The Niqab Ban and Mona El-Tahawi

Apr 12

Mona Eltahawy rejects Sarkozy but accepts the niqab ban, as she has expressed both in print and on tv.  I agree with Mona that the niqab is not an Islamic requirement; I also agree that many Muslims have a destructive conception of gender roles, and am sympathetic to her claim that many Muslims who encourage women to wear the niqab in fact propagate a version of Islam and religiosity that distorts Islam’s capacity to make us the kind of broad-minded individuals that God intends.  Nevertheless, I don’t think niqab bans are an effective way to fight the narrow-minded theology she rightfully rejects.

It may very well be the case that some women who wear niqab are the victims of the psychological terrorism Mona decried in her interview with Eliot Spitzer; however, it would be a wild stretch to assume that all are so victimized.  Nor is it the case that only Wahhabi-Salafis encourage the niqab: some traditionalist Sufi orders who are meticulous in following traditionalist doctrines also encourage women to wear the niqab, as per the teachings of the traditionalist Shafi’i school of law.  Some women may wear the niqab for the reasons suggested by Hiba Ahmad, Mona’s niqab-clad interlocutor, in response to Mona: resistance to the hyper-sexualization of the female body in contemporary culture. In that regard, I am reminded of a story told to me by a (Christian) Palestinian-American artist who grew up in Riyad, Saudi Arabia.  She told me that while she hated wearing her abaya in Saudi Arabia, she pined for it in Paris: the ubiquitous image of nude women in that city made her long for the anonymity of that imposed sartorial choice.

In short, the motivations that drive individuals’ choices are simply too complex and varied to permit the government to decide what something like a face-veil means for the women who choose to wear it.  Even if we could ascertain that all Muslim women who wear the niqab do so for the reasons that Mona identifies, however, would we then be entitled to force them to remove their face veils on pain of punishment if they refused?  It seems unlikely: liberalism simply does not permit intervention at this micro-level of individuals’ lives when the only life they are ruining (if they are indeed so doing) is their own.  Muslim women who wear the face-veil may in fact be making horrible use of their freedom, but that is not grounds for government intervention.  (One can easily come up with numerous examples of everyday choices that people make with their freedom that are at least as “bad” but we would not consider banning them.)  Indeed, it may very well be the case that Hiba in twenty years will wonder why she gave up her career opportunities to wear a face-veil, but we all have regrets, or at least second thoughts, about the roads not taken.  That is simply life.

Mona seems to believe that once a person falls into the grasp of Wahhabi-Salafi theology, they can never escape, but in fact, Mona herself is the best evidence repudiating that view. After all, she grew up in Saudi Arabia and managed to resist that kind of religious indoctrination.  Might it not be the case that individuals in liberal cultures are at least as capable of changing their religious commitments as Mona was?  The most dangerous aspect of the niqab ban, and the one that I believe Mona radically underestimates, is that the state is giving itself the right to define what a particular symbol, in this case, the face veil, means to those who adhere to it.  I doubt any Muslim woman wearing a face veil would agree with the French State’s characterization of it as a form of slavery.  I doubt even Mona would agree with that.  Yet, by agreeing with the French law, she is acquiescing to giving the state this power of interpretation backed by coercive force over people’s inner thoughts, a very dangerous power indeed.

One of the most important ways of resisting the “Muslim right,” and the right in all cultural traditions, is to support the rights of individuals to come to their own understandings of their moral, religious and cultural commitments.  That process may not lead to the outcomes we desire in all cases, but in the long-term, it subverts the tools of cultural control and oppression that the right uses to maintain dominance.  Progressives should not give in to the temptation to use the preferred tools of the right for short-term gains when, from a procedural perspective, it reinforces the state’s power to control our thoughts.  Having said all that, I do believe governments do have a duty toward women such as Hiba: just as they should assure her that she has the right to don the face-veil, it also must guarantee that she has the right to revisit that choice in the future.

Our duty as Muslim intellectuals, however, is different than that of the government: it is to articulate a conception of Islam and human freedom that furthers a conception of a good human life that can overcome the appeal of “Wahhabism-Salafism.”  To the extent that Muslims find that theology appealing, it is an indictment first and foremost of our own failure to produce a better alternative.  We cheat when we enlist the government to use the power of the criminal law to assist us against our ideological adversaries.  We would all be better off if, instead of advocating for criminal laws, we articulate a positive Islamic vision that is persuasive to women like Hiba and other Muslim women who wear face-veils and provides an alternative vision of female piety that does not, in the words of Mona (paraphrasing), identify the height of piety in the degree to which women hide themselves from the rest of society.

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  1. Ghazalli /

    But Professor very few arguments in fiqh are actually qati, the ahkam of fiqh are based on ijtihad of a mujtahid which supplies us “thann” which is sufficient for establishing a hukm for an action. Also is not true that the awwam (laity) are suppose to follow the ra’jah or the mu`tamid of their madhab?

    One of Ustadh’s mentioned to me that The “ijtihad” of the Four Imams is not just “opinion” but rather “qualified legal interpretation” of highly skilled, competent and renowned academics in matters not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah. For that reason their legal interpretation, represent the practice of Islam.

    • No doubt that the established views of madhhabs are to be respected in general, but I really doubt that anyone is capable of endorsing **all** the views of the madhhabs, even those that are rajih or mu’tamad. I worry about this trend to sanctify what, in essence, are the good faith interpretations of diligent scholars. We should respect their work, but not sanctify it. Overall, I think the obsession with dress is unhealthy, most of all for Muslim women themselves. Take a look at this article on Muslim women taking off their hijab.

  2. Obviously, there are pre-modern Muslim scholars who consider the niqab to be obligatory, although their arguments are not conclusive (qat’i). Malik’s argument is based not on dalil but on sadd al-dhari’a, and so it is a matter of precaution, and not inherent morality. However, no one in today’s Muslim community is willing to accept this principle of precaution across the board, so it hardly seems a strong basis on which to rest something like niqab. If anything deserves to be subject to the principle of precaution, it is talking about female dress: nothing has taken up more attention among Muslims and non-Muslims than this piece of trivia. And that to me is the real problem: the compulsive concern with superficial appearances at the expense of genuine religious issues (or secular ones, for those who are secular minded).

  3. ghazalli /

    The author states the niqab is not an Islamic requirement but this sentence is problematic since in the Islamic tradition the Hanbali, Shafi and Maliki schools consider it to be an obligation for a women to wear a niqab.

    The ‘awrah is of two types: an ‘awrah in the Salāh (prayer) and an ‘awrah in looking (‘awratu fin-nathr). So as for the free woman, it is (allowed) for her to pray while her hands and face are uncovered, and it is not (allowed) for her to go out in the markets and gatherings of people like that (i.e. it is not allowed for her to go out without the face and hands covered).[See Tahthīb As-sunan and ‘Ilām Al Muwaqi’īn 2/80]

    The Shafi jurist Imām Taqiyud-Dīn As-Subkī when he said,

    “And what is the closest (in opinion), from what our companions have produced is that the face and the hands of a woman are ‘awrah in nathr (i.e. looking) and not in the Salāh.” [Quoted by Imām Al-Khatīb Ash-Shirbinī in his Al-Mughnī Al-Muhtāj.]

    Shaikh al-A’dawi mentions in his marginal commentary on Shaykh al-Khurashi’s commentary on Mukhtasar Khalil that :

    لا يجوز للحرة المسلمة أن تبدى شيأ من جسدها ولو وجها ويدأ الكافر وإن لم يكن عورة

    It is not permissible for a free Muslim woman to show anything of her body, whether it face or hands, to a non-Muslim male even if they are not considered awrah.

    They base their proofs on various hadiths and Qur`an and the commentary giving by the Companions of the Prophet (Upon Him be Peace.)

  4. I’m a woman and I don’t see the veil as a symbol of oppression. The conservative covering of Jewish and Muslim women, as well as, my ultra conservative Christian Grandmother is a right they have just as they have the right to practice those religions. The conservative dress harms no one and is their personal choice. But as a member of humanity where not everyone has the utmost intentions, I do side with the French on the banning of the full face veil. Let me explain. Suppose a woman in full veil was kidnapped off the street and all the witnesses could say was she was about 5’2″ and wearing a black dress. That leaves no sketch artist any clues on how to characterize the missing woman in a drawing. On another side, a full face veil gives those who are not interested in religious rights or observance the opportunity to use it as a means to provide themselves anonymity for unacceptable behaviors. Humanity has a long history of impersonation to commit crimes. The veil can be used by unsavory members of society to mask their identity without question. If you see someone wearing a ski mask walking into a bank in June it’s cause to question motives but there would be no such question of a supposed woman observing her religious tradition. A face is how society, at large, identifies other people. Showing just your face and hands with all else covered still gives a woman the opportunity to observe her religious right to be conservatively dressed but to also be a recognizable member of society. I’m not saying I’m right, just that these are things I have thought of that stood out to me. But the women who feel adamant about wearing it have every right to demand it be allowed. The laws and culture of a community will determine the right.

  5. Sherif /

    On a different note, the back-and-forth in the comments seems to make it clear that every society should have the right to “draw the line somewhere” legislatively – we all agree on banning public nudity for example (I’m assuming), while simultaneously, we all agree on individual freedom of expression (even if in some cases, it offends the majority) … So, what this says to me is that a thick gray area exists that renders it nearly impossible to be fully rigorous in rationalizing an argument for/against the ban. We need a more thorough delineation of all the assumptions in order to be able to settle the discussion – I think such is the case with all “drawing the line somewhere” discussions. However, it may be possible to settle it if we all agree on the assumptions: i.e. does something need to be sexually lewd to be considered offensive to the majority? Also, what measurable breach against social sensitivities does a form of expression need to present in order to justify a ban on it? Etc.

  6. Sherif /

    Very well put, and I fully agree (as a non-Muslim) that the approach you propose is necessary and important: specifically, not relying on laws criminalizing different forms of expression, but offering viable alternatives. I believe part of that approach is the vocal promotion of the ideas of a free society and individual freedoms in predominantly Islamic countries. While more than one such nation now are awaiting reforms, extremist voices are using all kinds of fear-mongering to alarm people about the threat of secularization/de-Islamization, all toward accomplishing their goals of Islamizing these nations (including their Muslims and non-Muslims).

    What I see are a lot of satellite channels and internet activity, etc., fervently promoting a socially and politically repressive version of Islam, and I see a lot of non-Muslim activity raising awareness about it, and in many cases, relying heavily on an existing fear of such changes. What I don’t see much of at all are moderate Muslim voices directly challenging the more extremist elements, in an logical/intellectual capacity, outside of intellectual circles.

    I see state media in Egypt denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement. Yet, being myself in North America, I wonder how much Muslim religious/theological discussion actually takes place challenging the notions of these extremist and authoritarian elements. I also wonder how much public intellectual dialogue is taking place outside the realm of religion and simply using logic to discuss the importance of a free society that does not impose any religious belief or practice on anyone, and that respects a plurality of beliefs, and treats everyone equally.

    I’m having trouble expressing my concern: what I mean is that I see moderate Muslims on Egyptian TV (from rare scattered clips on the internet) treating it as a mere assumption that they stand for freedom, justice, etc., and towing the line lest they seem to be against Islam. However, the general public does not seem to take it as simply assumed. For example, there are plenty of villages in Egypt now trying to get rid of their churches (I’ve heard of four thus far in addition to almost weekly stories of other post-revolution symptoms of intolerance). So, when people like Amr Adeeb (the most outspoken) speak as though, “of course, we are for a free society/ against extremism, and for equality”, it only serves to clear themselves from a charge of extremism or political Islam (and serves to make him appear sympathetic to non-Muslims), but does nothing to engage the general public who may not agree…

    • These are important questions, and it’s hard to give a categorical answer to any of them. Certainly, Egyptians are subject to extraneous cultural/religious influences, not all of which are helpful. It’s also important to understand what we mean precisely by terms like “moderate” or “authoritarian” whether in politics or religion. All versions of orthodox Islam, for example, include some version of a divine law against which believers must judge the legitimacy of their own conduct as well as that of others. Without knowing very much about the Coptic Church, I assume it too has some such conception of divine law which governs human conduct and restricts the kinds of activities its adherents can participate in. So, the real question I suppose is the extent to which religious conceptions support, oppose, or are consistent with, non-religious conceptions of justice, e.g., liberal democracy. I don’t think one can reach any categorical conclusions; some religious teachings will be supportive; some will be consistent; and some will be contrary. In the real world, these conflicts have to be managed with a hope that they will become more rather than less intractable over time.

  7. True.

    My views have probably come across as very biased as I hate niqab.

  8. One might say the same about mini-skirts, i.e., that it is an offensive symbol of sexism. In any case, no one suggests that the majority of society has an arbitrary right to limit our sartorial choices. Indeed, one might say (and have heard ad nauseum) from right-wingers that freedom of expression includes a right to offend others intentionally.

  9. Obviously not lewd, but, as a symbol of sexism, offensive all the same.

    The point of my comparison was to demonstrate how the perpetrator’s conception of their actions/appearance means little to how society at large views said actions/appearances.

  10. But no one has suggested that wearing a niqab is indecent as such or lewd. This is clearly a second-order and very much a post-hoc rationalization.

  11. Well, for the very same reasons – whatever they are – that such laws are present in every country, the Niqab ban is justifiable.

    The freedom of religion does not give one the right to alienate the so called moral majority.

    There is in most countries, to my knowledge, a set of laws that govern public decency. Under the umbrella of such legislations, the Niqab ban is very much acceptable if not recommendable.

    Should cultists be allowed to urinate in public under the banner of religious freedom?

  12. When it comes to public appearance, I believe that every society has the right to decide on where it draws the line on what it considers acceptable.

    Niqab, in my humble opinion, causes just as much discomfort as allowing people to appear naked in public.

    It’s a symbol of the oppression of woman. As a liberal, can you, with a straight face, condemn the French for banning it?

    • Well, I don’t doubt you consider it a symbol of the oppression of woman, but I think the question I am raising is whether you (i.e., a majority of citizens), have the right to decide what it means for those who wear it and may very well have a different conception of what it means. I doubt that women who wear a face veil understand it as “a symbol of the oppression of women.” In that case, a ban effectively is a prohibition on their freedom of expression as well as a limitation on their right to freedom of religion. As for discomfort, I don’t doubt it causes you or others discomfort, but lots of things cause us discomfort but discomfort, in itself, is not grounds to criminalize it. I take your point, however, regarding public nudity: I don’t have a good explanation for why such laws are OK.

      • Mohamad Al-Hakim /

        Moreover, there seems to be a question over what exactly liberalism entail on matters of dress code. Classical liberalism sought to secure the private domain from state, or public interference whereby citizens were left to pursue whatever conception of the good they so desired. This, among other things, left the state out of dress codes and other trivial matters insofar as they did not trump the liberties of others.

        There seems to be more and more encroachment on non state matters. So I can, with a straight face, question the French states position without necessarily disavowing liberal values but merely questioning their scope and limitations.

  13. Omar Soliman /

    Great response!


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