Viewpoint: Veiled Threats

Take note – story published 8 years and 9 months ago

LSM's Kārlis Streips is surprised by a sudden interest in Islamic dress codes among the political classes.

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised in spotting a news report to say that our still comparatively new president, Raimonds Vejonis, has found it necessary to say with respect to women:

“Of course, they should not wear such veils.”

I was surprised because somehow I had not noticed that the apparel habits of specifically Muslim women have in some sense been important here in Latvia. I cannot remember a single case in which I have ever seen a woman in Latvia dressed in apparel that completely covers her face. I read this morning that some have been seen, but I have not seen one myself.

Why, in that case, should politicians be proposing a discussion about whether such veils should be banned? Probably first and foremost because this is a convenient issue for politicians in the sense that they can preen themselves as being for or against something without the risk that they will offend a substantial part of the electorate.

This is approximately the same as the easily expected and tiresome babbling about the great harm that is caused to Latvia’s capital city, state, nation and society by Gay Pride events. It goes without saying that such events have never caused and will never cause any harm to anyone, but defending “morality” is a piece of candy for politicians even if they are not particularly “moral” themselves.

This debate, which seems to have appeared out of nowhere, also probably has to do with the so-called refugee issue. Who knows? Perhaps among the 250 unfortunates there will be a representative of the beautiful gender who hides her face under her clothes. Let us whisper that perhaps she will be a terrorist.

What exactly do we mean by a 'face covering' anyway? Burqa, naqib, hijab and more - there are lots of different items worn by lots of different women in lots of different countries.

The chatting of politicians about this topic makes it clear that they themselves are seriously confused. The aforementioned quote from the president came from a longer statement on a television broadcast on LNT:

“They should not wear such veils, because at the end of the day, Latvian society is open. We accept people of various nationalities, we are tolerant toward such people, and I see no reason why anyone should use these things in some kind of way.”

The chairwoman of the Saeima Human Rights Commission, Inese Laizane, for her part, has said that “on the one hand there is a human rights issue here, but on the other hand, we do not object when women at Orthodox Churches have to put on a scarf or if people who go to a mosque must have their heads and hands covered, but covering a face can be offensive to our society. We must separate between the right to be free and respect for culture.”

Oh, what a mess! We are “tolerant” toward people, but apparently not toward what “people” wear. It turns out that “covering the face” can “offend” all of our society! I would suspect that Mrs Laizane has not surveyed people to find out who would or would not be “offended” in such a case. I can personally say that it would not offend me in any way at all, all the more so because I know that there are people with their faces fully covered in the centre of Rīga. Those are the various advertising spooks who jump around and pass out advertising brochures and other things. Who knows who is hidden in that rabbit or donut costume? Maybe a terrorist?

OK, I’m kidding. It is true that the wearing of a full veil in public places is banned in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. There are comparatively many Muslims all of these countries – 7.5% of the population in France and around 6% of the population in Belgium and the Netherlands. There are more of them in some cities – 26% in Belgium, for instance, and 24% in Amsterdam. In the case of France, we must first note that among all of the residents there, only some 2,000 women wear the full veil. Second, the ban also applies to other types of face coverings such as a balaclava or a ski mask. Third, there are all kinds of exceptions in the law. A Muslim woman is allowed to wear the full veil in a private car or mosque, and motorcycle drivers, of course, are not banned from wearing a helmet that covers their faces. One way or another, the European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that the law is not a human rights violation, accepting the claim from the French government that this has to do with “living together in a sense of the word.”

There were two types of arguments against the veil in France. First of all, there was the idea that in a public system, any transaction requires the ability to see the face of the other person. Also, a person who has hidden his or her face completely can create security risks. To abstract myself from Muslim women for a moment, it is certain true that the various “little green men” and other goofballs from Russia have always hidden behind face masks, and that creates sufficiently concrete security problems, all the more so because their hiding tells us a lot about them and their “attitude.” 

There were many MPs in France (the lower house of the French Parliament supported the ban with 335 MPs voting yes and only one voting no (he said that “in fighting against extremist behaviour, we face the threat of sinking into totalitarianism), while in the Senate the vote was 246 yes, one no and 100 abstentions) who explained their support for the ban with the idea that the demand for wearing a veil actually oppresses Muslim women.

I can understand that argument. It is hard for me to imagine that in those countries in which the veil is very common, all women are delighted about this. I think so partly because I have read about huge debates in Turkey, where the issue has been not a full veil, but instead just a woman’s scarf in the context of Islam. I have also read about young Muslim women who leave their home in the full costume and veil, but as soon as they get to the nearest bush, they take it off, stuff it in their backpack, and go on in a skirt and top. Of course, a young lady in a strictly Islamic country would face problems in that case, but that is not true elsewhere. I have also read that in Iran, for instance, one can see women dressed in the full veil charging downhill on skis. One would imagine that they, too, would be happier wearing more appropriate garb for skiing.

Basically this has to do with supposedly religious requirements. Islamic specialists have said that the veil is not particularly addressed in the Koran, it is more of a social and cultural issue. Inese Laizane is right that many religions demand something of that type. Unlike women in the full veil, men with a Jewish skullcap in Riga are not uncommon. There are also, yes, Christian denominations in which one must have one’s head covered at church.

There are other issues here, however. In terms of terrorism, the director of the Latvian Centre for Islamic Culture has said that “theoretically security is endangered in many other ways and much more frequently, but nothing is banned because of that – electronics, sports bags, cars, opaque packages, etc.” And: “If a woman in Latvia is free to bare most of her body publicly, why should there be a discussion of whether she is free to cover it up?”

I agree in both cases. Just because people in the Middle East tend to blow up cars, no one has suggested that vehicles should be banned. After two Chechen youths blew up backpacks during the marathon in Boston, no one thought that backpacks should be banned. It is also clear that there will be people in Latvia who are “offended” by a girl who, during the summer, wears apparel that involves just seven or eight square centimetres of textile, so to speak. I really do believe that there will be quite a few people, particularly elderly ones, who will look at a young lady in short shorts, a tiny top and absurdly high heels and think about the concept “appropriate” or, rather “inappropriate.”

Above all, however, I have to say here that at least for the time being, this is not an issue which is particularly important in Latvia or important at all. One of our newspapers this morning has a picture of two women in the veil, and underneath it says “no too often, but even now you can find people in traditional Muslim clothing on the streets of Riga, including women with covered faces.” The picture does not make it clear that the women are specifically “on the streets of Riga,” there are some kinds of trees or bushes behind them. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that they are in Riga. Has that really caused problems for anyone else? I assume that the apparel can cause discomfort for the women themselves. Perhaps one of them read this comment yesterday in the garbage dump that is the Internet: “That is terrorist clothing, and terrorists need to be shot on the spot. People are not allowed to scare others on the streets. A rock around the neck and into the canal.” I would only note that if a person has been shot, then there will be little point to the rock and the canal, but that is the attitude in anonymous circles of the discussion.

Latvia’s politicians, however, do not live in an anonymous environment. If the president things that “of course, they should not wear such veils,” then he should explain specifically why, all the more if he has mentioned the word “tolerance” in the same context. If, in turn, someone things that Muslim clothing “offends” society, then that has to be proven in empirical terms. At least for the time being, here we are dealing with the empty babbling that is, sadly, so very typical of our political system.

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