Belgium/Iran: Laws on veiling: Everyone is Equal but Some are Just More Equal
For years, not only in Muslim countries but also in the West, the debate over a woman’s right to veil has been recognized as a complex issue. In the last week of April 2010, two simultaneous discussions about veiling took place in two different locations across the world. In Belgium, the parliament put to vote a law banning women from wearing burqas in public spaces. In Iran, government officials announced their plans for further expansion and enforcement of both veiling and chastity laws. Based on the law in Belgium, if a woman covers her entire body, including her face, she will be fined the amount of 15-25 Euros – or imprisoned for one to seven days. Based on Iran’s plan of action regarding the expansion of veiling and chastity, governmental entities are required to create further restrictions and limitations around issues of veiling and gender segregation within every public space.
In an issued statement, the human rights organization, Amnesty International urged the Belgian parliament not to pass this law which bans the wearing of burqas in public. Amnesty declared this law to be in violation of women’s human rights:
“A general ban on the wearing of full-face veils would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion for those women who choose to express their identity or beliefs in this way.”
Similarly, Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the ban and urged Belgium not to pass this law:
"They violate the rights of those who choose to wear the veil, and do nothing to help those who are compelled to do so."
To this date, neither organization has shown any kind of reaction toward Iran’s increasingly strict enforcement of mandatory veiling, which translates into increased suppression against women in Iran.
I do not intend to present a feminist critique of the actions of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, nor do I want to elaborate on the complex topic of whether the wearing of a burqa is considered the same as veiling. Here, I shall only focus on the actions of these two human rights organizations as it relates to the veiling laws of two different countries: Iran and Belgium.
A woman’s right to cover encompasses both the freedom to veil or not to veil. Similarly, the right to refrain from publicly expressing one’s religious beliefs must be recognized as part of the individual’s right to express one’s religious belief. The choice of not observing religious practices must be honored in the same way as the choice to observe religious practices.
After Iran’s Islamist rulers came to power in February of 1979, they immediately enforced compulsory veiling. For the past 31 years, they have continued to violate the rights of all non-Muslim and non-religious women in this regard. The Iranian government’s recent plan initiates a new cycle of repressions on women, be they in the workplace, at university, in schools or stadiums, on the street, or in other public spaces.
As such, the human rights of Iranian women, who happen to number half of Iran’s 70-million population, continue to be violated without any statements, concerns or reactions by major human rights organizations. The same organizations urgently and passionately declare their opposition to the Belgian law banning the burqa, which in contrast, only affects about 25 to 30 women.
It is assumed that when we speak of human rights, we are speaking of the rights of all human being throughout the world without any exceptions or prioritizing of various populations. But it appears that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch adhere to a different set of standards when reacting to Iran and its stricter enforcement of compulsory veiling.
The time has come for these organizations to explicitly declare their position regarding the Iranian government’s increased use of force as it relates to women’s dress code policies. Given the compulsory veiling of millions of Iranian women and their continued repression, humiliation and persecution as it relates to the “Islamist dress code”, Iranian women deserve an explanation as to why their reality is considered unworthy of being a high priority.
By Shadi Sadr