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Voices From Covered Faces

April 4, 2011

In the public debate on a possible ban on the wearing of the niqab (face veil) and burqa (garment covering entire body) in schools, workplaces and in public places, we have rarely heard from the women who actually wear these garments. A thesis from students on the teacher training course at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows the importance of establishing the views of the women affected when conducting a political discussion on the issue.

“It’s important to find out who would be affected and what the impact of a ban would be, to ensure that the decision is made on the basis of facts instead of misconceptions and perhaps even prejudices,” says Louise Backelin, who together with Ann-Cathrine Andersson has interviewed five women who wear the niqab.

The purpose of their study has been to find out who these women are, why they cover their faces outside the home and what their views are regarding the debate on a possible ban. No studies of this nature have been conducted to date in Sweden.

Many of those who have expressed opinions on why women wear the niqab have assumed that the women are oppressed by their husbands. But the study conducted by Ann-Cathrine Andersson and Louise Backelin reveals a different picture. The women that were interviewed spoke of making the choice of their own free will.

“Four of the women we spoke to have converted to Islam. Several of them have been longing to start wearing the face veil, since they regard it as a way of getting closer to God and following what they perceive as God’s will,” says Ann-Cathrine Andersson. But for several of them it was also a decision that had major consequences for their relationships with people around them. The veil can also be regarded as being strongly linked to the formation of a female Muslim identity.

Those politicians who have proposed a ban on the face veil have focussed on the issue of gender equality, arguing the importance of supporting those women who are being forced to wear the veil because they are being subjected to a form of oppression. However, when in public settings the women interviewed have not experienced much sympathy. Instead they have had to put up with taunts such as “witch” and “take that rubbish off”.

“Based on the debate and women’s own stories we can see that the face veil and the person who wears it provokes a reaction in a culture where exploitation of, rather than covering, women’s and men’s bodies is the norm,” says Ann-Cathrine Andersson.

One of the conclusions that she and Louise Backelin draw is that a ban on the face veil would jeopardize the interviewees’ ability to participate in campus-based higher education. “There is no basis in the idea that a ban would make life easier for these women, as asserted by a Centre Party motion. A ban would lead to these women being restricted in a way that does not promote their personal development or diversity in schools and universities.”

Ann-Cathrine Andersson and Louise Backelin point out that their results do not necessarily represent the views of all women who wear the face veil in Sweden. “We have interviewed five women aged 20-38, all of whom were born and grew up in Sweden. But we still believe that our study is a key contribution to a debate that has at times been too generalized.”

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