The Niqab Debate: A Religious Right or Cultural Freedom

24 Sep

The wearing of the niqab has been debated in Europe for the last two decades. More recently, it has become the topic of political rhetoric of the Far Right and Liberal society. Some of the more serious issues around Muslim women wearing face-coverings, such as the niqab, are as broad as matters that focus on ‘gender quality’, the ‘perceived Islamization of Western identities’, ‘security risks’ and ‘threats of terrorism’, as well as the perceived coercion of some Muslim men in more strict, patriarchal societies, such as in Wahabist countries like Saudi Arabia. In contrast to the religious conformity of some Middle Eastern countries- where wearing face-coverings is often proscribed and enshrined in law and obligatory in most aspects of daily life- in European nations, individuals enjoy relative religious and cultural freedom and the law tends to focus on social conduct rather than religious observance.

In Europe, it is those who say that they align themselves to the views of liberal and secularist society, who believe that antiquated notions of patriarchy and gender inequality, are valid reasons for being prescriptive in regard to the wearing of the veil in public spaces. The argument goes, that prescription should apply if wearing the veil appears to disempower a Muslim woman’s right to self-determination, autonomy and full participation in mainstream society (See Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP’s recent tweets, September 2013).

In a particular reference to young girls in school; Wollaston, a Conservative MP, suggests that she believes the veil is a barrier to communication, which can drastically affect equal participation in ‘an open, modern society’ and that schools have a duty to prepare young people for participation in wider society. In analyzing Dr Wollaston’s comments further, it could also be argued that by suggesting that young girls should not be wearing the veil in schools; young girls are placed at a disadvantage and may be ill-prepared for participation in society- which, if that was the intended meaning of the comment- could also mean Wollaston’s comment is biased to a more feminist viewpoint- and the wearing of the head or face-covering is not conducive with an ‘open, modern and secular society’- in which men and women are equal. However, the fact is, that many women who do wear the veil, choose to do so to set themselves apart from the mainstream of society, in asserting their own sense of identity in affirmation of their Islamic commitment. Interestingly, it is women who account for the majority of Muslim converts in the UK.

In Europe, it has long been the tradition of separation of state and religion. Religion is considered a private matter that should not enter into the public sphere. The French ban on the veil wearing in public; for example, is a clear delineation and an assertion of secularism over freedom and right of religious expression. Indeed, former president, Nicolas Sarkozy is on record as having stated publicly, that the veil has no place in French society. Other European countries are to follow suit, and I have no doubt that this will result in further marginalization of the Muslim presence in Europe; and entrenchment of a perceived persecuted, minority consciousness. That more and more women are choosing to wear the head-coverings, would seem to suggest that they are happy to live outside apparent models of uniformity.

But it is members of Far Right organizations, who have hijacked the niqab debate and assert that Muslims must always conform to Western notions of society and cultural identity. They (the Far Right) argue that this is because Europe is slowly being Islamized, that Muslims are synonymous with terrorism; and therefore, pose a security risk to the safety of Europeans. It is those linked or associated with the Far Right, such as UKIP, the BNP, EDL, and the PVV, who also perceive Islam as a threat, considering the veil ‘an affront to European values’ and identity. Tommy Robinson, after his recent departure from EDL, restated his view and belief that the niqab should be banned in all public places. This conflict, represents a modern power struggle to suppress Islamic identity in general, and protect an increasingly, fragmented European/ Western conception of identity.

Let’s just make it clear here; the Qur’an states that ‘both’ men and women should cover their modesty. As Ramadan (2004) noted, modesty is one of the three major endeavours of Islamic thought. The Qur’an, however, does not state specifically how and to what extent the body should be covered, only which parts of the body should be covered. Importantly, this does not include mention of covering of the face or the hair. The covering of head and face, is a modern interpretation that and; until recently, was largely influenced by male-led interpretations of religious doctrine. Of course, we can add to this, the influence of male conceptions of gender-roles.

This is in no way meant to imply that this is a Muslim issue. As in Western societies, we need only look to the Church of England as an example; and its view of the role of women in religious practice. We can add to this, Western, male notions of women looking pretty and attractive when wearing high-heels, bonnets, mini-skirts, corsets, and other items of adopted, female regalia. Even the way men and women button their shirts differently and the colours and patterns of their clothing. These examples represent some of the parallels that may be drawn between all males- in every society- concerning how all men believe women should dress- and their views on the positions and roles and entitlements of all women within any society.

I fully agree, however, that wearing the niqab or burqa, is and should always be a matter of personal choice- without undue male influence- in the same way as wearing a bra or low-cut dress. In my own view, of which there is much evidence to lend support, it is Western governments and individuals who now seek to dictate how Muslim women should dress, and less so Muslim men living in the West. It is also one of proscribed conformity to Western values, with the tiresome, default excuse constantly regurgitated by us Westerners, is that Muslim women are suppressed by Muslim men, because of the perceived male influence in the way Muslim women dress. There may be some element of truth in this in more closed and less integrated European Muslim communities- and some Muslim countries- but it is clearly evident that such views have changed significantly. Interpretive reasoning and a redefining of cultural and religious identity in a European/ Western context have influenced this change.

I do agree that one of the key exceptions to choice, occurs when the individual meets or represents the state and there is a need to affirm, approve or establish identity in order to justify our presence or viewpoint, and for security purposes. I also agree that there are some elements and individuals within Muslim communities who pose serious security risks and threaten Western society through attacks on our public spaces and the taking of lives. This means- and I support this view- that any women wearing a head-covering should be required to identity themselves and affirm their identity in an identifiable manner; whether at an airport, in a court of law, or at a police station. This is clearly a given, and Muslims should in no way perceive that this is a threat or discriminatory.

We should also consider the human element- the social interaction- the fact that we gauge trust and honesty, compassion and other emotions from gazing upon the face and into the eyes of an individual. This is not to say; however, that because some women choose to cover their faces, that they are any less human or sincere. The very act of putting on and wearing the veil requires great resolve in the face of adversity. It is truly an expression of Muslim cultural identity, which is increasingly worn by more and more women as a form of empowerment. Remember: something is only ever sexist and oppressive if we allow it to be. As Rose Kinchen notes, in the Sunday Times News Review, 22 September 2013, the fear and hostility towards the presence of Muslims is increasing symbolized by the wearing of the veil. She also asserts that it is often terrifying for women who wear face-covering due to the abuse and degrading treatment they receive from passersby.

What we must never do and should be extremely careful of is not to create further cultural and religious divide. If we traverse this route, we are at risk of denying all fundamental rights, instead of protecting them. This will lead to totalitarianism and sweeping powers of the state to dictate and control all aspects of our lives, whether we are Muslim or not. And then we will be just like countries such as Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, any state imposition of such uniformity and conformity; in a socalled secularist society, is hardly a free and open secular society.

Author: Jason Schumann

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