Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Legislating liberties

Photo: Javier at [sic]

 

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Sept. 2014.]
 
 

While we were (hopefully) enjoying sun and slumber over the summer it was easy to miss some disturbing international developments (or should I instead call these events disturbing steps back towards some of the worst aspects of the previous century.) 

In a ruling barely even mentioned by most mainstream media (and opposed by the Obama White House) the Supreme Court of the USA declared that "companies whose shares are held by a small number of shareholders can refuse to provide health care plans that include contraception coverage, if they have a religious objection." 

This decision is important largely because it logically means that corporations – not only individuals – have the right to religious freedom. It also creates situations where they can legally exercise this freedom at the expense of those who do not own business, ie. working people. 

Meanwhile the same USA has re-formed it´s diplomatic alliance with previously "evil" Iran, who are also working hard to undermine women´s rights.

There, the national leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is heading the charge to put a ban on vasectomies and other birth control surgeries. His reasoning is that the population of his country needs to be doubled so that "national identity" becomes stronger.

Proposed laws have already been approved that would throw doctors who perform these kinds of operations into prison for five years.

Closer to our part of the world, it is apparent that intolerance against many minority groups (including Jews and Gypsies) is on the rise across Europe. The latest example of this trend is a recent European Court of Human Right's verdict that upheld a French law banning the wearing of the [Muslim] full-face veil in public.

The vague use of "security concerns" as the rationale for the ban makes it clear that the issue is still being used (particularly by right-wing politicians) as a distraction from political failings.

My understanding is that Muslim women are happy to show their face for an identity or passport check, provided this is done with another women only in a private area. This is a very simple request to accommodate as a matter of routine.

Personally, I just don’t accept that having a law against covering your face means that people will not do it when they are about to commit a crime, as those advocates of the new law argue.

Let’s say I’m going to rob a bank. (I may have to actually do this if I don't get a pay rise soon.) Do I decide to not cover my face to avoid my identity being recognized through the security cameras simply because there is a law against it? No, instead a robber will simply break two laws instead of just one because they believe they will not get caught anyway.

To my mind, there’s way too much public debate about clothing and not enough discussion of the other factors involved in religion and discrimination.

To me, the hijab/niqab/face covering debate is a trivialisation of the bigger issues. Surely, what someone wears is largely a personal choice, except where women are ‘forced to cover-up’ to varying degrees.

Some Muslim women are in fact much more interested in improving their everyday rights than they are about how much they cover or don’t cover of their heads and faces.

The veil gets media and public attention because it is such an easily visible thing in our fashion-conscious times, as opposed to the more dramatic health and quality of life threatening problems such female genital mutilation (which is also still practised by some non-Muslims, such as Coptic Christians in Egypt as well.)

Clearly, a law should exist to protect women who want to defy those who want to force them to dress against their will. Equally though, another law should exist allowing women to cover as much as they like, whether any of us thinks that hiding a face is a sad reflection of a culture or not.

The result of any banning of the veil is very likely to be that more Muslim women are kept at home by their controllers: extremist, fundamentalist men. This leads very rapidly to a situation where a law that is supposed to make Islamic women somehow more free actually has the opposite effect.

Sometimes I think that social progress is just a thing of the past.