How NOT to oppose the Muslim veil

Vancouver Sun 14 December 2011
By Douglas Todd

One of the most popular arguments against Muslim women wearing face-covering veils in the West is that it’s a sign of female oppression. It’s a viewpoint that Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney cited Monday when he suddenly banned women from wearing niqabs, burkas and other veils while taking the Canadian oath of citizenship.

But this is not the strongest point to make against face-covering veils. The first reason it’s not persuasive is that it’s patronizing. The second, more important reason, it’s ineffective is that Muslim women who wear veils usually say they don’t feel oppressed by the practise. Many see it as a political badge of honour.

One does not win debates with anyone by maintaining: "I’m doing this for your own good!”
London School of Economics professor Anne Phillips makes a similar point in a chapter on "Multiculturalism” in the book, Philosophy Bites: 25 Philosophers on 25 Intriguing Subjects (Oxford University Press).

Yet Phillips does maintain there are times when the face-covering veil should not be permitted.

One of those times was when a Muslim women was helping teach a British public-school class. Phillips argued that the veil restricted communication between teacher and student. In other words, it was mostly a practical problem. But it was also one of liberal values.

Even though the Muslim women said she had to wear her veil if men were in the classroom, Phillips, said: "I think that it’s a bit problematic to send a message to 11-year-old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.” (...)