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Burkha Debate

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Respected Ladies and Gentlemen, honoured guests,
I wish to thank you for your kind invitation to address the Phil on this debate.


The intent of this debate motion appears to give a meaning of a face veil as being an oppressive garment. The subtext to this debate is that as the face veil is associated with Islaam; hence the word “Islaam” may be substituted for the word “Burka” in the motion and we can all go home happy in the “certainty” that Islaam is misogynistic and oppressive.

However, unexamined, so-called, “certainties” may permit us to be smug, but they do nothing for real understanding and proper insight.
Firstly, the Burka may be associated with Islaam, but it is certainly not Islamic, as it has existed for many hundreds of years prior to Islaam. Garments covering the face possibly had as much to do with women avoiding ageing from the sun’s rays, and the desert sand on their complexion, as any notion of modesty; and morweover as a symbol of status.
Secondly, the Burka is a large, body-covering, garment which may or may not have a face veil. The face veil is called the Niqaab. For many in the West, and elsewhere, this face veil is depicted as being demeaning and oppressive to women. From the perspective of most people it is the face veil, rather than the body covering garment that is the issue. After all there are many Western fashions that feature body covering garments, as the Autumn & Winter collections of the major clothes designers indicate.
The face veil in Western society like in other Far Eastern, Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, and African societies used to be associated with social and status class more than religion.
The Qur-aan calls for women to dress modestly, thus it is a teaching of our religion and we make no apology for it. But in the Qur-aan it also states that there can be no compulsion in religion. And that goes for modesty too - modesty cannot be compelled, it must be embraced by a Muslim. A woman who is immodest, however that is defined, is not living the teachings of the Qur-aan.

How the word “modestly” is interpreted influences how Muslim women dress. Some Muslim women regard covering the hair and their female curves as being modestly dressed. Some Muslim women do not cover their hair and regard themselves as modest. Some Muslim women do not hide their curves and regard themselves as being modest; whilst a tiny minority of Muslim women cover their entire bodies, including their faces. Thus there is a wide interpretation of what constitutes “modesty”.
However the vast majority of Muslims agree that a woman’s face does not need to be covered. This is supported by almost all Muslim scholars, including myself; and the evidence of this is that very few Muslim women veil their faces.
For example there are at least half a million Muslims in Belgium and according to the Belgian Government only about 30, yes 30, Muslim women wear the face veil. That is approximately 0.006%, a very small percentile of the Muslim female population, to put it mildly, and really not worth bothering about.
How often have you seen Muslim women in face veils on the streets of Dublin?
Probably quite rarely.
However, that very small percentile is occasionally visible on the streets by its novelty and notoriety factor, and it gives the impression that it is representative of Islaam, which it is not. It is on your TV screens that you see the face veil, in pictures of mostly middle-class women from Afghanistan. But that is hardly representative of contemporary Islaam, no more than the Amish are representative of contemporary Christianity.
The history of the face veil is long. Only a few decades ago many Irish women wore face veils at funerals, and a veil for the bride at her wedding was almost mandatory until quite recently. This was mimicked in the Catholic Holy Communion rite for young girls, who wear a veil to this day, just not over their faces.
Face veils, in the form of masks, have featured in entertainments, at Halloween, in masquerade balls, in Venetian festivals and many similar historical events across Europe. They have also featured in criminal and terrorist activity, with the Balaclava having a particular resonance in Ireland and the pointed white hood of the Ku Klux Klan in the US.
There are also face veils that are necessary – doctors & nurses wear them in hospital procedures to prevent infection, and in very cold countries they are worn to prevent frost-bite.
And one could argue, at the risk of offending some of the beautiful women here tonight, that cosmetics are a form of face veil. 
But more seriously, religious freedom, civil rights and civic responsibilities can sometimes come into conflict; and the face veil is one of those issues.
Where is the line drawn between personal freedom to wear whatever one wants, and public order requirements? If a woman walked down O’Connell Street naked, she would be arrested. That may amount to violating her personal freedom to wear whatever she wants, or not as the case may be. But indulging in her personal preference would offend a lot of people, and possibly cause public disorder. So the State has legislated against a right to wear no clothes in public.
But there is a context. If she wore next to nothing on a beach, nobody would be bothered too much. Indeed there are, apparently, a number of beaches in Ireland where it is possible to wear nothing at all, and to which the Gardai would turn a blind eye. 
This issue of “context” may be a guide as how society can deal with face veils.
Clearly in the context of public service, such as legislatures, social welfare offices, schools, hospitals, and so on, permitting face veils during direct interaction for anything other than medical purposes would be unworkable, for both the public and public servant. Similarly in areas where facial identity is an issue such as banks, post offices, custom controls, the judicial system, etc, the inviolate face veil is untenable. Those contexts are such that the personal freedom to wear a face veil is superceded by the necessity of society to see the person’s face.
Religious freedom, like any other freedom, is not absolute. One may have a religious belief that it is his right to steal a million euros from a bank. But implementing that belief will see him in jail,….. unless he is Sean Fitzpatrick that is. 
Whilst I do not agree with the face veil, as I find it divisive and unnecessary, I am very reluctant to have it banned or to condemn it as being oppressive. A small minority of devout, and law-abiding Muslims believe that the face-veil is necessary, and I think that that concept should be respected. Civil rights are under constant threat of being diminished for one reason or another, so I do not feel inclined toward outlawing garments. But in the contexts I mentioned earlier, the courts, schools etc, the face veil could be forbidden, whilst in general public use it could be generally accepted.
Article 44 (2)(1) of the Constitution of Ireland states:
Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
So the Constitution recognises that there are limits to the profession and practice of religion, and those limits are public order and morality; and those limits are the only lawful limits to the face veil, the only lawful limits to a nun’s wimple, the only lawful limits to a Druid’s incantation or a Zoroastrian sky burial.
There is no doubt that some Muslim women are forced to wear the face veil, indeed some Afghan women have had acid thrown in their faces for refusing to do so. That utter barbarism is a direct affront to women everywhere, a direct affront to the Qur-aan and a direct affront to Allaah the Most Magnanimous, the Most Merciful. Such evil is anti-Islaam. But uncivilised cretins are not limited to Afghanistan, there are no shortage of their counterparts in other parts of the world, where human trafficking and child abuse abound.
It is simply not intelligent to equate the vast complexity of the world-wide Islamic community of over 1.5 billion people, with uneducated rabble abusing those physically weaker than they as a substitute for their inadequacies. In the same way it is quite asinine or silly to equate the horrific abuse of children with Christianity.
There is a factor that the chattering classes are unwilling to face – some women welcome wearing the veil. All the evidence indicates that the vast majority of women who wear the veil do so because they wish to do so.
They are regarded in their society as diamonds and pearls which you do not scatter around in the streets but keep in safes; thus they cover up.
I am also told that some women find the face veil liberating, in that they do not need to concern themselves with how beautiful they look. Some women may find that the competition with other women - in the aesthetics of the face - can be really tiresome and particularly if it is a game they cannot participate in, let alone win.

It remains that the numbers of women who wear the veil is very small, particularly in the West. This veil is a remnant of a pre-Islamic society, and whilst I do not agree with it, I believe that, on balance, its use in circumstances where the wearer’s identity is not an issue, should be left to personal preference.
There is an argument that people choose their own oppression. It is an argument that has some evidence in politics. But what do we do about this? Do we ban a tiny minority practice because we – the so-called  “enlightened” ones – know best? Do we take upon ourselves the right to regulate what people wear, even in circumstances where the garments are irrelevant?
And anyway, what is more oppressive to women – a veiled face freely chosen by a woman, or a boob-tube and micro-mini skirt on a woman with a few drinks too many? Perhaps these lovely women present here tonight can decide.
I thank you.
Gora mah agiamh.
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