It was only last year when another dose of Islamophobia hit the headlines in Europe. This time it was about the burqa. Why discriminatory government legislation should be placed upon a religious freedom is just another one of the wonders of our world. Nonetheless, France updated their ban of the hijab to also include the burqa, with a potential fine of 150 Euros if fractured. From one political mask to the other, the importance of sight has become evermore important. The City of London, otherwise recognized as “One Nation under CCTV”, has an estimated 60’000 cameras throughout. Although the European Union pulled Spain’s and England’s reigns in, the media hype behind the ban affected many in this culture capital.
The debate over the legislation against Islamic dress created a divide. The line between religious freedom and secularism became blurred. Whilst European governments chose secularism as their political tool, the public questioned secularism’s unjust use against religious freedom. On one side of the scale the veil creates a barrier between sexes, and is believed to “put women in a relationship of subordination to men.” (1789 French Declaration of Human Rights) They have also become an obstacle for security measures taken at airports. On the other side, the veils are a religious choice (sometimes enforced), and a traditional symbol of modesty. By contrasting Venetian eye masks with the hijab, I aspire to understand why “The eyes are the window into one’s soul”, and the importance of reading between the lines. Venetian eye masks and Islamic veils maintain a fascinating sense of mystery for opposing reasons. While Venetian eye masks are extremely attractive, the veils are not for adornment.
The history of Venetian masks reveals religious significance. Documents from the thirteenth century affirm that they were worn during pre-Lenten festivals, like the Carnivale. Today the masks symbolise disguise. The nature of the mask is to protect the wearer’s identity during promiscuous and decadent activities. The more elaborate the mask, the wealthier the individual. This is calculated by the amount of glitter and number of feathers visible. Conversely, evidence shows the cultural reasoning for wearing veils is dependent on geography. Veils are pre-Islamic, as the women of Persia and Arabia originally wore them for protection against sand and sun. The Qur’an and the Hadith require men and women to dress modestly in public. For women, the degrees of modesty range from a simple headscarf, the hijab, to full face and body concealing robes like the abaya and burqa.
In 2004, French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to reinforce secularism by placing a ban on conspicuous signs of religion in educational spaces. These included small cross pendants, the hijab and Jewish skullcaps. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, amounting to an estimated 5 million in a nation of 65 million large. Only 1’900 women wear the burqa. Nicolas Sarkozy stated, “We must not fight the wrong battle. In the republic, the Muslim faith must be respected as much as other religions.” Yet actions speak louder than words. In the early months of 2010, Belgium became the first European state to ban all Islamic dress in public and educational spaces. Belgium’s Muslim population reaches an estimated 500’000, of whom only 29 wear the burqa. An individual on the BBC ‘Have Your Say’ questioned if passing a national law on no more than thirty female civilians qualified as persecution. Nonetheless, countries like Denmark and the Netherlands are intent on following suit. The Dutch government’s attitude towards the legislation is summed up in one popular quote: “They chose to live with us in Christian countries so they must obey our customs”, as said by J. M. Badoux-Gillbee. Muslims make up no more than 6% of the Dutch and Danish populations.
The Taliban’s ascendance to power in 1996 resulted in the burqa becoming the most common form of veiling in Afghanistan. From this perspective, the fear of the burqa is comprehensible. This fear however, does not justify legislation against the veil, and is a political misuse of secularism in the West. The issue of the burqa is no longer a pawn in an age-old battle between East and West, but a deadly symptom of Islamophobia. Any public expression of Islam has become a threat. The values that Europe feels are being threatened by Islamic dress are the very same ones being used to oppose the ban. There can be no trust in a state that strips away personal and religious rights by dictating what should be worn. As the French philosopher Voltaire once said, “I disapprove of your dress, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it.”
The dynamics of dress operate simultaneously as religious, ethnic and gender identifications. Venetian eye masks and hijabs are very alluring garments. One designed to fire a man’s imagination; the other, makes man responsible for not looking at a woman lustfully. Both reveal only one source of true identity. The eyes. “The eyes are the windows into one’s soul.” The soul is your supra-natural self. An attractive pair of eyes has the power to lure in any targeted subject; just as a sad pair can seduce sympathy. They allow one’s personality to be read. This project’s aim is to emphasise the identity of a woman through her eyes. All masks whether frivolous, like the Venetian ones, or austere veils, enhance the eyes. But are our eyes insightful enough to see beyond all types of masks? What is their purpose? What lies beneath?