Freedom includes freedom to wear a veil

niqabBy Shelina Merani

(June 26, 2009) – Stocking up on lunch snacks at Costco, I saw a book that immediately grabbed my attention. It had a picture of a woman wearing a niqab, a face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women.

Intrigued, I bought the book, mentally congratulating the publisher for having squeezed $20 out of my pocket. They know only too well that the niqab sells, grabs headlines and diverts attention. It is also a lightening rod for emotions and fear.

A few months ago, the debate raged among Canadian politicians whether wearing the niqab and voting could jibe, and whether women would be allowed to wear the veil in legal proceedings. It has been discussed in Quebec, England, the Netherlands, Italy and many other parts of the world, usually spun to create false controversy by right-wing politicians.

Predictably, this issue is making the rounds again, this time in France, a country in the midst of identity crises. President Nicolas Sarkozy is making the burqa — a full-body covering with a screen over the face — his flavour of the month to deflect attention from his plunging popularity. Amid raucous applause from his fellow parliamentarians, 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 … it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”

They know that fear will easily buy votes among a population who feel increasingly vulnerable to the growing number of Muslims, and who will embrace laws which provide a false sense of security in preserving their identity. In 2004, Muslim women were the targets of this strategy through a law banning headscarves from French public schools.

U.S. President Barack Obama addressed this in his Cairo speech two weeks ago: “… it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”

In defending his words, Obama stated, “I will tell you that in the U.S., our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”

He gets it. Unfortunately, the people who lash out at the niqab or burqa are usually those who feel the most uncomfortable with it: journalists, politicians, intellectuals and feminists. Under the pretense of defending freedom of thought, they are actually legitimizing hate, thus generating the exact opposite of what they claim to defend.

Ironically, they don’t seem to be particularly attentive to those whom they are supposedly defending. In speaking for these women, they assume they are oppressed idiots who can only be spoken to, about, or for but never with.

Muslim women wear the face covering for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we never hear their voices, their stories, their choices, how they negotiate the challenges, how it impacts their integration and how they feel.

Sahar Ullah, a Chicago graduate student, voices her experience of wearing the niqab in an online blog, “Most people who had an opinion about niqab never asked me why I wore it although they were willing to express their opinion …” adding “It was actually Muslims that were the cruelest. They insisted that niqab was wrong, I felt more defensive about having the right to make my own choices.”

The laundry list of assumptions people had about her intentions included: ideology; adherence to law; a method of escape; entrapment; pretentiousness; performance of piety; heroism; fear of men; desire to seduce; covered naughtiness; anti-social behaviour; a vain call for attention; a passport to marriage; desire to be silent; an oppressive father; and the classic — anxiety about being too dark.

Perhaps it is time we reassess the biases that are fuelling this debate. To fear means that we lack confidence in ourselves and in others. By allowing this fear to infiltrate our societies, we are entertaining the most serious illusions about our freedom, putting in danger our notions of what a truly democratic society is.

The organization Human Rights Watch concurs: “The ban on the veil violates human rights and stigmatizes and marginalizes women who wear it. The freedom to express religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental rights … and such a ban would send a signal to many French Muslims that they are not welcome in their own country.”

It has been announced that an official commission in France will be created to assess the question of the burqa over the next six months. It smells suspiciously patriarchal.

In looking at the context and origins of the niqab, the majority of Muslim scholars do not view it as compulsory. For the minority who see it as a religious requirement, they should be, under freedom of religion provisions, afforded the right to wear the niqab.

Within Muslim communities, there are growing discussions about Islamic feminism — the struggle for women’s rights within the Islamic terms of reference, against cultural discrimination and a literalist approach to the texts.

These grassroots conversations are an important avenue to reiterate that women should not be forced to do anything against their will. But also that choices made through personal conviction need to be respected — a right embedded in most democracies.

This dialogue had already started during the Prophet Muhammad’s time. He strongly encouraged the active role of women in early Islamic society, insisting that they should never confuse modesty with disappearing from the political, scholarly, religious, social, economic or even military sphere. In other words, Muslim women were the actors of their own destinies.

In concluding his speech, Sarkozy stated that the burqa “will not be welcome on our territory.”

Hopefully he will come to understand that a potential law banning a piece of clothing won’t change anything except outward appearances. True emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women to be free, autonomous and engaged will only occur when they are afforded the right to speak on their own terms, not for someone else’s political agenda.

Shelina Merani is the spokesperson for the network Muslim Presence and has recently launched the local/global website