The Muslim woman’s higab (headscarf) and nikab (usually black, face-covering veil with a slit that leaves only the eyes uncovered) are much in the news these days.

Some view these garments as a forthright expression of religious commitment. A number of Egyptian actresses, for example, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, say they have taken to wearing the higab in their television performances through devotion to God and Islam. One actress, known simply as Sabreen, explains, “I felt like I have to please God. He has given me so much….”

Others, especially in the West, interpret donning the veil as a repudiation of a secular public life. For instance, Jack Straw, a former British foreign secretary, stated that the nikab hinders good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims because it is “such a visible statement of separation and difference.” Many of his fellow citizens appear to agree: according to Paul Cruickshank, writing in The New York Times, only 22 percent of British voters believe that Muslims have done enough to assimilate into mainstream society.

The political interpretations of veiling vary widely. Cruickshank holds that young women who increasingly adopt the nikab are engaging in an act of “political symbolism” – rebelling, acting out their “sense of besiegement” and “alienation” in face of (in Britain) unemployment, stereotyping and foreign policy. Victor Davis Hanson takes an entirely different tack, finding it unsurprising that women veil but also a matter of deepest concern that liberal Westerners, out of political correctness, shrink from requiring women to unveil when necessary. Real Clear Politics carried Hanson’s comments:

The astonishing fact is not just that millions of women worldwide in 2006 are still veiled from head-to-toe, trapped in arranged marriages, subject to polygamy, honor killings and forced circumcision, or are without the right to vote or appear alone in public. What is more baffling is that in the West, liberal Europeans are often wary of protecting female citizens from the excesses of Sharia law – sometimes even fearful of asking women to unveil their faces for purposes of simple identification and official conversation.

This controversy has ignited a debate, notably at National Review Online, over whether the nikab should or can be banned in the West. The exchange of views goes to the heart of tensions between security concerns and fundamental freedoms. I cite copiously the NRO, as the matter is crucial and fascinating:

·        William J. Bennett: “Europe is going the wrong way in…banning…the…nikabI am inalterably opposed to them being forced to wear religious clothing they do not choose to wear of their free choice. But our view of religious liberty in this country, should be the guide…I must [not] deny fellow citizens the right to worship their god in their fashion so long as such worship is peaceable…To go after women donning their veils is to attack the problem at its weakest – and frankly, least important – link…While Muslim women are being beaten, while honor killings are extant, and while mosques, universities, and madrassahs are fomenting actual terrorism, Muslim women assuming a dress code is not where our – or our allies’ – focus should be. Go after the men who do these things – that’s where the fight is.”

·        Mona Charen: “The controversy over the veil is one of the first flickers of European awareness after decades of somnolence…native Europeans are failing to reproduce in anything like the numbers necessary to sustain their societies…the Muslims…have become a mortal threat…two reasons: …in a few years, they will become a majority…and…European Muslims are among the most radical and Islamist in the world…The battle over the veil embodies all of this. These tentative first steps toward cultural self-assertion by the Europeans follow decades of degrading ‘multiculturalism’…The question…is this: Can a post-Christian Europe summon the will to preserve itself when the animating principles of its civilization are a watery mix of pacifism, socialism, and sexual license?”

·        Phyllis Chesler: “[W]hen Muslim women in Western countries wear the veil it…is a…very aggressive statement about refusing to assimilate into a Jewish-Christian and modern democracy…Also, a professional who is fully veiled (a teacher, physician, lawyer, driving instructor), cannot really do her job. In addition, veiling oneself may also be a way of rebelling in a romantic and nihilistic fashion against a grandparental pro-assimilation generation who worked long hours for small wages in countries now perceived as “colonialist” and “racist.” For such young women, often encouraged by their male counterparts, they are literally “taking the veil” for Islam, Allah, and the caliphate. It is a way of rejecting sexual promiscuity, sexual availability in the West and paradoxically, embracing Islamic gender apartheid…If we allow our Western views about tolerance to force us to tolerate the intolerant; if we allow human-rights violations to flourish as expressions of religious liberty – then we are lost. Thus, I would ban veiling in the workplace, at school, and in public venues but at this time take no position about it at home or in the mosque in the West.”

·        Andrew McCarthy: “For legitimate public purposes – e.g., …inspection at a security checkpoint, etc. – the nikab would frustrate the public purpose…My own view is that wearing the nikab in this country at this time is an expression of affinity with the enemy – an enemy whose goal is a fundamentalist Islamic society that would deny us the freedom and equality we cherish … including the freedom to dress as we choose and the equality of women with men…We, after all, have a right to express ourselves freely, too, and that must mean freedom to shun forms of morale-boosting for those who would destroy us…The jihadists don’t wear a uniform. In discerning who they are, all we have to go on are forms of expression which signal support for their cause…The nikab, to me, is such an expression. Countenancing [the nikab], moreover, puts enormous pressure on Muslim women to conform – or face what can be the deadly consequences of not doing so…[T]he tolerance of a society is necessarily measured by how much intolerance it is willing to abide. The law will not let us ban the nikab outright, but we should be free to discourage it severely.”

·        Emanuele Ottolenghi: “The veil should not be banned as a matter of individual choice. But it cannot be treated as an expression of religious freedom…Not only is the veil not mandated in the Koran, but it is clearly an instrument of submission for women. It decrees the inferiority of women and their subordination to men. It is the expression of a worldview that we reject as contrary to Western values. It does not mean that women who freely choose to wear it and live by the rule of the veil should be punished. It means that a) those communities that embrace it…cannot but be left at the periphery of Western society, due to their rejection of our fundamental belief in the equality of the sexes and b) that Western society is entitled to fight a democratic battle of ideas against the veil and the logic that hides behind it, in order to ensure that women who wear it choose to do so rather than being forced to wear it by a strict system of social control, personal intimidation and moral intrusion.”

·        Daniel Pipes: “The nikab, which leaves only a woman’s eyes showing, is the second most extreme Muslim covering of women after the burka (which covers the entire head, including the eyes)…I see the nikab or burka doing immense damage to male/female and Muslim/non-Muslim relations, but in those areas an American’s right to freedom-of-expression prevails. On grounds of security, however, I believe that both coverings should be banned, as one cannot have face-less persons walking the streets, driving cars, or otherwise entering public spaces.”

Andrew McCarthy sums up the solution admirably: Relentlessly unveil the veiling. In the interest of preserving our freedoms, we should not ban the nikab outright – although we can ban it situationally, when our security is at stake – but we should be free to speak out mightily against it.