The Niqab and I
Like most people I feel fairly conflicted about the niqab, the full face covering worn by some Muslim women, and about the practice of hijab, the veiling or covering of Muslim women in general. On one hand, my civil libertarian instincts tell me people can wear whatever they like, as long as they don't frighten the horses. On the other, the hijab is a powerful symbol for Westerners of the religious and cultural subjugation of women, even if some Muslim women wearing hijab deny any oppression at all. We all have seen the pictures of the Taliban beating women wearing burqas; we were all horrified by reports of Saudi religious police forcing panicked schoolgirls back into a burning dormitory because they weren't appropriately covered.
The hijab also raises some troubling issues, especially for those of us on the progressive side of things who support multiculturalism, questions that the Left is sometimes reluctant to address. Hijab poses the dilemma of wanting to be culturally sensitive and inclusive while at the same time supporting the rights of women. The central question: is it possible to support the practice of hijab and critique it at the same time? I would argue that yes, we can argue for cultural inclusivity and tolerance (as opposed to to the utterances of Jack Straw and the Archbishop of York). At the same time we should challenge the religious basis of hijab --- religion being a fancy justification for oppression. We should insist that hijab be seen it its proper cultural and social context, not as divine revelation, even if we risk accusations of religious intolerance and offending cultural sensitivities.
We can't deny, though, the religious importance of wearing hijab, based on a verse from the Quran: "Oh Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and wives and daughters of the believers, to extend their outer garments around themselves, so that they would be distinguished and not molested. And God is All-Forgiving, All-Merciful." (Qur'an, 33:59) The verse refers to Mohammed's immediate family; later, traditional interpretations extended this command to all Muslim women in varying degrees from a complete veiling covering all parts of the women's body save for one eye to an injuction to dress "modestly". God provided this command for several reasons: to "protect" women from the gaze of men, to encourage women to be modest and focus their thoughts on God and their families, to demonstate Islamic "separateness" from the unfaithful and as a reminder to the faithful that women should be honored. A fairly representative passage from one of many webpages on the hijab summarizes it thus:
Other . . . reasons [for hijab] include the requirement for modesty in both men and women. Both will then be evaluated for intelligence and skills instead of looks and sexuality. An Iranian school girl is quoted as saying, "We want to stop men from treating us like sex objects, as they have always done. We want them to ignore our appearance and to be attentive to our personalities and mind. We want them to take us seriously and treat us as equals and not just chase us around for our bodies and physical looks."Sincere, perhaps, but one gets a whiff of Pollyanna, of a romanticized version of Islam-as-ideal against the reality of Islam-as-practiced. As Irshad Manji says, we need to "dare the romance of the moment" (The Trouble with Islam Today, p. 213) by asking hard questions, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
A Muslim woman who covers her head is making a statement about her identity. Anyone who sees her will know that she is a Muslim and has a good moral character. Many Muslim women who cover are filled with dignity and self esteem; they are pleased to be identified as a Muslim woman. As a chaste, modest, pure woman, she does not want her sexuality to enter into interactions with men in the smallest degree. A woman who covers herself is concealing her sexuality but allowing her femininity to be brought out.
A few questions of my own:
Question 1: If the Quran allows "no compulsion in religion," then why are women compelled to veil by law ---secular or shari'a --- in the majority of Muslim-majority states? One of the abiding ironies of the hijab/niqab debate that only in the West Muslim women have the relative freedom to choose their dress. Why is this so? The standard argument seems to be that the more extreme forms of hijab (and views on gender relations in general) are "cultural" phenomenon. But can you actually parse culture and religion so easily, especially when the trend, abetted by Saudi funding, is to adopt Wahhabi-style norms in far flung outposts of the Islamic world?
Question 2: To what degree is the hijab a product of social norms of 6th century Arabia and the eastern Mediterranean? Evidence suggests that veiling women was common in this era and locality, and was restricted to women of elevated station. How was Mohammed influenced by his culture?
Question 3: What's the role of class in wearing hijab? A couple of small anecdotes to illustrate. A few weeks ago CBC news broadcast a debate, of sorts, between three women on hajib. Two of the women wore a form of hajib, one of them covered completely, including the niqab. All of them were "professional women" of one kind or another. Meanwhile, when I go to Toronto, I often stop at a mom-and-pop Muslim-owned Middle Eastern deli on Lawrence Avenue, which possibly makes the best chicken schwarma in the Western hemisphere. Mom wears a headscarf only, has bare arms and chats warmly with her male customers while manning the grill. I won't belabour the point.
Question 4: What's the implicit message of the hijab --- especially the stricter versions --- for Westerners, particularly non-Muslim women? If we are to take at face value claims that hijab is for modest, pure, God-fearing women, are non-Muslim women then impure, immodest and destined for hell? And what about children? Even more disturbing are the implications of veiling young girls.
Question 5: How does wearing the hajib --- again in its rigid version --- affect relations between the sexes and in the larger community? Does it create unnecessary barriers? Is this a good thing? A writer on a Saudi Arabian dissident website makes the following observation on the new sartorial discipline:
When you see your dear aunt or sister after a long absence you expect them to run to you with overt joy and open arms to kiss you and hug you with her bare hands and uncovered head. Now, she meets you coolly with her head tightly wrapped in a scarf and hands tucked in black gloves and she barely shakes hands with you. Funny jokes and joyful laughs have completely disappeared, replaced by austere religious formulas and clichés, as if every minute of our lives should be used solely and exclusively preparing our souls for the grave and life after death.(I would strongly encourage readers to read the entire article.)
You no longer see women walking down the streets, only moving bodies completely draped in black. You call your friend on the phone and if one of his women folk answer you on the other end you no longer hear the polite niceties and sweat utterances used by ladies in the past – only harsh barking and rough answers because it is no longer permissible for women to be nice and polite with men.
What is happening to us?
Question 6 (and last): What's the relation between the hijab, feminism and traditional Islam's view of sexuality? A complex and difficult question, to be sure. Assuredly traditional Islam (and I use the term carefully) has a poor dim view of modern Western feminism (not unlike, one might add, the opinions of conservative Protestants and Catholics) and a "separate but equal" notion of gender identity. Is the wearing of hijab really a rearguard action against inevitable modernism and modernization of Islamic thought? In the West, it is a patriarchal culture's attempt to maintain control over women?
As progressives we need to respect choices --- religious, sexual, political or otherwise --- but respect, I think, does not mean silence or acquiescence, especially when those choices challenge our fundamental beliefs. Fair enough that Muslims demand respect from us, but respect in my definition does not mean the end of debate, and unthinking acceptance would be disastrous. A kind of cultural and social negotiation is going on in Canada and in other places in the West. The fact is that Islam is a major religion in Canada, and Canadians need to adapt to that reality while --- let me stress --- remaining faithful to its liberal principles.
If Islamic dress codes are a kind of cloaked (!) form of repression towards women, it has no place in society, and we should be vociferous in our objections. Yet it's important to remember positions are hardening on both sides of the debate, and that the issue of the niqab and hijab is a surrogate for the right to attack multiculturalism in general. Still, we need to speak up. We are not doing ourselves --- or Muslim women --- any favours by shutting up.