The veil face-off

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”.

veil-burqa-burkaThe 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….”

Source: Dawn

8 thoughts on “The veil face-off

  1. Thank you for a well written comment AND the last quote :
    “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….” -puts the debate in a nutshell!

  2. The following statement is in reference to the "Burqa ban movement" in United Kingdom, it sounds more like a political movement to appease someone. Burqa Ban is brutish and driven by men's primal instinct to control women. No one should have the right to impose what a woman wears or not wears. However, we should seek acknowledgements and endorsements from Muslims that Burqa in it is form is cultural and not Islamic. Over a generation or two, either the practice will continue or fade for a sizable population, but it should never be forced.

    Islam is about freedom and not compulsion, Q 2:256, "Let there be no compulsion in religion". We recognize that culture is deeply ingrained into each one of us, and a full Hijab wearing woman will not go cold turkey and quit wearing the Hijab the very next day. She will not be comfortable with it and none of us have the right to tell her to wear or quit wearing it. The change should come out of her own volition as it is a part of her cultural life. It is like forcing a vegetarian to eat meat or ordering a meat eating person to quit eating meat.

    As Muslims we should be pro-choice based on Quran and Prophet's teaching, the prophet had said, if the husband compels her to believe (in matters of faith) other than what she believed, she does not have to obey him. Meaning a woman should have the freedom to wear full Hijab, partial Hijab or just the head covering or not wear the covering at all, but never forced. That is the genuine freedom, a critical value of Islam.

  3. I agree with Dr Taj.Thousands of women in our rural Pakistan work and labour with their faces uncovered.Only the begumaat have the privilege of veiling their faces.

  4. The West has different value system for itself. It is a right of an individual whether to wear hijab or not, governments and states should not intervene in personal lives of people. However, same goes for our society too where women's bodies are not considered their own. Women have to abide by a certain code of ethics regarding their lives and especially their bodies.

    1. This was an interesting version given by Farhat. According to her the Governments and States should not intervene in personal lives of people. She says it is a right of an individual whether to wear hijab or not.
      Sorry to say Farhat but I do not agree with you. If a person goes to live in another country as a matter of choice she is expected to abide with the social and cultural norms. The Government and State does have the right to intervene in personal lives when it provides many facilities that are affected by the personal choices of the citizens. Hence the regulations. If you do not agree with the laws of that country; do not migrate.
      I feel that Muslims are migrating to the West to get the facilities and advantages offered here which are more than what they get in their home country, such as security, political freedom and social justice. They want the best of the two worlds without offering anything in return.
      I can say that because I myself have migrated to the West out of choice and believe in am abiding by the social and cultural norms of the country.

  5. While I agree with the contents of your article, I wish to elaborate on a more important issue.

    This concerns the plight of Indian Muslim women. I specifically mention Indian Muslim women
    because Pakistani Muslim women, from the images I see in television and other media are
    much more liberal in their dress habits.

    Whenever I drive around town, I can't distinguish men by their religion. Most look alike, except on
    some rare occasion when a few men sport the skull cap and beard.

    Not so with women. Almost all Muslim women in India wear the "niqab". Because of this reason
    they are not involved in any activity other than household work.

    They are not engaged in education, jobs, business or any other activity. They are completely
    dependent on their husbands or father for everything.

    Nobody has forced this on them, but their own community leaders.

    Muslim men have forced this horrible practice on their women to keep them subjugated and

    This has resulted in the backwardness of the entire family, the entire community.

    While all other communities are marching forward, Muslims are lagging behind.

    The veil is the single largest contributor for this backwardness.

    Some authors consider crimes against women as rape etc. True, but the veil is a universal form
    of crime against women

  6. In the days of security concerns how can anyone approve of the full hijab ? The Lal Musjed mullah is a recent example. Could some of those in favour of full hijab tell us , how will you protect our populations?

Comments are closed.