Faced with a dilemma

I had an interesting dinner discussion tonight with some Americans about the case brought against the AUC’s decision to ban the niqab. The advisory report recently presented to the Supreme Administrative Court states that such a ban breaches women’s freedom of religious belief, their personal freedom and is discriminatory. The American woman was appalled by the issue on several levels, but her overriding objection was that as a private institution the AUC should be able to choose and enforce the policies which reflect its liberal democratic philosophy. By this rationale the AUC should be allowed to ban the niqab because it is not in keeping with its tight jeans and tank top outlook. However what if the shoe was on the other foot, and a top private university was demanding that all women wear the niqab or be denied admittance? Would this be acceptable as an autonomous exercise of policy?

While the main thrust of AUC’s case against the niqab was that it compromised security regulations, it is clear that the case is at least in part motivated by the same suspicion of, and repulsion against the niqab, which fuelled recent debates in the UK on the issue. And it is easy to see why liberals experience an almost visceral reaction at the sight of these faceless women. I have been scared witless on a number of occasions when, rounding a corner, an amorphous black mass has suddenly descended on me. Beyond the sinister appearance, there are also the deeper, intellectual challenges posed by the niqab; the implication of separation, the seemingly contradictory exultation of beauty yet transformation of the female face and form into something so formless…

But as any female who has walked the streets of Cairo will tell you, to have your sartorial choices (and therefore part of your identity) dictated by others’ perception of what is right and wrong is suffocating. It seems somehow disingenuous to fight for women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want except where their choice offends liberal sensibilities. If – as is almost certainly the case here – the objection to the niqab is primarily political/cultural then this should be stated frankly (rather than hiding behind the facade of security concerns), so that the arguments for and against can be fully explored.

The European Court of Human Rights arrived at some hard, very non-PC, conclusions when faced with this issue. One Layla Saheen brought a case challenging Turkey’s ban on the higab in public institutions. The Court (which jealousy guards its European conception of democracy and religious pluralism) referred to an earlier case where it had stated that the higab “had a proselytising effect” and that as a religious precept imposed on women, it was hard to reconcile with gender equality. Turkey and its rigorous secularism is an entirely different context from that of Egypt however. In the absence of an all encompassing official policy of secularism, Egypt would surely be in violation of its human rights obligations if it allowed private institutions to implement such a clearly discriminatory policy targeting only one section of a religious group.

Liberals may be repelled by what women choose to do with the freedom liberalism affords them, but ultimately to place conditions on this freedom is surely to rob it of all meaning.

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