What not to wear: Outlawing the face veil

Three weeks ago the French Senate passed a piece of legislation 246 votes to one to outlaw the face veil worn by a small number of the country’s Muslim women, with President Nicolas Sarkozy stating, in no uncertain terms, that the face veil is “not welcome” in France. The law follows at the heels of the Belgian parliament’s ban on the full face veil–known as the burqa or niqab–in public places.
“It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual,” said Daniel Bacquelaine, who proposed the bill, adding that he was not targeting the classic headscarf worn by many Muslim women. “Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society,” he declared to the press.

Although the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights can challenge such a ban as a violation of international human rights laws, Italy and the Netherlands have not been dissuaded from considering joining the fray. The hostility towards Muslims, in particular Muslim women and their garb, appears ubiquitous in Europe these days and can only be described as a step backwards for Western society.

As a Muslim female, who does her best to select items for her wardrobe that meet the Islamic guidelines of modesty, I do not believe that the face veil is mandated by my religion, though its proponents insist that it is. Prior to Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) arrival in seventh century Arabia, concealing one’s face symbolized a high class status in the Persian Empire, as well as in parts of Europe. In fact, both men and women draped the veil over their faces to project an image of wealth and status.

The great majority of Islamic scholars today however, identify the full face veil as a cultural relic, not an Islamic religious duty decreed by the Q’uran. This is not to suggest that Muslim women who wear the face veil are oppressed creatures–take Hissa Hilal, for example, a Saudi woman in niqab who writes scathing poetic invectives criticizing extremist Saudi clerics and their rulings. The debate on the merits of the face veil must come from within the religion, not imposed from without. When European governments inject themselves into the discourse, and dismiss the veil’s religious validity, they do nothing but engender anger and resentment in their Muslim communities.

In an ironic twist, many supporters of the ban argue that the face veil is an expression of patriarchal control; a woman would only cover herself in such a manner if a man had intimidated her into doing so. Assuming that all women who wear the burka or the niqab are wearing it under duress, it doesn’t follow that men, like the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, ought to command a woman not to wear it. That too is an expression of patriarchy. Although the Belgian and French governments make the specious claim that the ban against the face veil restores women’s rights, it, in fact, restricts them.

Islamic scholar Michael Privot has pointed out that Belgium and France have now joined Iran and Saudi Arabia “in that exclusive but unenviable rare club of countries to impose a dress code in the public domain.” It seems clear that fear and racism are masquerading as liberalism, because there is nothing liberal about targeting a community over a form of dress. And it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see that perhaps European governments’ insistence on banning the face veil under the false pretext of defending women’s freedom is an example of the imperialist mind frame–the civilized ‘white man’ has a mission to liberate the colonized from their inferior and outdated traditions.

If France’s ban is not an example of Europe’s ill concealed feelings of cultural supremacy, it is certainly a clever political tactic. After his party was beaten badly in regional elections in March, and as Sarkozy watched his poll numbers plummet, the French President decided that to restore his and the party’s popularity, he must win over the extremist anti-immigration bloc. Why else would he propose a ban against the garb of a negligible fraction of France’s Muslim population–no more than an estimated few hundred women wear the face veil in France? After all, rallying people against a minority in order to distract them from real problems, such as unemployment or pension reform, is an effective, albeit shortsighted, political maneuver. And unfortunately the French citizenry seems to have fallen for this smokescreen, making Muslim women the scapegoats for their fears.

The tactic is a shameful one, because Sarkozy fails to see how this issue has international consequences beyond his immediate political survival. The ban is a blow to Europe in the war of public opinion more than anything else; extremist Muslims, who are in the business of recruiting impressionable youth to carry out acts of violence, smile at such bans because they strengthen the case against the so-called liberal Western world and its anti-Muslim sentiments.

Whatever the reasons for France and Belgium’s decisions to ban face veils, if the objective was to liberate Muslim women and assimilate European Muslims into the larger population, then both nations have failed marvelously. The bans slice a country’s population into two: one group’s unfounded fears about the other are confirmed by the prohibition, while the other resents the secular government vilifying what the group considers either its religious obligation or its cultural tradition.

If European public policy makers are using an enforced dress code as a social engineering tool to design a more homogenous society, then they are further pushing an already marginalized immigrant community to the sidelines. Shedding the burqa or niqab will not make Muslim women in France or Belgium more European, but it does pander to the xenophobic constituents, antagonize Europe’s estimated 20 million Muslims and confirm the assumption that the two identities–European and Muslim–are irreconcilable.
Zehra Rizavi is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah


  • Saadia says:

    This goes back to letting women debate the merits of how the veil is worn instead of being told how to dress. I also noticed that the author discusses international countries within an Islamic context. I am assuming that this is presented in lieu of foreign money in domestic elections and for security reasons.

    Fully aware of that women in places like Afghanistan wear the burqa (the full body veil) out of habit or in some cases to avert danger, I am not specific about how the hijab should be worn in all situations, and I am not afraid to wear it according to the situation if I chose to. Moreover, we know that Pakistanis have access to a wide array of beautiful textiles and it doesn’t always equate with their economic status.

    That said, women might benefit from the spotlight taken off of their bodies to begin with. It might help to add more diversity in the debate and in dress styles. Respecting the dignity and sanctity of the female form may indicate more respect for women’s rights and is a reflection of a society’s belief system.

    Yes, its true that the 40TH CHAPTER OF QURAN IS CALLED “THE MOST FORGIVING” (Al-Ghafir). Yes, its true that the 6 chapters after that were also revealed in the Mecca period. (Thus 4+6=10, or 100%. This may be noted by those who chose to read the entire Quran with translation. It doesn’t equate with theft as long as you don’t use it against people in a malicious way.)

    We rarely discuss how men dress or their bodies. To me the male form needs not be neglected (maybe I am admiring European humanist values here) and the female form need not be disrespected. That to me is a reflection not only of women’s rights but of human rights.

  • sria says:

    Ski season is approaching—I guess this means more frost bitten faces in the French Alps … presuming this applies to ski masks ….

    My biggest worry for these women is that instead of removing the face veil, they may now not go out in public and confine themselves (or be confined) to the home.

  • katseye says:

    I do not understand the ban on that very rationale sria. The French view sees it as niqabis being oppressed then why oppress them even further? I am assuming most will not remove the face veil but cannot afford the fine each time they go out, so they will have to stay indoors or away from law enforcement. This to me is quite oppressive and repressive.

    At the least, niqabis had physiscal freedom of movement and now the French have taken that right away. I wonder if anyone has taken this viewpoint? I’m sure there’s a statute on the books about restricting movement of human beings…

  • Saadia says:

    sria, I think that you are referring to me, because I stay home a lot. It is because when I go outside I have too many people following me and making comments, which is unnatural. So staying home is a choice for me.

  • Saadia says:

    According to this article, Nicolas Sarkozy banned the face veil as a political tactic because his party was losing ground in March. That political motivation is affirmed here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/22/world/europe/22france.html

    “The idea of a ban is popular with the French and with his own political party, while Mr. Sarkozy???s own standing in the opinion polls has rarely been lower.”

    But other online news sources say that he was taking issue with this for awhile now, making comments as early as June of 2009, and because he thought it was hurt women’s rights.  (http://tinyurl.com/kpu2dx)

    Since so few women wear it, it seems peculiar that it has grown into such a big political and cultural issue. I still think those women should speak about their choices, but it seems like a dialogue would bring up many underlying issues about immigration to France: the past confrontation with Algeria, the role of cultural context in carrying over native traditions, and symbolism in clothing.

    The funny thing to me is that feminists like Huda Sharaawi removed the veil in Egypt (I think in the early 1900’s). It always seemed like a native Egyptian struggle so its interesting that women who immigrated to France want to wear something which isn’t required, even according to many traditional scholars. (I’m not sure about the Maliki/North African school of thought but its not required in the Hanafi/South Asian school of thought.)

  • Saadia says:

    This is a little bit off-topic but because I mentioned the 40th Chapter in the Quran is called “Al-Ghafir” meaning “The Most Forgiving” I think this is a good opportunity to explain what it really means to be a witness in Islam.

    There seems to be a widespread misconception about it, which casts Islam in a negative light, even if its not always acted upon by Muslims themselves.

    That is, that spying for no reason is actually discouraged. So there is no “Examination” that is anyone is supposed to actively pursue, and there is no encouragement for what is essentially gossip, or looking into things that are not really anyone’s business. This is a separate issue of course, for what people may learn about in order to protect.

  • katseye says:

    Saadia! I’m glad that you mentioned Huda Sharawi. She really pushed for phenomenal change in Egypt especially in politics. Maliki fiqh does not require face veils.

    I don’t know if anyone remembers the former Grand Shiekh of Al Azhar Tantawi. He was visiting a classroom which he pulled the face veil off of a female student and declared that it wasn’t Islamic-in Islam, we don’t wear that. It caused a huge uproar.

  • sria says:

    katseye: “I???m sure there???s a statute on the books about restricting movement of human beings??”—interesting point … something like an involuntary confinement of sorts? I wonder if that’s a stretch … good point, though.

    saadia: “…Thus 4+6=10, or 100%.”—??  Can you explain what you mean?

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