The Niqab Debate: Banning Freedom
Author: Dr Tabasum Hussain, MDI, Canada.
Recently, the Dutch government announced a ban on the face veil to take effect in 2013. In September 2010, the French Senate succeeded in implementing a ban against the niqab and burqa by passing an act “prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces.” While Belgium and Italy have also imposed similar bans, other countries across the European Union and as far as Australia also seek to follow suit.
The average person may be inclined to believe that those who oppose the ban against the face veil represent an extremist minority of “Islamists” who want to impose an archaic oppressive practice to isolate and subjugate Muslim women. Conversely, the aggressive drive to ban the face veil across the secular world may be interpreted as an act of discrimination and oppression against Muslim women, especially at a time when extreme right wing parties are gaining popularity throughout Europe. Many arguments have been put forward in support of or against the growing push to ban the face veil. The fundamental question is, what is the validity or strength of any of the arguments in justifying a legal ban against an item of religious clothing worn by a minority population in a “free” secular society? Before attempting to address this question, the origins, symbolism, and purpose of the face veil need to be examined to better understand the debate that surrounds it.
Origins, Symbolism, and Purpose of the Face Veil
In today’s context, it is commonly assumed that the face veil is rooted in, and exclusive to Islam. However, the practice of veiling the face can be traced back to pre-Islamic civilisations. The badekin ritual is a Jewish wedding custom apparently rooted in the Old Testament of the Bible (Genesis 29: 19-27), and involves the groom veiling and then unveiling his bride’s face before and after the marriage ceremony respectively. A more idyllic interpretation of the badekin ritual is that it is a gesture to show the groom’s protection over his bride, and it demonstrates his acceptance of her beyond a superficial desire for external beauty. According to the Torah, the masveh (Hebrew term for veil) covered Moses’ face to filter divine glare. Similarly, when the groom lifts the veil from his bride’s face, he is the first to witness the glow of purity that emanates from her face. More profoundly, from a Judaic perspective, the masveh serves to separate man from God for him to better realise the transcendent reality of the unseen God.
There are also other non-Islamic examples of women veiling. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, in his book entitled “Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece”, asserts that extant textual and artistic references point to the habitual veiling of women of high status in public in ancient Greece. Also, 15th century Crusaders viewed an Arab woman’s veil as a symbol of feminine purity, and this admiration later translated into the Christian virginal white bridal veil. Dubbed the father of Latin Christianity and known for coining the term “Trinity”, the early Christian apologist Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) clearly described veiled pagan women of a pre-Islamic Arabia. In his book entitled “The Veiling of Virgins” (200 AD), Tertullian wrote that pagan Arab women “not only cover their head, but their whole face, preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face.” It is worth mentioning that an unveiled woman in Islam is not described as “prostituting her face”.
What is undoubtedly clear is that the face veil has historically been viewed in a positive light as a respectful symbol of feminine purity and modesty, and not always as a symbol of oppression or subjugation as currently perceived. It has been suggested that such evidences of face veiling in a pre-Islamic context may be ignored in order to dissociate a perceived superiority of these civilisations from the current negative status of the Muslim niqab, the “alien other” that defies the social norms of today’s fashion trends, or what is deemed socially acceptable. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, liberals and reformers began to castigate women’s religious clothing, aligning assimilation of liberal western culture with progress.
An Islamic Practice?
An argument at the forefront of the niqab debate among both Muslims and non-Muslims is that the face veil was a pre-Islamic pagan practice and has no basis in Islam. For those pushing for a ban against the niqab, the claim that the face is not connected to Islam has provided a means to avoid implications of discrimination against a religious minority, especially for politicians. The late Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar Mosque and University is one of the most quoted Islamic scholars to have openly supported a ban against the niqab. Another prominent member of the council of clerics at al-Azhar, Abdel Muti al-Bayyumi, is quoted as saying, “I want to send a message to Muslims in France and Europe. The niqab has no basis in Islam.” He further added, “I personally support the ban and many of my brothers in the Islamic Research Academy support it.”
Above and beyond the reputation of al-Azhar being one of the institutions central to Sunni Islam for learning and scholarship, it would be disingenuous to claim that veiling the face has no representation in Islamic history or Islamic practice. The face veil has been discussed in positive terms in classical Islamic literature and works of legal jurisprudence including: al-Nawawi’s Majmu, Ibn Qudamah’s Mughni, Ibn Abideen’s Radd al-Muhtar, and Ibn Abd al-Barr’s al-Tamhid, to name a few. Essentially, it is agreed upon by mainstream Islamic scholarship that the wives of the Prophet Muhammad observed the practice of veiling their facesto maintain integrity, andas a special safeguard against gossip or slander. Due to the Prophet’s wives being regarded as the best of examples for Muslim women, the face veil became a part of early Muslim tradition and practice. The face veil continues to be practiced by a minority population of Muslim women on the basis of religious belief, and a desire to attain what is perceived as the highest personal level of modesty and spirituality.
As a result of underlying differences in interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah concerning modesty and dress code, an internal debate surrounding the face veil has persisted among Muslims throughout Islamic history. Although the majority opinion in Islamic scholarship is that veiling the face is not obligatory, there is still a minority of Muslims supported by scholars who support the view that it is obligatory. However, an outright ban on Muslim women veiling the face has never been at the forefront of debate until Muslim scholarship came under increasing pressure from secular nations in the midst of anti-Muslim sentiment. Consequently, arguments against the niqab have drawn more attention in recent times. It is therefore important and relevant to the debate to shed light on some of these more popular claims within an Islamic context.
Due to the fact that some pagan women were known to veil their faces during the pre-Islamic period, some Muslims assert the view that anything attributable to pre- or even post-Islamic pagan practice should be rejected and deemed un-Islamic. This argument would be illogical considering that other rituals or practices such as fasting, turbans, or beards were also among many pre-Islamic pagan practices that were not rejected. Some Muslims also argue that a woman should not wear the niqab because Islam is a religion that does not impose hardship or place burden on anyone greater than they can bear. However, this argument is purely subjective and depends on how a veiled woman sees fit to define “hardship” or “burden”. A senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Shaykh Ahmad Kutty, has suggested that if a woman was required to veil her face, then it would not make sense that the Qur’anic verse 24:30 should instruct men to lower their gaze. On the basis of such a supposition, a man’s gaze should not need to be restricted if a woman veils, or it should be understood that all men would adhere to the instruction of lowering their gaze, or even that a man’s stare beyond an initial glance would be welcomed by a woman. This interpretation would also assume that a man is not attracted to a woman’s eyes, feet, physique, or even walk. Moreover, Shaykh Kutty would need to explain how his interpretation of the Qur’anic verse 24:30 should have been better understood by the wives of the Prophet Muhammad in context of the following hadith narration, in which the Prophet Muhammad’s much respected wife Aisha is reported to have said:
The riders would pass us while we were with the Messenger of Allah. When they got close to us, we would draw our outer cloak from our heads over our faces. When they passed by, we would uncover our faces
Arguably the most popular claim against the niqab within an inter-Muslim context is that the Prophet Muhammad explicitly prohibited the practice of veiling the face during the pilgrimage to Mecca. However, there is no evidence to support the opinion that women were or should be forced to remove it indefinitely other than during this pilgrimage period. Among other things, men and women are also instructed to cease sexual relations during the pilgrimage period, and so it would be absurd to assume that anything prohibited during the pilgrimage period should be considered a permanent injunction. If it is reasonable to assume that there is no clear instruction from the Prophet Muhammad that all women should wear the face veil, it is also reasonable to assert that the Prophet Muhammad would have provided clear instruction on the matter if prohibition of veiling the face was intended for all times.
Certain marginal liberal secularist Muslim groups currently pushing for a ban against face veiling in Canada insist that the face veil is not part of Islam, stating that “invoking religious freedom to conceal one’s identity and promote a political ideology, is disingenuous.” Inevitably, whether veiling the face should be considered obligatory or optional for Muslim women, it cannot be banned on the premise that it is alien to Islamic practice. To even demand a ban based on the opinion that the face veil has no basis in Islam would be difficult in the Supreme Court of Canada. In the 2004 case of Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, the court ruled in favour of Orthodox Jews being allowed to build succah huts on the balconies of their high-rise condominiums. Notably, the Supreme Court stated:
In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.
The court further commented that:
The State is in no position to be, nor should it become, the arbiter of religious dogma… Courts should avoid judicially interpreting and thus determining, either explicitly or implicitly, the content of a subjective understanding of religious requirement…”
Justice Iacobucci stated, “It is not within the expertise and purview of secular courts to adjudicate questions of religious doctrine”.
Dignity and Subjugation of Women
As already discussed, in the absence of evidence that demonstrates whether or not all veiled women were forced to veil, it is reasonable to assume that the veil was not always historically viewed as a symbol of oppression. However, it is also reasonable to assume that the current view of the face veil being a symbol of subjugation that undermines gender equality may have some basis or truth to it. As battles rage across Iraq and Afghanistan to eradicate “Islamist terrorism”, we are occasionally reminded that the invading armies also serve to liberate the people of these war-torn nations. This idea or need for liberation is often reinforced by images of burqa-clad women seeking freedom from a constrictive dress code imposed by an oppressive “Islamist” Taliban regime. However, the noble claim of liberation is undeniably questionable in view of the fact that the burqa was of very little concern when the same Taliban regime was supported in the fight against the Soviet Union. In fact, it is known that the Afghan mujahideen guerrilla movement was unofficially given both financial and military support from countries that included the U.S., Britain, and Israel. While there is mention of liberating the oppressed women of Afghanistan who are forced to veil, the issue at hand is the freedom of Muslim women across secular nations in the West who choose to veil. If it is argued that forcing a woman to veil translates into subjugation of women, then it is fair to say that a woman who is denied her right to choose also falls victim to subjugation and oppression. The head of Sharia Studies at UAE University and Baghdad University said that while waging war against Iraq and killing thousands for the supposed cause of democracy, the West could not tolerate freedom of women to wear the niqab. He said:
Staunch supporters of democracy and liberties in France and the West could not allow freedom of Muslim women to wear the niqab. Muslims who force women to wear the niqab and people in the West who deprive Muslim women from the freedom to wear it are ignorant.
In 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said:
The issue of the burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom and of women’s dignity…The burqa is not a religious sign; it is a sign of subjugation, of the submission of women…
For the women who have chosen to wear the face veil or burqa it is a “religious sign”, and for these women it means “submission” to God. Hind Ahmas, one of two women fined in May 2011 for defying the ban in France stated that the ban “…simply violates my individual freedom, my freedom of thought, of religious expression, and practice”. By imposing a ban, Sarkozy has effectively succeeded in stripping these women of what they perceive to be a personal elevated sense of spirituality, freedom, and dignity. Muslim women who are denied the freedom to observe their choice of religious dress code have effectively been forced to submit to dignity and freedom as dictated by Sarkozy and other like-minded individuals. If challenged, it is possible that none of Sarkozy’s comments would legally justify a ban against the Muslim woman’s face veil within the framework of either French secular law or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
How is dignity and freedom to be understood when it is applied in a secular context? In France, a woman is not “free” to veil her face because it goes against the dignity of a woman, but a woman is “free” to remove all her clothing to entertain voyeurs as part of a lucrative porn industry. Of course it may not be in the political or financial interest of any government to be concerned, because according to the online business and finance magazine Economy Watch, the porn industry is a major component of the world economy known to generate significant revenue and employment. In fact, in December 2005, BBC News reported that Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti had pushed through Parliament a new 25% tax on all hardcore pornography at a time when Rome was “…desperate to find new revenue because it has to trim its budget deficit to meet EU rules.” The report also stated that this tax was similar to the one imposed in France that would apply to all hardcore pornography, including films, magazines, and merchandise sold in sex shops. Mr. Tremonti commented that “…just like his French colleague”, he was imposing what he called an “ethical” tax.
It is often asserted that women in the porn or sex industry are earning a living from something they choose to do, and that this cannot be equated with or compared to the forceful subjugation of women behind a face veil. According to the 1997 report from the Director General of the United Nations Bureau, research findings reveal that women and girls are often coerced into the sex industry, estimated at 200 million worldwide. Sexual pleasure or financial gain through the abuse or exploitation of women involves abating a woman’s right to dignity and autonomy. In a research study published by Norma Hotaling in 1999, in San Francisco, 88 percent of women in prostitution expressed the desire to leave the profession, 73 percent said they were in need of job training, and 67 percent said they needed drug and alcohol rehabilitation. In 1998, the Feminism & Psychology journal reported that internationally 92 percent of women prostitutes said they wanted to leave prostitution. President Sarkozy stated that the law “is to protect women from being forced to cover their faces.” France’s domestic intelligence agency DCRI (Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur) reported that the majority of women who wear the face veil in France (initially reported as 400, a reassessment was requested) out of an estimated 2000 Muslim women in a total Muslim population of about 5 million in France, choose to do so. These findings reveal an obvious discrepancy between definitions of, and concern for the dignity and submission of women in the sex industry on an international scale, versus concerns for a minority population of veiled Muslim women in secular countries such as France.
Italy’s Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna, who posed nude for the international men’s magazine, Maxim, has called for the Muslim burqa and niqab to be banned, referring to them as “symbols of the submission of women”. It is worth noting that during the infamous 1968 protest against the Miss America beauty pageant, feminist protesters discarded items such as bras, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and copies of Playboy magazine into a “freedom trash can”, describing these as oppressive. In other words, in absence of any evidence or claim of coercion, defining dignity, subjugation, or oppression of women on the basis of her clothing in any given society is subjective, and therefore not a legally viable argument against the niqab.
Under the pretext of morals and the fundamental rights and freedom, it is argued that a Muslim woman’s religious clothing undermines gender equality. On announcing implementation of a ban against the niqab and burqa to take effect in the Netherlands in 2013, the Dutch government stated “Having to wear a burqa or niqab in public goes against equality of men and women. With this legislation, the Cabinet is removing a barrier to these women participating in society”. If gender equality is defined on the basis of a woman’s clothing, then a woman’s attire across secular countries can also be scrutinised for undermining gender equality. In a 2006 issue of the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Associate Professor of Law, Kathleen Bergin wrote the following:
Sex is not just a commodity for pimps, prostitutes, and pornographers. It is an asset deployed daily, though perhaps less visibly, by women in more “mainstream” professions. Lawyers are no exception. In popular film and television, female attorneys sport short skirts and low-cut blouses, and flirt outrageously with a judge and jury in order to promote a clients interest. For better or worse, hyper-sexualized Hollywood fantasies reflect that reality that sex sells and can be negotiated in the service of female attorneys, whose very presence in the courtroom collides with still-prevailing normative constructs about the proper role of women. The lawyer’s responsibility to “zealously represent” her client creates even more pressure to invoke sexualized stereotypes some feminists consider demeaning to women in order to fulfill professional obligations. If we understand and accept the power of sex appeal to sell cars, cologne, and airline tickets, we can understand why women may use it to sell the theory of a case, the merits of a motion, the innocence of a defendant. In fact, we may question why they would not.
In 2005, in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, issue 29, Professor Peter Glick reported that “‘sexy-attired’ women in high status jobs are perceived as less competent”. Similarly, in a study conducted by Susan Fiske, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, the brain region that regulates a man’s hostility towards women is deactivated when men are exposed to images of scantily dressed women. People are nowadays often condemned for criticising women’s liberal dress fashions as attracting negative male attention and harassment, yet these studies clearly outline the negative impact that a scantily dressed woman can have on the opposite gender. Despite this, it would be inconceivable that a secular country should call for bans against a woman’s “sexy attire” on the basis of it undermining gender equality and/or women’s safety.
In response to studies quoted so far, some people would argue that gender equality cannot be defined or decided according to a woman’s clothing, but should be based on an appreciation of more intrinsic gender-specific qualities of a woman, as well as her general intellectual attributes and abilities regardless of gender. Arguably, it is not the veil on a woman’s face that is discriminatory, or undermines gender equality, rather it is the people who fail to appreciate or look at a veiled Muslim woman beyond the walls of misconception, misinformation, or prejudice.
Is there a defined standard in secular dress codes that ensures gender equality? If such secular or modernist dress standards were to exist, should Muslims or even members of other religious minorities be forced to conform to such standards? To justify a ban against the face veil on the basis that religious dress code undermines gender equality would be problematic, unless it was inclusive of the practices of other religions that differentiate between men and women. Orthodox Jewish women are, for example, required to cover their hair after marriage because the beauty of their hair should only be shared with their husbands. To achieve this, some ultra-orthodox Jewish women shave their heads and a wear either a tichel (a handkerchief type of cloth) or a wig. Should this be interpreted as undermining gender equality? The Biblical verse Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing for the Lord your God detests this.” In accordance with this Old Testament passage, a Jewish woman is barred from wearing trousers because they are categorised as men’s clothing, and it is considered immodest for a woman to wear trousers. As a general rule of thumb, a man wearing a dress would be going against the “norm”, but it is not interpreted as gender inequality for men. It would be reasonable to assume that dress code that differentiates between male and female serves to enhance or contribute to masculinity or femininity. To assume that gender-specific religious clothing is a symbol of gender inequality or subjugation of women is subjective, and can only be established on a case-by-case basis, and upon consideration of whether the woman has been forced or whether it is perceived as oppressive by the woman concerned. In fact, it would be reasonable to assume that laws already exist to protect women from being forced to do anything, let alone being forced to cover her face. In a “free” society, it would depend on how willing a woman would be to seek help, and whether or not help would even be available; sadly, this is a major global concern for women suffering domestic abuse in many forms. Essentially, gender inequality does not qualify as a valid argument to justify imposing a law on women who may choose to accept a religiously defined dress code as spiritually rewarding, regardless of whether or not it is in agreement with mainstream opinion or norms.
Chrystelle Khedrouche, a 36-year-old French-born Muslim convert, said, “The French like the idea of everyone being of the same mould and that mould must be ideal. I have made the choice not to be unveiled… so to force me to unveil – that’s not freedom.” The French ban on the niqab was condemned by Amnesty International as a violation of the freedom of expression of the women who choose to wear it willingly. Among several veiled women who protested in Paris against the ban, Kenza Drider, stated that she was “just expressing freedom to be.”
Is religious freedom absolute? Absolutely not. In accordance with articles 4 and 5 of the French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, freedom is defined as:
…The power to do anything that does not injure others… the rights of each man has no limits except those that secure the enjoyment of these same rights to other members of society. The law has only the right to forbid such actions as are injurious to society.
France also ensures equality for all citizens regardless of religion or race under the “1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic”. Evidently, French legislation avoided any implications of religious discrimination by stipulating that the ban is inclusive of all forms of face concealment such as helmets, balaclavas, masks etc. Despite this, the exceptions to the rule permit helmets or face coverings for their intended purposes of safety, as well as headdresses or masks that cover the face for established carnivals or festivals. Inevitably, the greater impact of the ban is to be felt by a minority of Muslim women who choose to veil their faces for religious reasons.
Under article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” The ICCPR further states:
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
The question remains, does the Muslim face veil have enough of an impact on public safety, order, health, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others to justify a ban?
Detrimental to Health
According to the French 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, “The law has only the right to forbid such actions as are injurious to society”. How is it decided that something is “injurious” enough to society that it should be prohibited by law? Among the criticisms hurled against the burqa is that vision and hearing are impaired. However, a credible survey or medical assessment of women who choose to wear either would be needed to support the validity or credibility of such a claim.
One of the popular claims against the burqa is that it is detrimental to a woman’s health due to lack of exposure to the sun increasing the risk of vitamin D deficiency. It is argued that the burqa is injurious to women in view of the fact that vitamin D deficiency can cause various health complications such as osteoporosis, hypertension, and depression. According to Stefanie Williams, Medical Director of the European Dermatology Clinic in London, UK; “The amount of vitamin D you are able to make depends on many factors, including your skin colour, age, weight, where you are in the world and the season”. On average, 15-20 minutes of daily sun exposure without the aid of sun block creams is recommended by the National Osteoporosis Society in conjunction with the British Association of Dermatologists. Undoubtedly, lack of exposure to the sun can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D, but this deficiency can be remedied or avoided by taking vitamin D supplements, increasing dietary intake of food high in vitamin D, as well as taking advantage of a private garden or outdoor space to sunbathe.
From a legal perspective, the vitamin D deficiency argument fails when attempting to justify a ban against a woman’s choice of clothing. If a woman’s clothing is injurious to her health, then there is no shortage of evidence that points to lack of adequate clothing also being injurious. Overexposure to the sun is the most important risk factor for most types of skin cancer. In the U.S. for example, skin cancer has increased in women under age 40; incidence of basal cell carcinoma has reportedly more than doubled in the last 30 years, and squamous cell carcinoma has increased almost 700 percent. Despite this, to seek a ban against bikinis, or even to seek enforcement of time limits on how long a woman is permitted to expose herself under the sun would not be worthy of serious consideration in a secular society. To even suggest that the law has the right to intervene in any such way on the basis of overexposure to sun being injurious would be met with extreme opposition in a secular society that demands the safeguarding of certain personal rights and freedoms.
Social Cohesion and Integration
One of the main arguments at the forefront of the niqab debate is that it serves to block communication and interaction between people in a society that relies on facial expression and recognition. This in turn is implicated in negatively affecting social cohesion and integration. The French government claimed that the burqa damaged community relations. In 2006, the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, drew much criticism as well as support when he made the following comments in reference to the niqab:
Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers — people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day…That’s made more difficult if people are wearing a veil.
In December 2011, Canadian Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister, Jason Kenney, announced that Muslim women will be required to remove the face veil during the citizenship swearing-in ceremony. Kenney stated: “It is a cultural tradition which I think reflects a certain view about women that we do not accept in Canada...” Contrary to what Mr. Kenney may think, the Canadian judiciary does not penalise individuals for their religious or cultural beliefs simply because someone does not accept “a certain view”. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (CCRF) states that everyone has “(a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression…” (as determined using the two steps outlined in the Oakes test). Mr. Kenney would need to elaborate on why he thinks the face veil should not be accepted in the citizenship ceremony, and why the right to wear the veil during this ceremony would not be covered under the Charter. He stated that citizenship “…defines who we are as Canadians including our … values that are rooted in our history.” It has become a common claim across secular nations that rejection of the face veil serves to protect or reserve “values that are rooted in our history.” Yet, there is a failure to provide any clear definition or explanation of what exactly these “values” are, or what aspect of “history” or “heritage” such comments pertain to. Perhaps any such attempt to clarify would undermine the very secular values politicians claim to champion. The 1998 Canadian Federal Government Statement of Reconciliation that addresses the indigenous people of the First Nations of Canada states the following:
Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is not something in which we can take pride… As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of Aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices… (emphasis added).
It would not be possible for the Canadian federal government to back-track on this statement in order to now suppress or outlaw the culture or practices of Canadian Muslims. In accordance with the official policy of multiculturalism, as outlined by the Canadian federal government, Canadians are entitled to retain cultural diversity and at the same time, participate fully in Canadian society regardless of ethnic or national origins.
While it may be argued that the face veil damages community relations, there is a need for evidence to support how exactly the niqab or burqa causes damage or harm to any society. Also, how much of a positive impact would removal of the veil realistically have on social cohesion amidst growing anti-Muslim sentiment across secular nations? Social cohesion requires a level of acceptance, compromise, or accommodation of the “other” in any given country that takes pride in secular values such as freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Similarly, integration incorporates coexistence, inclusive of religious and cultural diversity. Integration is often interpreted as assimilation, and thus failure to assimilate is interpreted as failing to integrate. When politicians reject a religiously defined piece of clothing under the pretext of promoting social cohesion or integration, it is evident that their words and actions fail to promote either. In this respect, their argument fails to convince.
Security Threat: Veiled Terror
Perhaps an argument that carries some weight is that veiling or concealing the face conveys mistrust and rejection of others, as well as causing a certain level of apprehension or feelings of intimidation for those sharing a public space. Such reactions or sensitivities should not be unexpected in any neighbourhood, town, city, or country that is predominantly non-Muslim or ignorant of what the veil represents for the individual who chooses to wear it. In fact, it may be considered natural to react to something unfamiliar or alien with a certain degree of apprehension or caution. Unfortunately, such natural concerns and apprehension are often magnified through misinformation.
A common assertion is that concealment of the face prevents identification, thereby posing a security threat that is considered dangerous to society; this is the argument that has provided the basis of the ban against the niqab and burqa in France. In December 2006, some British newspapers reported that Mustaf Jama, wanted for the murder of a British police officer, Sharon Beshenivsky, supposedly fled the country undetected because he wore a Muslim veil. However, the British Home Office commented that “the claim was unlikely to be true as women can be asked to lift veils in identity checks.” A former British Home Office minister, Mr. John Denham said that, the absence of evidence to support this claim was potentially damaging because “veils are a very sensitive issue in our society at the moment”. It is incredulous that women would pass security checks with faces veiled at airports without detection, or without being asked to lift their veils in order to confirm identity matching unveiled photographs in passports. The same would also apply when accessing certain other services that require identity checks, such as at banks or post offices.
Crimes are often cited to highlight potential security problems relating to the niqab or burqa. In February 2010, two people entered a post office bank in Athis Mons near Paris while wearing burqas, passed two security guards without being suspected or stopped, threatened staff in an armed robbery, and escaped with 4,500 euros. It is worth noting that as with any other masked armed robberies, the men were eventually caught. In 2005, Yasin Omar, one of the 7/7 London bombers, reportedly used the burqa to escape the crime scene. Whatever the case, he too was eventually identified. According to police officials in Amman, Jordan, over a period of two years, 170 crimes were committed by 50 people who used Islamic clothing to conceal their identities. To put these niqab-related crimes or figures in context, there are an estimated 6 million Muslims in Jordan according to a 2009 report by the Pew Forum, and the CIA World Fact Book estimates that women represent less than half of this population. Notably, the niqab is worn by a sparse minority of Muslim women. In effect, these niqab-related crimes in Jordan have been magnified to further distort the image of the niqab, feeding fear and paranoia. Incidentally, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 126,000 arms were registered in Jordan, with a further estimated 500,000 more believed to be in civilian hands; perhaps it is unwittingly assumed that these crimes committed 170 times by 50 people did not involve use or threat of firearms. Yet, this has not prompted calls for an outright ban against firearms in any country. The concealed face in effect draws greater attention and criticism than the concealed weapon.
Certain extreme secularist Muslim groups and far right groups insist that the face veil poses a security risk and are demanding a ban against it in Canada. The outcome of any such proposal being taken to the Supreme Court of Canada would be interesting in view of the fact that Canadian law permits Sikhs to carry a ceremonial dagger called a kirpan. In the 2006 case of Multani v. Commission scolaire MargueriteBourgeoys, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that banning of the kirpan in a school environment went against Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In Canada, women who wear a niqab represent a minority of Muslim women in a total Muslim population of only 500,000 in a country of 34.5 million. In Holland, some 500 women actually wear a face veil in a Muslim population of one million, and in Denmark the estimate is fewer than 200 out of 170,000 Muslims. In Australia, out of a total population of 23 million, an estimated 400,000 Australians are Muslim; community advocates estimate that fewer than 2,000 women veil their face. Those that seek to influence or steer public opinion often use ways of magnifying a situation, to make a “problem” seem greater than it actually is. Citing a few niqab-related crimes do not by themselves provide enough weight for legal justification of a ban against a religiously defined garment or item. To impose such a ban would imply that niqab-related crimes have become a widespread problem that needs to be brought under control to ensure public safety.
Sheer paranoia or suspicion on the grounds of a few cited crimes cannot by itself justify any ban. It is questionable as to whether anyone would be asked to remove a scarf from the face on a bitterly cold day, or whether a courier or security guard would be fined, arrested, or even suspected when he walks into a bank or post office wearing a helmet. In any of these cases, there is the option of demanding removal of the face covering upon entering such premises or during a transaction that requires security. At best, an inordinate legislative measure such as a complete ban can easily be avoided by demanding removal of a face veil when needed. Figures do not support a widespread niqab-related crime problem, and it would be disingenuous to claim that banning the niqab would deter potential violent criminals from their intended crimes; there has never been a shortage of options for criminals to disguise or conceal the face.
Undeniably, Islam and Muslims have come under increasing scrutiny in the global media since the two Gulf wars and the post 9/11 “War on Terror”. Terms such as Islamism, Islamification, and Islamo-fascism have entered the global vocabulary, feeding anti-Muslim sentiment and heightening fears of a medieval ideological invasion of free western societies. More recently, the human rights group Amnesty International stated that Muslims who openly show their faith face widespread discrimination across Europe. After the hijab, the face veil or niqab worn by a minority of Muslim women is drawing the most worldwide attention, and is arguably the most visibly distinct expression or representation of the Islamic faith in the public sphere. In the midst of greater economic and social problems affecting Europe, this piece of religiously defined clothing has become a focus for controversy and debate.
Much of the attention and suspicion surrounding the Muslim face veil has been aggrandized by magnified negative media coverage of the ills and extremes of the Muslim community. Sadly, it is ignored that every society, regardless of race or religion has its ills and extremes. A recent government-commissioned study revealed an imbalance and overflow of negative stories in the British media demonising Islam and the Muslim minority fuelling the flames of prejudice, and depicting them as the enemy within. The aggressive drive of politicians to gain votes from the far-right has also been implicated in the niqab being targeted. Michael Tubiana of the French Human Rights League, said that Sarkozy had targeted the niqab to demonstrate his tough stance against Islamists and immigrants and “…to compete with the National Front for votes in the next election.” Amnesty International’s discrimination specialist Marco Perolini said:
Muslim women are being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf…Rather than countering these prejudices, political parties and public officials are all too often pandering to them in their quest for votes.
Thomas Hammarberg, Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, stated, “The way the dress of a small number of women has been portrayed as a key problem requiring urgent discussion and legislation is a sad capitulation to the prejudices of the xenophobes.” He also stated, “Much deeper problems of intercultural tensions and gaps have been sidetracked by the burqa and niqab discussions.”
Whether it is health or social problems, it would be reasonable to say that the impact of a woman covering her face for religious reasons would pale in comparison for example to the effects of alcohol consumption on society. However, an outright ban against alcohol consumption across Europe would be inconceivable, simply because it would go against majority opinion and the sense of individual rights. In the case of the niqab, it is worn by and supported by a visible minority currently facing worldwide anti-Muslim sentiment. Undeniably, in this context, majority opinion must be tempered and restrained by the letter and spirit of the law. As Thomas Jefferson said:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Women who wear the face veil are generally known to be law-abiding citizens, however in today’s context, the niqab is viewed with suspicion, mistrust, and even hate. Kenza Drider, a 32-year-old mother of three, who opposed the French ban stated: “My husband doesn’t dictate what I do, much less the government”. However, she constantly fears being attacked, saying “I still go out in my car, on foot, to the shops, to collect my kids. I’m insulted about three to four times a day.” She described almost being hit by a car, as well as being subjected to verbal abuse such as “Go home”, “We’ll kill you” and even “We’ll do to you what we did to the Jews”.
The American social reformer and leader of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass, said “One and God make a majority.” These words contextualise the religious conviction, strength, and passion of the Muslim women who choose to veil against the tides of growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
[Disclaimer: The benediction “peace and blessings be upon him” after the name of Prophet Muhammad has been omitted for the sake of continuity, and is left to the discretion of the Muslim reader to observe.]