Telling Muslim Women What Not to Wear

April 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Kari Ansari

France has now officially outlawed the Islamic niqab or burqa in public. French President Sarkozy said in 2009, “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 the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory.”

This statement by Sarkozy isn’t going to save any Muslim woman’s self-respect or free her from her oppressor by forcing her indoors and out of public life. If a woman is being forced to wear the burqa or niqab by a dictatorial husband or father, the French have just made it more difficult for her to break free from her oppressor. However, most Muslim women choose to wear the niqab of their own free will, and with this ban France has just pushed another segment of their Muslim population further from the mainstream. France outlawed the hijab, or the simple headscarf in public schools and institutions in 2004, and it has forced girls who want an education to either compromise their religious values, or compromise their academic and professional future. Where’s the liberté in that?

A small minority of Muslim women in certain parts of the world wear what is known as the abaya (black cloak) and the niqab (face veil). It is known as a burqa in South and Central Asia and seen most often as the blue full-body veil worn by Afghan women. This form of covering is the manifestation of the strictest interpretation of modesty in Islam. Women who choose this practice consider themselves seriously observant Muslims and believe this form of dress allows them to move about the outside world while protecting their dignity.

People get nervous around these women. I have often heard the refrain, “You need to see a person’s face to judge their character.” I disagree based on my own experience with Muslim women who wear the niqab. I have always known them as highly disciplined, and solid in their faith convictions despite society’s derision. They believe in keeping their physical attributes out of the public conversation by covering. While I don’t subscribe to this strict interpretation of Islamic modesty, I respect the woman who does.

Case in point: I had been corresponding with a young woman in regard to a part-time position on the behalf of one of my clients. The job would include conducting various marketing events within her local Muslim community. Because she lives in another city, I had no chance to meet her until this weekend when I traveled there. Because I am familiar with this city’s Muslim community, I was not surprised to meet her wearing a black abaya and black headscarf. She and I had coffee in a café, and as the interview progressed she proved to be everything her emails and our previous phone conversations led me to believe about her without the benefit of a face-to-face meeting. She is an extremely enthusiastic and professional young woman filled with exciting ideas for marketing my client’s product. Toward the end of the conversation she mentioned that she usually wore the niqab face veil but she decided that she would not don it for our meeting in case I would be uncomfortable. I told her I wouldn’t have been bothered by it in the least. I felt sorry she had come out without her veil on my account — but to be fair, she didn’t know me. While she knew that I’m also a Muslim, she couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t discriminate against her on behalf of my client. After I assured her that her faith practices are her own business, and that my client has great respect for Muslims, she visibly relaxed and we continued our conversation.

Her character, personality and professionalism were evident long before I saw her clothing, or her face. In her American city she happily moves about her neighborhood dressed the way the French have now outlawed. She told me the Muslims are an integral part of her city’s greater community, and she is very comfortable wherever she goes in her graceful, black garments. I will recommend that my client hire this young woman; I’m completely confident that she is going to far exceed the expectations we had for this position.

As I’ve written before, if you strip a woman of what she feels is her dignity, you’ll have a lot of indignant women. We all know American women can become pretty indignant if someone tells us what not to wear.

13-16

Qaradawi Warns of Niqab Ban Discrimination

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Anwar ElShamy, Gulf Times

FILES-ALGERIA-EGYPT-POLITICS-RELIGION-QARADAWI Qatar-based Islamic scholar Sheikh Yousuf al-Qaradawi urged those European countries which are considering outlawing the full veil (niqab) to review their plans, saying that a wider ban on niqab might prompt clerics to campaign for imposing a “modest dress code” on foreigners living in Muslim countries.

In his Friday sermon, Sheikh Qaradawi said the recent outlawing of the face-covering veil in public by Belgium along with a French draft law to make it illegal would be a violation of both religious and personal freedoms.

“I hope that France, Belgium and all of Europe will show respect to Islamic values and creed. Banning a Muslim woman from wearing the niqab would only place her in a dilemma about whether to comply with the law or obey what she believes is a religious order,” Sheikh Qaradawi told a congregation at the Omar bin Al-Khattab mosque at Khalifa South town.

However, the scholar, who is the chairman of the Dublin-based International Muslim Scholars Union, said the face-covering veil was not obligatory in Islam and that a woman should cover the head and neck but leave the face open.

“Although I think that wearing niqab is not obligatory and that women should only wear the hijab (covering the head and neck, but leaving the face visible), I am totally against banning a Muslim from wearing niqab if she is convinced of it as a religious obligation,” he explained.

“I do not represent all Muslim scholars. There are scholars in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries who consider niqab as obligatory and there are millions of women who wear it by their own free choice. If I asked them to stop wearing it, I would be violating their personal and religious freedom,” he maintained.

Quoting from a letter he had sent to former French president Jacques Chirac, the scholar said the ban imposed on hijab in schools would be a betrayal of the principles of the French Revolution, namely liberty, fraternity and equality.

“I told (president Chirac) that prohibiting women from wearing the hijab would be discrimination against them and make them hate France which is known to be a leading country for freedom,” he added.

In his letter, he had also dismissed the notion that hijab was a religious symbol for Muslims as “untrue”, saying that if it was a symbol, why they were allowed to take it off when they were in the presence of other women or male relatives.

“Wearing hijab for Muslims could not be dealt with as wearing a necklace with a cross pendant for Christians,” he said.

He indicated that the sentiments against niqab or hijab were a reflection of a desire by European countries to impose their culture on others.

“I have received a recent visit by French ambassador Gilles Bonnaud and I explained these things to him. I told him that Muslims believed in the unity of humanity but also believed that each nation should stick to its traits,” he added.

“When Muslims ruled India, they did not close down temples or impose a ban on cremation. It is the duty of each nation to respect the values of the other, but with the European case, we can make it difficult for French and Belgian women who stay in Muslim countries by asking them to stick to a modest dress,” he quoted from the conversation he had with the French ambassador to Qatar. 

12-20

France’s Burka Dilemma

March 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Proposals to ban face veils provoked debate in France’s Muslim community

By Zubeida Malik

France could become the first country in Europe to ban the burka. A draft law submitted to the French parliament would make it illegal for a woman to cover her face in public spaces such as hospitals and trains. But the proposal has divided the country’s five million-strong Muslim community.

26 year-old Anisa wears a bright blue niqab, a piece of clothing that covers her completely except for her eyes and perfectly arched eyebrows.

You can’t miss her among the crowds: maybe it is because of the colour of the niqab or because there is no other woman around who is covered up to this extent.

She has been wearing it for a year-and-a-half. Anisa’s family, who are originally from Morocco, are against her wearing the niqab. But Anisa believes it is her religious duty.

According to official figures there are just 1900 women who wear the burka in France. Most of them are young and a quarter are converts.

But a report from the French intelligence services put this figure much lower at 367, out of an estimated population of five million Muslims, the largest in Europe.
When I met Anisa in the suburbs of Seine-Saint Denis, an area with the highest concentration of Muslims in France, she says that ever since she started wearing the niqab she has had unwelcome attention from the police, has been insulted in the street and is frequently stared at.

Women wearing the burka – a veil which covers the whole face – or the niqab in France are not as visible as those in Britain. But look hard enough in the suburbs and you can find them.

The mosque in the town of Drancy, on the outskirts of Paris, is currently the most controversial in France because the imam here has come out in support of the government’s decision to ban the burka.

Imam Hassan Chalghoumi is now facing death threats and has been given police protection. Ignoring the advice of his advisors he spoke to the Today programme.
He says the burka has nothing to do with religion but the wearing of it was down to tradition.

And the imam added that the burka debate was diverting attention from the real problems facing the Muslim community, including racism, integration and young people dropping out of school early. The imam, who is originally from Tunisia, has the support of the mayor of Drancy.

Tempers are running high at the mosque and there are some it is hard to tell how many want the imam to leave. And there is also a lot of anger and frustration with the media and the police.

Friday prayers when I was there were tense. There were policemen present, plain clothes officers filming and an ambulance on standby, in case anyone got hurt.
Multiculturalism in France is different to that in Britain and the United States. One of the core principles of the Fifth Republic is “laicite”, the separation of church and state.

Religion here is seen as a highly private matter, even more than in the US, where church and state are also constitutionally separated.

Pierre Rousselin from Le Figaro newspaper says that in France people still believe that ‘’foreigners can adapt to the French way of life’’

A commission has spent six months looking into the burka in a review which took evidence from more than 200 people. It recommended proposing a ban on women wearing either the burka or the niqab in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transport.

It is not the first time that the Muslim community in France feels that its been put under the spotlight. In 2004 a law was passed banning the hijab – or headscarf – and all other religious symbols, from state schools. Although the ban affects all religions, the Muslim community here feels that it was aimed at them.

Wider debate

The current controversy comes in the wake of months of debate and President Sarkozy’s speech last year where he said the veils were not welcome in France, but which stopped short of calling for an outright ban.

A draft law has been submitted to parliament but any further action has been put on the back-burner until after the regional elections in France this month.

Sihem Habchi, who describes herself as a Muslim feminist, is director of Ni Putes Ni Soumise – “Neither Whores Nor Submissives”, an influential feminist organisation. She says it is not a question of how many women wear the burka, but one of ‘’democratic principle’’. And she too wants the burka banned.

Ms Habchi says that a ban would ‘’liberate’’ the Muslim community from those who want to hold it back and ‘’use our religion’’.

Adding that her Algerian background allows her to understand this issue and the wider one of women’s rights as a whole, Ms Habchi says ‘’laicite’’ actually protects religion because it means all religions have an equal footing.

Catherine De Wenden, an expert in the history of immigration in France, believes the timing of the current debate is political and is tied in with the regional elections in France.

Although she is personally against banning the burka, she says there it is part of a wider debate in France about national identity, adding that there are many forms of multiculturalism and that France regards religion as a private matter.

Ms De Wenden is concerned that if the ban happens then France will not be seen as a country which practises toleration, a core value of the French Revolution.
But any legislation could have the reverse effect. The young women I spoke to in Drancy said that if the ban became law then they would start to wear the burka for the first time.

12-12

Niqabi, Interrupted

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Wearing my niqab is a choice freely made, for spiritual reasons

By Naima B.Robert

Niqab3 I put on my niqab, my face veil, each day before I leave the house, without a second thought. I drape it over my face, tie the ribbons at the back and adjust the opening over my eyes to make sure my peripheral vision is not affected.

Had I a full-length mirror next to the front door, I would be able to see what others see: a woman of average height and build, covered in several layers of fabric, a niqab, a jilbab, sometimes an abayah, sometimes all black, other times blue or brown. A Muslim woman in ‘full veil’. A niqabi.

But is that truly how people see me? When I walk through the park with my little ones in tow, when I reverse my car into a parking space, when I browse the shelves in the frozen section, when I ask how to best cook asparagus at a market stall, what do people see? An oppressed woman? A nameless, voiceless individual? A criminal?

Well, if Mr Sarkozy and others like him have their way, I suppose I will be a criminal, won’t I? Never mind that “it’s a free country”; never mind that I made this choice from my own free will, as did the vast majority of covered women of my generation; never mind that I am, in every other respect, an upstanding citizen who works hard as a mother, author and magazine publisher, spends responsibly, recycles and tries to eat seasonally and buy local produce!

Yes, I cover my face, but I am still of this society. And, as crazy as it might sound, I am human, a human being with my own thoughts, feelings and opinions. I refuse to allow those who cannot know my reality to paint me as a cardboard cut-out, an oppressed, submissive, silenced relic of the Dark Ages. I am not a stereotype and, God willing, I never will be.

But where are those who will listen? At the end of the day, Muslim women have been saying for years that the hijab et al are not oppressive, that we cover as an act of faith, that this is a bonafide spiritual lifestyle choice. But the debate rages on, ironically, largely to the exclusion of the women who actually do cover their faces.

The focus on the niqab is, in my opinion, utterly misplaced. Don’t the French have anything better to do than tell Muslim women how to dress? Don’t our societies have bigger problems than a relative handful of women choosing to cover their faces out of religious conviction? The “burka issue” has become a red herring: there are issues that Muslim women face that are more pressing, more wide-reaching and, essentially, more relevant than whether or not they should be covering with a niqab, burqa or hijab.

At the end of the day, all a ban will do is force Muslim women who choose to cover to retreat even further – it is not going to result in a mass “liberation” of Muslim women from the veil. All women, covered or not, deserve the opportunity to dress as they see fit, to be educated, to work where they deem appropriate and run their lives in accordance with their principles, as long as these choices do not impinge on others’ freedoms. And last time I looked, being able to see a woman’s hair, legs or face were not rights granted alongside “liberté, egalité et fraternité”.

As a Muslim woman living in the UK, I am so grateful for the fact that my society does not force me to choose between being a practising Muslim and an active member of society. I have been able to study, to work, to establish a writing career and run a magazine business, all while wearing a niqaab. I think that that is a credit to British society, no matter what the anti-multiculturalists may say, and I think the French coul d learn some very valuable lessons from the British approach.

So, three cheers for those women who make the choice to cover, in whatever way and still go out there every day. Go out to brave the scorn and ridicule of those who think they understand the burka better than those who actually wear it. Go out to face the humiliating headlines. Go out to face the taunts of schoolchildren. Go out to fight another day. Go out to do their bit for society and the common good. Because you never know, if Mr Sarkozy and his supporters have their way, there could come a day when these women think twice about going out there into a society that cannot bear the way they look. And, who knows, I could be one of them.

And, while some would disagree, I think that would be a sad day.

Na’ima B. Robert is the founding editor of SISTERS , a magazine for Muslim women and author of ‘From My Sisters’ Lips ‘, a look at the lives of British Muslim women who cover.

11-29