Beyond burqa bans: US must update laws on face veils

It's time for the US to get its thoughts – and laws – in order regarding the niqab and burqa. The US can set a standard for how conservative Muslim dress can be integrated into a free, largely non-Muslim society while protecting both civil liberties and public safety.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters/File
A demonstrator wears a niqab outside the French embassy in London, April 11, 2011. Op-ed contributor Paul Morin writes: 'The US can reject France's rationale for the ['burqa ban'] law...because it must be acknowledged that at least some women wear these garments out of personal choice, not family pressure. And America is about nothing if not personal choice.'

Last semester I went through an experience I'd never gone through before in my teaching career: I taught a student whose face I couldn't see – except for her eyes. The reason? She was from Saudi Arabia, and she was wearing a niqab, a veil that covered her face from the bridge of the nose down.

The class was an English as a Second Language speaking course, and Sara (not her real name) was there under the auspices of Saudi Arabia's generous scholarship program for international study. The program arose out of a 2005 meeting between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah (now king) and President George W. Bush to find ways to build understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United States after 9/11.

The number of Saudi students in the US has grown every year since the scholarship program began, and today some 70,000 Saudis are studying here. While initially only men took advantage of the program, now more than 20 percent of Saudi students here are women. The several Saudi women who came before Sara and ended up in my classroom had adapted to their American surroundings by wearing a head scarf. Sara in her niqab was a trailblazer.

In 2010, France banned such face coverings amid much contention, and a year later Belgium did, too. In September of last year, Birmingham Metropolitan College in England banned face coverings for its students, but quickly backtracked. The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences did the same thing – banned, then backtracked.

With the possibility that the number of women wearing a niqab in America could increase in the coming years, and with the experience of France in mind, it's time for the US to get its thoughts – and laws – in order regarding the niqab and burqa. With its long history of hammering out wide boundaries of personal and religious liberty, the US is especially qualified to set a standard for how these ultraconservative Muslim forms of dress can be integrated into a free, largely non-Muslim society in a way that both protects civil liberties and public safety.

We have a modest opportunity to show the world how it can be done.

To clarify: At issue is not any garment that covers the head, of which there are many styles, but one that covers the face, of which there are really only two: the niqab and the burqa (a full-body covering that obscures the eyes).

In France, the ban was instituted almost solely on the basis that such clothing was oppressive to women. Opponents argued that denying women a right to wear an article of clothing was itself oppressive.

The US can reject France's rationale for the law almost out of hand, simply because it must be acknowledged that at least some women wear these garments out of personal choice, not family pressure. And America is about nothing if not personal choice.

Generally lost in France's heated national debate was the issue of public security. I believe that is the only issue that the US can rationally concern itself with. And it seems to me that city, state, and federal government can adequately handle security without taking aim exclusively at Muslim dress like the niqab and burqa.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia already ban face coverings, either outright or under certain conditions. But these laws are a motley bunch, long on words but short on sense, and ill-equipped to provide actual security impartially in the modern world.

Three specifically exempt Mardi Gras revelers, one of them also including "minstrel troupes." One state tosses into its ban any "unnatural attire." Only two give exemptions for religious beliefs. Sara was technically breaking North Carolina law every time she walked out of her apartment.

These laws need to be revisited.

American governments need to ask what genuinely constitutes a security threat, thoughtfully examining situations on a case-by-case basis and drawing on a long list of historical precedents for balancing religious liberty with societal needs.

I admit I was put a little off-balance when Sara walked into class the first day. Would she speak? Would she expect special treatment? Could I correct her pronunciation without seeing her mouth? My sense of being off-balance lasted only a few minutes. Over the course of the semester I noted only one effect that Sara's niqab had on our interactions: I couldn't always gauge how funny she found my jokes.

As a teacher I wasn't bothered by Sara's hidden face. As a bank teller, I might have been. Over the past several years in the US there have been a handful of "burqa bandit" bank robberies – and now a handful of banks require the removal of any face coverings before entry. This seems entirely reasonable.

What doesn't seem reasonable is any across-the-board ban instituted with the niqab or burqa specifically in mind. America already accepts the wearing in public places of other familiar articles of clothing that equally obscure a person's identity. How many of us feel threatened by a bus passenger wearing a surgical mask as an effort to prevent contagion? What about a football fan wearing a ski mask in a crowded stadium on a cold November night? Or a stranger on a winter street with a wool scarf wrapped across his or her face?

We don't feel threatened, because they're not threats. Neither is Sara. I'd hate to see other young, industrious, intelligent Saudi women like her decide not to expand their horizons – or ours – as she has done, and (incidentally) witness our freedoms firsthand, simply because we couldn't get used to seeing a particular article of clothing.

Paul Morin is a teacher and the owner of Old Harbour Press.

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