France’s ban on wearing the niqab in public defends secular society – and the rights of Muslim women like me. Liberals bemoan the ban's infringement on personal freedoms. But Islamists who mandate that women wear the veil are incorrectly interpreting the true message of the Quran.
France’s recent “burqa ban” unveils the ignorance surrounding Islam, an ignorance shared by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s push to ban the face-veil, the niqab – put into effect last week – shocks Western elites. Legislating self-expression is surely more the provenance of draconian states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, than secular La France. To many, Mr. Sarkozy’s France smacks of uncivilized intolerance. But is Sarkozy really so wrong?
I first saw a veiled woman when I was six, possibly seven. Fascinated, and – never having seen anything like this – frightened, I looked up at my father, who explained she was from Arabia. Like us, he told me, she too was a Muslim.
Thirty-five years later, veiled women no longer catch the eye of pluralistic Muslim families like mine. Instead, in an extraordinary distortion of social mores, I find they now symbolize all of us, even assimilated, heterodox Muslim women like me.
France’s ban of the niqab in the public space is logical and one that many Muslims, myself included, welcome. Why?
Intensely secular societies, which not only tolerate, but actively celebrate multicultural pluralistic diversity, have been exploited by insular, Islamist neo-orthodoxy. They do so at my expense – the expense of the moderate Muslim. Be clear, neo-orthodox Muslims place no priority on the status of their women, whether living in Bamian or Brittany.
It would be decades before I could relate to the veiled woman – not until I lived and practiced medicine in Saudi Arabia where veiling was legislated. At thirty-one, arriving in Riyadh, I first wore the hijab (which covered all of my hair and neck) with an abbaya, which covered my entire body, to the ankles. This would be my only vehicle into the public sphere for the next two years.
French legislation is the first country to criminalize wearing the niqab in all public places, sparking wolverine cries of Islamophobia. Naïve liberals, predictably outraged, bemoan the infringement of personal and religious freedom in this mandating boundaries of clothing. Certainly, orthodox, state-sponsored secularism repudiating the niqab has triggered accusations of misogyny and marginalization by the powerful French state of an already beleaguered minority – the misunderstood Muslim woman.
But the dilemma is more complicated than state intrusion on personal expression or religious freedom. Instead we need to examine the precise self-expression in question – the veil itself – and search for its roots in Islam.
In the early Islamic period, the word khimar, “veil,” did not necessarily connote face covering. In the Quran, Sura 24:31, the reference to “khimar” reminds Muslim women of the need to “draw...[it] over their bosoms” as integral to female modesty.
Similarly, the verse of the veil commanded only the prophet Muhammad’s wives, as a mark of high distinction, to speak from behind a “hijab,” meaning a curtain (Quran Sura 33:53).
Later, theological scholarship indicates traditions asserting use of the khimar specifically to mean niqab may have been fabricated. Records show Aisha – one of the most eminent of the prophet Muhammed’s wives, a great scholar of Islam and one of the foremost teachers of early Muslims – provided great detail on the color and fabric of the khimars in her day. Nonetheless, no record exists as to how exactly they were worn.
This convenient vacuum allowed others to insert their own interpretation of veiling, for their own motives, including enforcing gender segregation and even gender apartheid – extraordinary, given Islam’s central emphasis on equality of both men and women and profound regard for justice above all other values.
Today’s adherence to literal interpretations of the veil, largely by Muslims ignorant of the true dictates of their own religion, are thus actually derived from cultural misogyny, which claims, falsely, to have a basis in the divine. Thus, with its ban, France is not impinging on religious freedom so as much as on cultural mores – mores that repress women.