by Fahad Ansari (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 7, Ramadan, 1431)
In their latest effort to “liberate” Muslim women from the “oppression” of Islam, and to restore their dignity and honour, secular governments have started passing legislation forcing them to remove their clothes.
In their latest effort to “liberate” Muslim women from the “oppression” of Islam, and to restore their dignity and honour, secular governments have started passing legislation forcing them to remove their clothes. Clearly seeing the garments of Muslim women as a problem of far greater importance than economic debt, homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, street crime and prostitution, a chain reaction has been initiated in Europe to criminalize women who choose modesty over self-exposure. In this era of enlightenment, clothing, in the secular mindset, has become synonymous with shackles. For these crusading champions of human rights and women’s rights, their right to see the beauty of Muslim women ranks above any right the women have to modesty or to choose their own dress.
This, in essence, is what the European hysteria over the wearing of the niqab boils down to: that Muslim women should be forced to remove their clothes and reveal more of themselves to the rest of society even if they do not wish to. The primary arguments often made against the niqab are that it is either a symbol of oppression (if worn against one’s will) or a symbol of extremism (if worn voluntarily). Yet, in criminalizing its wearing, secular governments are themselves oppressing a tiny minority of their own people by imposing their own extremism on them.
According to the French Interior Ministry, out of France’s 64 million population, less than 2,000 women wear the niqab. The national paper Le Monde put this figure at 367. Yet, in July, the French parliament passed a law criminalising the wearing of the niqab in public. The vote was passed by a massive majority: 335 to 1. Unlike the existing hijab ban, which is limited to schools, courts and public buildings, the ban on niqab pervades every open public space in France, leaving those who wear it at risk of incurring a hefty fine. French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the niqab as degrading to women. In fact, it is his penalization of women for not wishing to remove an item of clothing in public that is degrading.
This is a form of secular authoritarianism that appears to be contagious and is rapidly infecting other European countries. The Belgian parliament had earlier voted to ban the niqab while Holland, Switzerland and Spain have also considered total bans. Although the parliament in Spain voted against such a ban, the motion was only defeated by 21 votes. However, many parts of Andalucia and Catalonia have already banned the niqab in public buildings, including Barcelona and the village of Tarres, none of whose 108 inhabitants wear the niqab, or are even Muslim! Numerous councils in Italy have also banned the wearing of the niqab in the street, with hefty fines being imposed on those caught wearing it.
In the UK, Conservative MP Phillip Hollobone has proposed legislation to ban the burka, which he has previously described as “offensive” saying that wearing one was the religious equivalent of “going round with a paper bag over your head”. Hollobone also declared that he would refuse to see any constituents of his who refused to remove their niqab. Thankfully, and rather surprisingly, senior ministers in the new coalition government have spoken out against any possible ban including Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman who went as far as describing the burka as “empowering” and “dignified” for Muslim women. Unfortunately, less tolerant views are being encouraged by the fact that even some authoritarian Muslim countries are considering similar bans, with Syria, that most secular of Arabian nations, leading the way.
The political legitimization of opposition to the niqab has given the green light to all sorts of Islamophobes to come out of the woodwork. As the debate surrounding the niqab has increased, so has the level of discrimination and number of violent attacks on veiled women throughout Europe.
Shortly after the French ban was approved by parliament, two Muslim women were ordered to leave a swimming pool in a French holiday village on the southwest coast for wearing body-covering “burkinis”. The women had plunged into the pool at le Port Leucate wearing full body swimsuits, including a head-covering hijab, but were immediately told to get out of the water. The women at the Rives des Corbieres holiday camp were told to leave as they had breached the camp's rules allowing only conventional bikinis or one-piece swimsuits “for hygiene reasons”.
Even before the vote was passed, reports of veiled women being attacked on the streets of France by members of the public were emerging, including an incident in Trignac where a 60-year old lawyer mocked a 26-year old veiled Muslim convert before ripping her niqab off. On Christmas Day 2009, a family doctor in Utrecht (Holland) refused to allow a woman into his surgery because she was wearing a niqab. The 23-year-old woman had brought her three-month old baby to see the doctor because it had diarrhea and had not had a drink for several hours.
A contemporary YouGov poll found that 67% of persons polled supported a similar niqab ban in the UK. Police in the city of Leicester recently reported that the number of attacks on Muslims in the city had almost doubled since last year, including incidents where assailants ripped the niqab off women’s faces.
The ultimate effect of such a ban will be to ostracize and marginalise Muslim women and, ironically, to imprison them in their homes. In the six years since the French hijab ban was introduced, many Muslim girls who have refused to undress for the government have been denied the right to an education, or forced to go abroad to continue with their schooling.
Many women have been denied ID cards, passports, driving licenses, work permits because of the way they dress. Women have been turned away from hospitals and banks for wearing headscarves, and in Paris you cannot get married if you wear a scarf to your civil wedding ceremony. Further, as a woman you can no longer refuse medical examination by a male doctor. Now, for those women who wear niqab, even leaving their homes will become off limits. A senior French minister described the burka as a “walking coffin”. By liberating the Muslim woman from it, he is effectively burying her in her home.
In all of this, there are things from which Muslims can take some comfort. One is the fact that the secularists have lost the intellectual argument against the niqab. After years of Westernization and secularization, governments have concluded that the only way they can compel Muslim women to adopt Western dress codes is to impose a legal ban on Islamic dress. Islamic values have prevailed over Western secular values, by virtue of the fact that so many Muslim women have chosen conservative Islamic dress over liberal Western dress.
Another is that the history of legislation proscribing Muslim dress has always proven to be counterproductive. In Iran in 1936 Reza Shah banned wearing hijab, violently enforcing the law against a generation of women who had grown up beneath the chador. When women donned the chador after the revolution in 1979 it was as much a protest against the then Shah as it was a sign of devotion to Allah (swt)
In an environment where women’s liberation is equated with sexual exploitation, and their honour and dignity is upheld through their debasement and humiliation as nothing more than sexual objects to be enjoyed by men, we should not be too surprised when we see an increasing number of women choosing to remain subjugated and oppressed behind their veils. A final source of comfort is that even many western women, viewing the current controversies over hijab and niqab, are reaching the same conclusion.