The Niqab Ban and Mona El-Tahawi
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.