Europe: Behind the Burqa Debate
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, talking in an ornate chamber of the Palace of Versailles last June, 2009, started a new controversy when he said: “In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”
This followed the 2004 ban on “religious symbols” -- among them, the hijab or simple head-cover, in French public schools.
The ban, however, is not a matter of bias against Islam as some Islamists say, but of defending the dignity and the freedom of the woman.
Most astonishing is that while in 2004 France was discussing the hijab, in 2010 it is discussing the burqa, the head-to-toe garment.
You can observe a similar trend throughout Europe. Unfortunately this means that the tense situation is not improving; that integration is harder and harder; that Islamic extremism is spreading, and that Europe is not able to cope with problems involving Muslims in a constructive way.
The debates after both the 2004 ban and 2009 Sarkozy’s declarations indicate that the West has no idea of what is happening in the Islamic world itself:
- The Egyptian Ministry of Health took a brave decision about the niqab, or full veil, in March 2009: Nurses in Egyptian hospitals were no longer allowed to wear the niqab, and if they did not respect the law, they could be taken to court and even fired.
Huda Zaki, a representative of the Government, explained that “to be a nurse, like any other job, has some requirements, such as a specific dress- code. A niqab prevents the nurse from doing simple actions, fundamental to their job, such as washing hands, which turns out to be impossible when wearing gloves.” This ordinance, which started in Cairo, was then applied to the whole of Egypt.
Last October, Shaykh Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar university, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni world, ordered a school girl to remove her niqab during a visit to an Al-Azhar school, saying he would seek an official ban for the face-veil in schools as “the niqab is a tradition and has nothing to do with Islam.”
- In Kuwait, women wearing the niqab have been banned from driving for security reasons, as the only hole in the veil allows no 180-degree perspective. Moreover, it would be impossible to recognize the driver in case of driving infraction.
- In Saudi Arabia, people in charge of public security have started a battle against the niqab after discovering that many Islamic terrorists have used it to hide in to commit terror attacks.
- In Abu Dhabi, the niqab was banned in all public offices to fight unrestricted absenteeism.
This decision was reaffirmed in a fatwa issued by the Iraqi Shaykh, Ahmad al-Qubaisi, who stated: “People have the right to know the identity of the person they are in front of in order not to feel deceived. The obligation of niqab was only for the Prophet’s wives as they were the mothers of all believers. Women who do not agree only have to look for another job in which they are not requested to show their faces”.
Similar cases involve the hijab:
- In Tunisia, on March 28th 2008, on a street, the police stopped two girls wearing hijabs and tried to oblige them to take them off. A relative of the girls, who tried to defend them, was arrested.
- In Turkey, the constitutional court, in June of 2008, rejected allowing women to wear hijab inside universities: the court ruled that wearing a veil was seen as a symbol of political islam and therefore contrary to the secular pillars of the Turkish state.
The fight in Turkey, as well as Tunisia both considered the most secular Middle Eastern, Islamic countries, could be understood as their way of trying to preserve their secular identity.
- In Kuwait, at the end of 2009, four women were elected to the parliament for the first time in Kuwait’s history. Two of these women - Aseel al-Awadhi and Rola Dashti - do not wear a hijab, but since their election, the Islamists have been demanding that they be required to do so. After a long and harsh debate both inside the Parliament and among Kuwaiti society, the Kuwaiti Constitutional Court, on October 28, 2009, rejected a lawsuit filed by attorney Hamad al-Nashi against MPs al-Awadhi and Dashti in which he demanded that their parliamentary membership be revoked for violating sharia law by not wearing a hijab and for flouting a clause in the electoral law stipulating that women voters and candidates must comply with Islamic sharia regulations, which would include wearing a hijab.
The court ruled that “The laws of Islamic sharia do not have a binding force like the basic laws of the state The Kuwaiti constitution does not stipulate that Sharia is the sole source of legislation, nor does it preclude the legislator from utilizing other sources of legislation, out of consideration for the people’s needs.” They said that the Kuwaiti constitution guarantees complete religious and personal freedom and forbids discrimination based on an individual’s religion or gender.
- Al-Awadhi and Dashti hailed the court’s ruling as a triumph for Kuwait’s constitution, which Dashti said would put an end to the attempts of “those who wish to bring Kuwait back to an earlier era.”
Opinions about the hijab are often discordant and sometimes contradictory: Is the hijab a duty or a right? Is the hijab an indication of religious freedom or of submission to Islamic extremism?
On March 8th 2008 a group of Arabic websites and blogs launched the international campaign “Take off the veil,” arguing that it is a response to what they see as “intellectual terrorism” practiced by strict Islamic groups and individuals. One of the campaign’s leaders was Elham Manea, a professor at the University of Zurich, who bravely said: "My hair is not a sex symbol that I should be ashamed of, and my body is not a stage for men's fantasies. I am a noble human being with my hair and body."
Manea does not see the headscarf in the context of freedom of choice, but as a form of "religious coercion." She believes, she says, that staying silent about the issue means allowing extremist ideas to infiltrate society. Manea stresses that calling upon girls to take off the headscarf does not mean inciting them to perversion or immorality, but rather encouraging them to use their brains. Manea adds that Islamists influence women by citing three reasons: that by covering her body she will protect men from sinning; will be establishing a righteous society, and that it is a religious obligation. In “Take off the Veil!,” a famous article of hers, Manea explains that Saudi Arabia and Iran “are two countries in which the political regime rules in name of religion [ ] Both impose the veil on women, stating that is a religious symbol, without taking into account the women’s will. The Muslim Brotherhood only aims at the political power. However, since they use religion to justify their aim, they have also to give us an “Islamic model of behavior” including an “Islamic dressing code.” For this reason I say aloud that the veil is a political matter.”
In the same article Manea states that she only wants to remind Muslim women that nobody should oblige them to wear the hijab, and they are totally free to choose whether to put it or not.
The point is Freedom. Unfortunately today, especially in the West, freedom to wear the veil turns quickly into freedom to impose it. It is easy to say that we have to respect other people’s traditions, but unfortunately it does not always happen.
Several weeks ago, Tarek Heggy, the famous Egyptian liberal thinker, sent a set of pictures showing groups of students, male and female, from Cairo university in different years: in 1954 no girl was wearing the veil, in 1972 there were just four of them, in 1994 more than a half of the girls were wearing the veil, and in 2004 only a few showed their hair. This means that in the Egypt of the Fifties, no woman was covering her head. The battle over the traditional veil had begun long before.
By 1899 the Egyptian intellectual Qasim Amin had published his landmark Tahrir al-mar’a (The Liberation of Woman), in which he called for the removal of the face cover. He argued that it was not in keeping with the tenets of the faith. He was paving the way for Hoda Shaarawi, the first Egyptian woman to remove her veil in the wake of the 1919 Revolution, followed by Siza El-Nabarawi -- and establishing the first feminist association that called for uncovering the face, and eventually the hair, in 1924.
The battle for the hijab today has to be considered a battle against the rights of Muslim women. We also have to bear in mind that at the beginning of the 20th century, the veil was a traditional symbol and no woman could be attacked for not wearing it as is happening today. In Italy, Dounia Ettaib, a 30 years old activist of Moroccan origin, has to live under protection because a so-called imam publicly told her that she was not “a good Muslim,” that she was a traitor to Islam, as she was not wearing a veil.
All this is happening in Europe. Anyone who describes the proposal to ban the burqa and the laws restricting the use of the hijab as a bias against Islam would do well first to check what is going on in the Islamic world itself. The veil would then be considered like the point of an iceberg made of fear, violence and discrimination.
The battle for the veil of some leftists and feminists, on the side of Islamists, should be considered a kind of indifference towards women’s problems that will help neither the majority of Muslim women fighting for their minimum rights nor the West fighting against islamic extremism.
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