I’m quite frankly nauseated of the constant hypocritical chatter about the face veil aka niqab. This cause du jour should really be sold for what it truly is and not some foolish attempt at equating dress to women’s rights. While the French may be attempting to ban it, there are some interesting viewpoints from the Muslim world that need to be analyzed first before accusing the French of being “haughty”.
It is hard for me, as a Muslim woman, to accept the argument of niqab being that of a choice. In some areas of the Mid East and Muslim world, women are not given the option of wearing (or not wearing) face veils. Take Saudi Arabia for an example. Women must wear head to toe covers unless they are foreign. Further, if a female Saudi national has been discovered by the Religious Police as not being properly covered, she usually gets a few swats with a baton or could be arrested and flogged.
The Taliban was also renowned for their punishments for women who do not “properly veil”. Women were also beaten with sticks or flogged. While this law has changed in Afghanistan, many women feel that they still have to wear the burqah or else. These ridiculously oppressive ideas have started to spread into other areas of the Muslim world where women are being pressured into wearing niqab by family members or by society.
Women wearing niqab used to be a rarity in many Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan, or Palestine. Yet through savvy media usage, extremely conservative Muslims have found audiences ready to hear about the importance of face veiling and the restriction of dress among women. They site sexual harassment rates, the beauty of women, amongst other issues and use it as a way to control the masses. It’s propaganda for those who see it as manipulation and for those who agree, it’s dawah to an increasingly “unislamic” society.
These “unIslamic” Muslim societies also have variations of bans on the niqab. In some places, niqabis cannot gain employment in the public sector, in others, they cannot enter college campuses, and in some places, the niqab is not allowed in public at all.
And let’s face it-the niqab is not Islamic in origin. Pagan Sumerian priestesses covered their faces around 5000 B.C. Byzantine and Persian high society women wore face veils so everyone knew they were not of the lower classes. Arab pagan clans were also known to wear face veils in ceremonies and others wore it so that the women were distinguished from the female slaves. This sort of “I’m better than you” idea surrounding the face veil is something that I have come across from time to time.
The few niqabis that I do know or have talked to, have given me a few different reasons for their wearing of face veils-one, from a Saudi woman who said she’d worn it for so long, she didn’t know how not to wear it, to a couple of Egyptian women who said that their husbands thought they were too pretty, too sexy not to wear it, to the Americans who say it was part of Islam but had never read it in the Qur’an, and finally the lone Northern Star in the sky-the Pakistani lady who said, “I believe that God requires me to wear it and I do it because God wants it.”
I disdain the niqab. It’s a cultural practice, like many practices, that somehow were adopted by Muslims or were practices by cultures that accepted Islam through the growth of the Islamic Empire. Yet, I do not believe I have any right to tell a woman she cannot wear it any more so than I can tell her she must wear it-it’s a personal choice that should be of the idea that it is for God and not due to vanity.
This is not the argument the French are making. The French are terrified that they will become a colonized country just like the many that they were colonizing for centuries. It is the idea that they will eventually lose their sense of self, their dedication to their heritage and culture, and that they will become something of what they destroyed in faraway lands. So they pick at something vulnerable-the dress and treatment of women.
The treatment of women in the Muslim world cannot be ignored or twisted into some sort of weird utopia that does not exist (One could easily make the argument that Muslim women are not as oppressed as Western women). This arena must be fixed so the real reason for the ban, “xenophobic/islamophobic principles” can be shown for what they are. The niqab is the carrot and stick for both sides. It’s just a matter of who learns what will be the benefit in the long run.