Monday, November 22, 2004


Burqas and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

One of the two universities in Amsterdam, the Vrije Universiteit (VU) has introduced a number of dress instructions at the beginning of the Academic year, banning, for example, clothing covering the face such as the Burqa and the Niqaab as well as short shirts leaving the lower belly visible. The reasoning being that, translating from the newpaper article linked to above, "In order to make communication as usual in our society and culture possible, a veil covering the face will be banned, male and female students will be taught together and on equal terms, and heed will be paid to the handshake, eye-contact and other social norms in the field of communication, as usual in our western culture."

Now, this happened before the murder of Theo van Gogh exploded the Dutch tinderbox, but since then, leftists groups have started to protest the ban, which they regard as singling out muslims. A declaration by "VU tegen Racisme" (VU against racism) can be read here. The organization "opposes this ban as it represents an attack on individual beliefs and political rights. It is Muslim women themselves who must be won to see that the wearing of the burqa is a right, not a duty. VU Tegen Racisme also enforces a 'no platform' position for fascist scum who want to use our campus as a recruiting ground. All boneheads will be confronted and escorted off campus.".

The latest phrase and also the poster downloadable at the address linked to above sound pretty much International
boilerplate, and the latter group themselves have organized a petition against the ban. Anyway, the phrase I find myself stumbling over is that "Muslim women themselves who must be won to see that the wearing of the burqa is a right, not a duty" - what do they mean, that Muslim women must be convinced to like the burqa? Or that they must be won to see that they don't have to wear the thing? If the latter is the case, what about pressure from family, Muslim men, etc.? Anyway, it could be the original Dutch that the statement is doubtlessly translated from was clearer.

Anyway, my take on this. On the one hand: University students are adults. Having a dress code in a primary or secondary school is one thing, a University another. Also, I can imagine why some people would regard the wording of the VU ban as singling out muslims - even though I can hardly imagine someone would substantially disagree with such things as common and equal teaching to men and women. Particularly, it seems the ban is a bit pre-emptive in that there seem to have been no students at VU wearing a burqa or niqaab.

This notwithstanding, if someone would show up in a Burqa or Niqaab in my course, I might have a problem with that. I also might have a problem with someone wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, an executioner's cap, a paper bag, or a Frankenstein mask in the auditorium. The reason is that as a teacher, I need to be able to see someone's face. I need to see how they respond to what I am saying, whether they are smiling, scowling, or about to fall asleep. So I can understand the VU's reasoning to an extent.

Also, I don't think there's much of a possible argument that the Burqa and the Niqaab are anything but symbols of the oppression of women.

There's a few intertwined matters here - the rising tide of anti-muslim violence in the Netherlands which needs to be protested and halted; the presence of a violent, extremist wing of islam in the Netherlands which also needs to be protested and halted; and the issue of women's rights within islamic society. The problem with the leftist boilerplate like the VU Tegen Racisme statement, and more widely with the response of the Dutch socialist left to recent events is, I believe, that it is right on the mark on the first issue - but tends to forget #2 and #3. Aforementioned Internationale Socialisten are building a Dutch Social Forum, apparently scheduling a session under the title "The headscarf and the phoney feminism of Hirshi Ali". Would I have liked to be able to be there... Really. Whatever one may think of Ayaan Hirshi Ali, she brings issues to the fore that should have been issues of the political left. But the political left has neglected them. And now, after Pim Fortuyn almost made it to Prime Minister surfing on the discontent of a lot of people whom the political left did not reach, after the foul political murder of Theo van Gogh, we have the same kneejerk reaction...

I am troubled a bit by the VU's ban - because personal rights and liberties seem to be at conflict here with the need to create a gender-equal, neutral teaching and learning atmosphere. But I won't be signing the petition.


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