By: Camille Dautricourt
25 February, 2011
The affluence and diversity of the audience attending this panel discussion, composed of men and women, veiled and unveiled, is revealing of the passions and deep societal debate triggered by the Islamic veil issue. The panel, moderated by Prof. Janet Haley, brilliantly illustrated how the highly contentious issue of veil regulation divides feminists among themselves in the absence of any common understanding of gender equality. The four panelists, with their diverse backgrounds and perspectives, presented the veil issue under four different angles. This reflected the multifaceted character of the issue. No uniform meaning can be attributed to the Islamic veil: each type of veil (hidjab, niqab, burqa or tchador) carries out a different signification, and the reasons for a woman to veil herself can be manifold, ranging from deeply personal social or religious aspiration to violent compulsion.
Each panelist started by presenting legislative and judicial developments in four different geographic areas: Prof. Sayla Benhabib’s presentation focused on Germany, Dr. Jocelyne Cesari addressed the French “affaire du foulard”, Prof. Mary Ann Case examined the US and UK contexts, and Havva Guney-Rübenacker shed light on the Turkish side. After having presented an insightful overview of these divergent legal solutions, the guest speakers were invited to react to each other’s presentation. This led them to address more thoroughly the socio-political and historical context underlying the different approaches towards regulation of the veil, raising issues of gender discrimination, cultural identity as well as socio-economic and integration problems of immigrant communities in the West.
The divergences of views between the panelists became more apparent. Prof. Case advocated for veil regulation, which she considers to be necessary in some circumstances to safeguard the fragile gender equality and freedom achieved in the Western world. Havva Guney-Rübenacker offered a different story, emphasizing the cultural identity dimension of the veil and the double standards distinguishing the Islamic veil from other religious symbols. The two other panelists, Prof. Benhabib and Dr. Cesari, adopted more nuanced views and provided for additional insightful considerations. In my view, part of the richness of the panel – in addition to its diversity stimulating the debate – consisted in combining passionate discourses and nuanced counterfactuals. The discussion strikingly demonstrated that radically divergent approaches can be endorsed in the name of the same liberal and feminist values.
What I found particularly interesting in the discussion, was the debate on the meaning of gender equality: What is its specific content? To what extent does it require uniformity of treatment between the genders? Why should the veil be considered distinct from our Western gender dress codes for the purpose of gender equality? In addition to gender issues, I left this event with myriads of further questionings: Why should the headscarf be treated differently from other religious symbols? Does laïcity require the disappearance of all religious symbols in public places rather than the peaceful and secular coexistence of all religions? Is regulation of the veil a solution, or should we rather address the roots of integration problems?