In a speech delivered on the 22nd of June the President of France said, “the burqa is not a religious sign’ — it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”
Having already banned the Hijab in public schools, France seems eager to move even further with a complete ban on the niqab and as a result we feel it is necessary to provide some advice on the matter so that Muslims living in the West are not caught unaware and unable thereby to articulate an accurate Islamic perspective on the issue.
Generally speaking there are three methods to answering questions when being interviewed: (1) focusing on the content; (2) the delivery of the content and, (3) the perception of the audience. Muslims who are interviewed on Islamic matters tend to focus solely on how the audience will receive their answers and tend to lose track of the real content that needs to be addressed. In stark contrast the Quranic dialogue with non-believers is very much content focused; delivered in an awe-inspiring way. We too, as followers of the Qur’an, are commanded to “Speak the truth” albeit with wisdom and eloquence. Our prophet told us that whoever tries to please the people at the expense of Allah’s pleasure will certainly displease Allah and also find that the people eventually dislike him and that whoever speaks the truth to please Allah will find that the people will end up liking him.
In light of this I would like to provide some answers to questions that are often asked by non-Muslims, be they our neighbors, colleagues, or from the media. It is hoped that these answers will empower us to take the debate forward in a constructive manner.
1) Why do Muslim women wear the Burqa (face veil)?
All of us, we believe, have been created by an all-Knowing all-Wise being who blessed us with a short life here on Earth and then an eternal life in an abode in the Hereafter. The purpose of this life is to achieve success in passing the trials and tribulations God has decreed for us; the greatest test being sincere submission to His divine Will. Abiding by the guidelines and legislation decreed by God brings harmony and tranquility to the hearts of the believers which is then followed by eternal happiness in paradise. Every piece of guidance legislated by God has copious amounts of goodness and wisdom behind it including the dress code specified for both men and women.
Muslim women who adopt the face veil, for example, have a deep conviction that they are following the guidance of their Creator. The wisdom behind the injunction, such as protecting women from abuse and harassment, are of peripheral value as the main aim is to seek the pleasure of God.
2) Would you like all women in the western society to cover themselves up?
We would like all of mankind to live by the guidance of their Creator and understand their purpose in life. Many Muslim women including those who accept the message of Islam do chose to adopt the traditional Islamic dress code.
Interestingly the majority of converts to Islam are women. I recall once a lady had made an appointment with us to take the testimony of faith. When we went to meet her we found a woman fully dressed with Islamic attire. When we asked her if she knew of a non-Muslim woman wanting to become Muslim she replied that it was in fact her!
3) Does the Qur’an speak about the Niqab?
It is very saddening to see so called ‘Islamic experts’ categorically deny the mentioning of the face veil in the Qur’an when it is in fact mentioned in two specific verses.
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like palms of hands or one eye or both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husband’s sons, their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex.”
Therefore, one cannot deny the fact that covering the face is an authentic orthodox opinion held by a great number of scholars based on Quranic texts.
Even if one was to deny its place in the Qur’an this by no means shows that it hasn‘t been legislated elsewhere in the prophetic guidance, the Sunnah. For instance the Qur’an does not specify the number of daily prayers as being five or the obligatory annual charity as being 2.5% but such fundamentals were learnt from the prophetic guidance and are not disputed over by any Muslim.
4) Is the Niqab obligatory?
The question is somewhat irrelevant as there exists a consensus amongst jurists that observance of the Niqab is a legislated act within Islamic jurisprudence, that is to say, it is not merely cultural attire as many ignorant individuals claim. Though a great number of scholars opined that it is mustahab (recommended), many others thought it was obligatory. Thus, whether it is obligatory or not is not the issue as every Muslim woman has the right to adopt the Islamic dress code regardless of the opinions of others. The question concerns those who want to adopt it and would like to clarify their position so as to provide theological grounding.
5) Is the ‘Non-Niqabi’ immodest?
The women who champion the Niqab are raising the standards of modesty in their respective communities. If we say that modesty is essentially covering up ones beauty than inevitably the face veil does this more so than any other garment. However, modesty must be defined in the framework of Islamic tradition which means that while the Qur’an and the Sunnah provide a general guideline for how to be modest (for instance the word Jilbab is mentioned in the Qur’an and refers to a single garment that covers the body) the specifics of style and manner can depend on the cultural norms of the society.
A common pitfall Muslims find themselves in is when they simply refer to the Niqab and Hijab as a means of being modest without providing any sense of the general guidance of Islam on the matter. This implies that clothing is completely relative and so what is modest in Saudi Arabia is inappropriate in Miami since a revealing dress in Miami could, in all seriousness, be deemed modest given that the norm there is a Bikini!
6) Why don’t men have to wear the Niqab?!
Men have been commanded to lower the gaze and to cover that which is between the navel and knee but women have been commanded to cover much more. Why? Because they are physiologically and physically distinct and so the legislation, logically, encapsulates these differences.
7) Do Muslim men force their women to adorn the Niqab?
We encourage each other to perform acts of piety and righteousness. If I felt that my nearest and dearest were going off the rails I would help them and actively advise them do change their ways. I would advise the women in my family to adhere to Islamic dress code because it is a call for righteousness.
8) Is the Niqab a security issue?
There should always be a spirit of tolerance and forbearance in people, especially the natives as where ever there is a will there is a way. Muslim women who are accepted for who they are will be more appreciative of the state and help to develop stronger ties of cohesion in their communities. Forcing Muslim to uncover their faces will sow seeds of mistrust and even hatred with the state. And so banning the Niqab would be grossly counterproductive.
9) Is Niqab a symbol of subjugation?
The word subjugation, when spoken of in the West and addressed to Muslims or non-Westerners smacks of a colonial will to dominate through a preponderance of the view that European values are not only better than those of others, but that their being ‘better’ elevates their imposition on to others to the status of liberation.
What is frustrating to many Muslims is that over and over again Muslim women have spoken out claiming that what they wear is out of their own choice and a deep sense of spirituality. Yet the media and prominent figures in the West continue to ignore these voices and imply that only ‘they’ truly know what is going on inside Muslim women’s head, something which even the Muslim women – subjugated as they are – are not privy to. This obscene hypocrisy highlights the continuing Orientalism that still operates in the West when it comes to its discourse on Islam.
From a Muslim perspective (although many non-Muslims agree), the tyranny of fashion shows, billboards with air-brushed pictures, the use of scantily clad bodies to sell consumer products is a form of subjugation for Western women, who, if not dominated by men are certainly dominated by the demands and dictates of the market.
How, at any rate, is one to decide whether someone is subjugated or not? Banning a religious practice in a society where no Muslim is demanding its imposition seems more a fundamentalist move than a liberal one, but then perhaps that is exactly what we are witnessing: the fundamentalising of liberalism. What’s more is that Muslim ought not to feel cowed by media pressure or hawkish tactics by commentators who merely claim that such Islamic dress codes are oppressive – the onus of proving this, after all, lies with them and not with Muslims.
For our part we have firsthand accounts of women who have donned the burqa/hijab/niqab who repeatedly pronounce their individuality and choice as well as the fact that the majority of women who seem to be adopting the burqa are Western educated women all born and brought up in countries like France and Britain many a time at odds with their mothers from the East. So, is the Burqa an Eastern or Western phenomena?!
The following has been adapted from a recent lecture delivered by Dr Haitham al-Haddad on the 30/06/09