Yesterday, Syria banned women wearing a full face veil from university campuses, both public and private. France, of course, voted last week to ban the full face veil (the niqab) from all public areas. The reason cited by both countries is that the face veil as a threat to their secular identity.
I am a practicing Muslim, and I dislike the niqab. But my reasons for disliking it are not xenophobic, as France's are, or fearful of overthrow by the conservative element, as Syria's are. I do not like the niqab because it compromises the public safety. It perpetuates the patriarchal, cultural idea that women must bear the responsibility for men's lustful urges. It hides women and leaves men unhampered. But the Qur'an states clearly that both men and women -- not just women -- should dress and behave modestly.
Yet, here's my conflict: I dislike the niqab; but, as a feminist, I firmly believe that governments have no business dictating to a woman what she should or should not wear. And I am sure that banning the full face veil is not the answer to addressing issues of equality, oppression, and freedom.
Why? Because all that will happen is that women who would have gone to university will now simply not go if they have to go unveiled. It's what happened in Turkey -- generations of Turkish women did not get an education or pursue careers because of Turkey's ban on the headscarf. More than that, bans simply cause people to dig in their heels and cling more tightly to what they perceive as their rights and religion. The BBC reports that some Muslim women in France who have never worn a face veil say that, if banned, they will start. Banning and denigrating a cultural tradition simply divides communities and engenders anger and resentment -- not constructive toward building a multicultural society.
Yet, the full face veil is not about religion, though its proponents insist that it is. The niqab is not Islamic and does not come from Islamic texts. The Qur'an does not, on the face of it, even require head-covering. (There is evidence that Muslim women even prayed with their heads uncovered in the early centuries of Islam.) The rules on women's dress come from the opinions and debates between male Islamic scholars living a thousand years ago.
In their debates, Islamic scholars considered factors like culture and hardship in interpreting what constitutes modesty. Some said that the head should be covered, but others did not. Very few said that the face should be covered, and all those who did so cited the protection of women (not sexual excitement) as the reason. That was a thousand or more years ago. Today, we have laws protecting women.
The great majority of Islamic scholars today say that the full face veil is a cultural relict and not an Islamic religious duty. When Islam was born in the 7th century, veiling already common in many cultures. It was a sign of high class status, not oppression, in the Persian Empire. It was common throughout Europe at the time, as well.
Veiling came to be associated with Islam later, partly because when missionaries (some wearing a head-covering themselves) went to Muslim countries, they informed Muslim women that they should take their head-coverings off and convert so that they could be liberated. If someone were to come to the United States and tell the women here that in order to get equal pay and a woman in the White House they needed to drop their culture and adopt someone else's culture, I don't think they'd go for it. The Muslim women didn't, either; they simply stuck more defiantly to their culture.
The world today is not so different. Many Muslim-majority countries gained their independence from colonization only in the mid-20th century. The rise of recent conservative Islamic movements is partly a result of the people in these countries trying to form their own nationalistic, cultural identities by distancing themselves from their former, Western rulers. That includes outward signs of "Islamic" identity, such as head-covering and, rarely, the niqab.
Much as I dislike the niqab, I don't think banning it is the answer. Most of the women donning the face veil in France are young and a quarter of them are converts. They comprise at most only eight-hundredths of a percent (0.08 percent) of the Muslim women in France. They believe the niqab is their religious duty.
I must note that just because a woman wears a niqab does not mean that she is oppressed. Take Wedad Lootah, a woman who wears niqab and is a sexual activist in the UAE and author of a book on sexual guidance for married couples. Or Hissa Hilal, a Saudi woman in niqab who writes scathing poetry criticizing extremist Saudi clerics and their fatwas.
Therefore, if you want to debate the validity of the face veil, do it on the terms of those who wear it and debate the issues that lie at the heart of it: What is a religious duty? What is required by Islam? Where is culture becoming confused with religion?
The debates and discussions must come from within the religion, not imposed from without. Denigrating another culture is never productive. Prominent imams have already spoken out against the idea of the niqab as a religious requirement. The answer is to use them to engage the community in debate.