A veiled attack on freedom in France’s niqab debate
French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the burka or niqab (face cover) have stirred a huge debate in France and in the Muslim world. Sarkozy argued while addressing the French Parliament that niqab is a “sign of [women] debasement” that should be outlawed in France. A parliament commission is reviewing the issue to make recommendations.
Trying to support Sarkozy’s decision by arguing that niqab is not a religious obligation is absurd, and beside the point
I do agree that niqab would be a sign of debasement if women were forced to wear it. Taliban’s government forced Afghani women to wear it, and the Saudi regime forces still beats men whose wives walk around the streets of Riyadh without a face veil. Both regimes have been constantly criticized by Muslims and Westerners alike for their human rights abuses and discriminatory positions. But these positions are not any better than that adopted by the French president, forcing women not to wear niqab. Both positions reflect a belief that the individual woman in unqualified and incapable of making decisions for herself.
Trying to support Sarkozy’s decision by arguing that niqab is not a religious obligation is absurd, and beside the point. Women in France being allowed to wear niqab if they choose to has very little to do with France’s respect of Islamic law. It has much more to do with the French government’s respect of minority rights, and of the basic human rights of the few Muslim women choosing to wear niqab in the country.
I do have respect for women’s individual choices, and I do believe that no law should define what they should or should not wear
Ironically, this argument comes from the very same people who have for long criticized Muslim scholars for “hijacking” religious text and dictating what interpretation are to be viewed as authentic. Their argument has always been that there are no priests in Islam, and that the holy text is open for interpretation. This rationale is being completely reversed now. My good friend Mona Eltahawy puts herself in that exact position by arguing in her New York Times piece that niqab has “nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.”
I am not a supporter of niqab, and I like the vast majority of Muslim scholars I do not view it as a religious obligation. But the fact is that there is a large school of Muslim scholars who believe that it is a religious obligation, and their views should be respected as long as they do not violate the individual woman’s freedom of choice. I do have respect for women’s individual choices, and I do believe that no law should define what they should or should not wear.
I wrote an OpEd some two years ago supporting Eltahawy when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Chief Akef called her naked for meeting him without hijab (headscarf). In that article I made it clear that I “support Akef’s stance on wearing the hijab, and like him view it as a religious obligation,” but not wearing it “makes a woman unveiled, not naked.” I asserted that while hijab in an obligation, I believe “it is an individual woman’s choice to uphold it — a choice that the state should not interfere in.”
In fact, the ban on niqab reflects a trend that has been growing in France over the past decades; political diversity with cultural intolerance
I adopt the same position vis-à-vis niqab. I do not believe it is a religious obligation, and I believe it detaches women who decide to wear it from the society; more specifically from men in the society. But no law should criminalize or restrict an individual’s decision to decrease her social integration, and niqab is not the only manifestation of detachment and should not be singled out and banned. People should be encouraged to engage in their societies through illustrating tolerance, appreciation of diversity and respect for individuals’ choices, not through fascistic measures that dictate what a woman should wear.
In fact, the ban on niqab reflects a trend that has been growing in France over the past decades; political diversity with cultural intolerance. The French government is adopting a version of secularism that is not separating state and religion, but is using the state to dictate specific religious, cultural and social values. Those who accept these values are integrated into the system, while those who rejected it are banned, and marginalized.
I am afraid the notion of liberalism is being twisted to undermine women rights. In fact I would quote President Obama from his speech in Cairo last month saying: “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing 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 pretence of liberalism.”
* Written for AL ARABIYA. Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a freelance columnist and researcher. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, he holds a B.A. in political science and is working towards a M.A. in Islamic Studies at the High Institute of Islamic Studies.