Vive la Difference

April 11, 2011: Today, France began enforcing its law prohibiting women from wearing full-face veils in public.

This is not an easy issue. While many Muslim women undoubtedly wear the veil because of family, social and religious pressure, others choose it of their own free will. I’ve worked in a Middle East country and met women who were educated in the West and had dressed both in the Western and in the traditional Muslim fashion.

One woman told me that she chose to wear the traditional hijab (the head scarf but not the full veil) because she received less unwanted sexual attention when she did. Her comment speaks to far greater issues with regard to how women are treated in the Muslim world. But this is an issue of religious freedom as well as personal choice.

Until not that long ago, Catholic nuns dressed almost identically to Muslim women in medieval black habits. They completely covered their hair, although not their faces. When nuns changed their attire, it was because they wanted to. They became activists on their own behalf. There was no outcry from either the secular or non-Catholic community about their dress.

In the more moderate Muslim countries, the hijab, worn with a long coat, is much more common than the full abaya and veil and many women have forsworn traditional garb altogether.

Although I cringe when I see fully veiled women, and see it as a mark of oppression, I don’t believe I have the right to impose my own beliefs or dictate how they should dress. Nor does France. This is a decision that Muslim women must make for themselves.

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