Thursday 25 August 2011

The French Morality Police

Since the enforcement of France and Belgium’s bans on face veils (“niqab”), the countries’ policemen have been assigned a singularly difficult task: making sure that Muslim women behave. Police are required to detain and fine Muslim women covering their faces illegally in public. The French police send some of these women to citizenship classes where they can learn the appropriate way to exhibit their spirits of liberté and égalité, whilein Belgium offenders can also be jailed (sans face veils, of course)...

As French President Sarkozy stated when promoting the ban, the niqab is “a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement” of women. Recent news articles indicate that, at least in France, the police force is befuddled about how to enforce this ban and ensure that Muslim women are less subservient and debased.

Should they approach the veiled Saudi princesses shopping at Louis Vuitton with their security guards? Since that could lead to all kinds of trouble, not to mention antagonize the many Arabian princesses who are lovers of French fashion, perhaps they should instead focus on chasing after veiled housewives in minivans shuttling children to afterschool activities? How should the police handle those rebellious women living in the Muslim ghettos of Paris who cover their faces, particularly if they are carrying about in large numbers? Even more puzzling, how do the police determine if the women are donning the niqab by choice or have been coerced into veiling their faces by their husbands, brothers, or fathers?

Being new at the task of apprehending and disciplining unruly Muslim women who refuse to follow the dress code dictated by the government, the French, and even the Belgians, need guidance from the pros. They should reach out to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the members of its Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also referred to as the muttawas. The muttawas are a highly trained special task force of Saudi men who spend their days stalking Muslim women to make sure that they dress in accordance with the Kingdom’s rules and do not mingle with unrelated members of the opposite sex. There are few people in the world more concerned with ensuring the dignity of Muslim women than the muttawas.

Unlike the French security officials feeling uneasy about their new duties, the muttawas have no qualms about personally following, interrogating, and punishing women who dare to dress as they choose. Women in Saudi Arabia, when leaving the house, must carefully tuck all stray hairs into their scarves, and ethnic Saudi women have to make sure their faces are completely concealed. If any of the thousands of muttawas patrolling the streets find these women in violation of the dress code, they often administer a swift tongue-lashing. If the women are particularly rebellious, the muttawas also give them a few good strong whacks with their switch-like canes. Many Saudi women have stories of being caned on the head, shoulder, or back because their hair, ankles, or wrists were showing. The women who prove particularly rebellious and dare to venture out without covering their hair or, even worst, talk back to the muttawas, swiftly find themselves in jail.

If the Saudi muttawas cannot provide relevant guidance to the French and Belgians, perhaps they can impose upon the morality police of Iran for assistance. When not chasing after rebellious teenagers out on dates, men wearing effeminate jewelry, and the dog owners in Tehran, the morality police spend their time ensuring that Iranian women are covered up. Like the Saudi muttawas, they have years of experience controlling Muslim women and their errant desires to dress inappropriately. If, in the hundred-degree summer heat, women loosen their head covering or expose their ankles, they, like their Saudi sisters, are subjected to humiliation, fines and arrest by the hands of the morality police.

Perhaps, if the French and Belgians fly the morality police from Saudi Arabia and Iran to commence their lessons, they will also learn that these are some of the most misogynistic individuals on earth. They are people who have stripped Muslim women of the basic right to choose how to express their individuality and religiosity, and believe that draconian punitive measures are justified to ensure that women dress and behave only according to the government’s dictates. Surely, their grossly paternalistic viewpoint has no place in a society such as France that prides itself on its ideals of liberté and égalité.

If the French and Belgians decide to strictly enforce their bans, and if Italy and Spain carry forward with their own bans as they are currently contemplating, they will only assist fanatics such as the muttawas oppress Muslim women. This, because the muttawas already rely on the assumption that women have no real freedom anywhere in the world, explaining on their website: “There are those who say that we must leave people alone and not interfere in personal matters of virtue from which they refrain, because this conflicts with their individual freedom. [T]here is no such thing as 'personal freedom.' It is a lie. . . Have you found personal freedom in the east of the land or in its west? In Eastern or Western regimes? None whatsoever, neither here nor there.” Muslim women can only hope that the muttawas and their kin are wrong, and that the liberal secular countries of Europe will ultimately reject the notion that it is fair to harass and oppress Muslim women in the same manner they were treated in places like Saudi Araba, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a Contributing Writer to

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