it illegal to wear a full-face veil in public, British MP Philip Hollobone announced a private member's bill last weekend that would make it illegal for people to cover their faces in public in Britain. Neither bill mentioned Muslims by name, of course.

Hollobone has previously called the Islamic veil "offensive'' and "against the British way of life,'' so we may safely assume that his bill is not aimed at people wearing motorcycle helmets. We can also assume that it will never become law, for British immigration minister Damian Green immediately replied that "telling people what they can and can't wear, if they're just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do.''

Good: the last thing anybody needs is for another major European state to copy the French initiative. But it cannot be denied that a great many Europeans feel profoundly uneasy when they see these shrouded, masked women moving silently in their midst.

The veil is not Islamic at all. Indeed, it predates all the Abrahamic religions. They all come from the Middle East, and that's why they all — Jews, Christians and Muslims — used to be obsessed with female "modesty.''

The principle of "modesty'' was a way of controlling the behaviour of women who had the power to upset the social order, so how poor women behaved didn't matter. The early Mesopotamian laws ordaining the veiling of women applied only to the wives of powerful men. Several thousand years later, Greek, Roman and Byzantine upper-class women still went veiled, while their poorer sisters moved freely with their faces uncovered.

We cannot know what proportion of women in seventh-century, pre-Islamic Arabia went veiled, but until quite recently poorer and rural Arabian women, and especially Bedouin women, covered their hair but otherwise went unveiled. It seems a safe assumption that the situation was not much different in the Prophet's time.

I do not presume to interpret the Qur'an, but its injunctions on veiling were simply an endorsement of existing social customs. I would also observe that most Muslim communities down through history have interpreted these customs as requiring the concealment of a woman's hair but not her face.   

So why have women in non-rich Muslim families living in major European cities now taken to wearing full-face veils or even burqas? Not a lot of women, to be sure: France estimates that only 2,000 women go about fully veiled, and the real numbers for Britain are unlikely to be much different. But why are they doing it at all? Two generations ago, their grandmothers almost certainly did not.

One reason is fear, on their own part or that of their husbands, that the majority society's values are so powerful and seductive that good Muslims must be completely isolated from it. This also explains why you regularly see little girls as young as two or three wearing hijab (i.e. with their hair completely covered) in Paris and London: their parents believe that the habit must start very early if it is to withstand the majority society's influence.

A second reason is defiance: think of it as a non-gay version of "we're out and we're proud. Get used to it.'' And both anecdotal evidence and personal observation suggest to me that a large proportion of the fully veiled women in Britain — maybe as many as half — are actually recent converts to Islam who grew up in the dominant post-Christian culture. Same for France. Converts often get carried away.

So which part of this is a threat to public order? None of it, obviously. Why did a ridiculous law banning the full veil pass through the French parliament without opposition, whereas a similar bill will never reach the floor of the British House of Commons? Not because the French are more anti-Muslim than the British, but because they are the heirs of one of the great battles between religion and the secular state.

Britain hasn't seen such a battle since the 17th century, and the official religion just gradually retreated to the sidelines of modern life without a fight. The fight was long, bitter and much more recent in France, so the French state takes public displays of religious allegiance a lot more seriously. But it is still behaving stupidly.

And what about Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, where similar bans have been or are being discussed at the national level? They should be ashamed of themselves.

• Gwynne Dyer is a

London-based independent journalist

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