By Zubeida Mustafa
TO veil or not to veil, that is the question. And that continues to be asked in Europe where France, Belgium, Spain and Italy have imposed a ban on the niqab in public places. The niqab shrouds the entire face and leaves small slits for the eyes. The ban does not apply to the more ubiquitous hijab, a head scarf that leaves the face fully exposed. No country has so far restricted the hijab.
The latest to pronounce a verdict on this controversial item of the female apparel is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where a French woman SAS (identity not disclosed) of Pakistani origin filed a case against the French law forbidding the use of the full-face veil in public places. SAS claimed that the law violated her “freedom of religion and expression”.
The law had stirred some controversy in France when it was being debated in 2010. A section of the Muslim community was vocal in its opposition. But that did not make much of an impact as there are five million Muslims in France — the largest number in any West European country — and of these only 1,900 were estimated to wear the full veil when the law came into force in 2011. Now their number is said to have dropped by half.
The court’s ruling was significant. It stated that the ban “was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face”. The judges upheld the French submission that “the face played a significant role in social interaction”.
There’s no religious consensus on the niqab.
There are many in Pakistan, where gender segregation is so common, who may not understand the implications of this judgement. Although there is no consensus among religious scholars on the niqab, yet debates on the finer details of religious injunctions take place ad infinitum. One would find few advocates for the niqab even in a predominantly Muslim country such as ours – apart from those viewed as ultra conservative.
If SAS has religious concerns it is strange that she admits that she “does not hide her face at all times, but when she does it is to be at peace with her faith, her culture and convictions”. One wonders how she justifies her on-again off-again approach to practising religion.
In the absence of unanimity, shouldn’t common sense, the rule of law and the democratic principle of the greatest good of the greatest numbers be the guide? The argument advanced by the French government and upheld by the European Court deserves more careful attention. It spoke of the importance of facial expressions in interpersonal relationships and their role in community life. The ban on the niqab was seen in the context of French secular traditions and the policy of intercultural assimilation in a diverse society.
Have we ever considered our own traditions in the social context? Admittedly, the practice of donning the hijab has been on the increase with fashion designers rising to the occasion to meet the growing demand for elegantly designed headscarves of all shades and hues to match the wearers’ apparel. But the niqab has not received universal acclaim. Many have spoken out against it. A professor of the Quaid-i-Azam University had complained in a public lecture that it was disconcerting when female students in his class veiled their faces as he had no way of knowing whether they had understood what was being taught.
The professor had a point. Another major constraint that I have felt in communicating with a person in niqab is that people with a hearing disability who have to depend considerably on lip reading feel excluded from the conversation. It is not just speech that is important to interpersonal relationships. Expressions also convey a message that can promote harmony among people or cause discord. Note the difference in the effect created by a smile or a scowl.
There is also the security factor that is important. If a person cannot be identified in a public place how can security be enforced? This fear is not exaggerated if you recall how Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid fame tried to escape from the siege in 2007 disguised as a woman in a burqa. It is time that Muslims, instead of spending time on hair-splitting debates on trivial issues, addressed the real needs of the people, such as providing them with social justice.
As for those who still feel torn by the question posed at the start, Dr Taj Hargey, director, Muslim Educational Centre, Oxford, provides the answer. While launching a nationwide campaign to impose a ban on full-face coverings in public spaces in Britain last week, he said. “Contrary to the claims of its advocates, it [the face veil] has nothing to do with religion but is a cultural fad imported from Saudi Arabia….”