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.
The true origin of the 'veil' in Islam
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.
Modern veil symbolizes division, ignorance
Beyond symbolizing the precepts of religion in this unique post 9-11 era, veils also graphically articulate the widening chasm between West and East. In some minds, the veil demarcates profound and irreconcilable ideological divides. As throughout history, the veil continues to be a stark visual trope that brutally bifurcates. Veils have long divided society by gender in the past, and today, even more so, by politic.
Today, the veil is undeniably the international symbol of Islam. Such a symbol ironically obscures the faith’s complexity and pluralism into a single faceless monolith. Every day, Muslim women are veiled, unveiled, de-veiled, or re-veiled, and their positions in relation to fabric are often overtly political and frequently shifting. As the veil has become a political statement in the migrant Muslim Diaspora, it is frequently mistaken for a symbol of devotion, most often by ritualistic Muslims themselves.
Because of the niqab, Muslim women generate attention, rather than deflect it – the exact opposite of the principle of veiling. They obscure the long-forgotten ideal of Islamic veiling (a dedication to chaste modesty and dignified purity) that extends well beyond either clothing or gender, foolishly relegating a rich philosophy into mere cloth. Islam mandates modesty of the male Muslim as much as of the Muslim woman, through conduct, not necessarily specific garment – a principle smothered in today’s revival of rote ritualism.
These Islamist Muslims push the limits of societal tolerance beyond the pale, provoking latent intolerance. The Netherlands is perhaps the most inflamed example of this today. Their actions, and not the state’s, ultimately limit the progress and acceptance of all Muslims, whatever the extent of our external symbols of Islam.
Worse, through their own innate ignorance of Islam, these Islamists contribute to profound fragmentation of their adopted society, espousing insurrection that threatens the state from within. This destruction of the host society is anathema to the believing Muslim and deeply against Islamic ideals, which demand cohesion and collaboration at the broadest societal level, irrespective of the nature of that society’s leadership.
Will Muslims protest false Islam?
France’s ban is not to be demonized but lauded. In the short term, it will be painful and ugly and certainly likely to deepen the poles around the extraordinary trope of the veiled Muslim woman. However, this ban is a necessary evil in order to curtail the advancement of rigid expressions of a false Islam into greater positions of influence.
Yet within this civil turmoil, there may be some gain. Limiting face-veils to a private practice within the home can yield a more cohesive society, if only Western authorities are courageous enough to carry this through. Authorities will succeed only if they are supported by educated Muslims intimate with the nuances of veiling beyond a literal construction.
Sarkozy, in his absolute refusal of France’s intimidation to encroaching Islamism, has gifted an unparalleled opportunity for Muslims everywhere. Rather than explain veiling to the non-Muslim, it is the Muslim populations in the diaspora whom we must teach. Muslim women in particular have a central role to play in this dialogue.
As Muslim women, we must always remember that we are more than our womanhood. We are Muslims first, women second. We are more than our modesty, whether it is swathed in fabric or faith. We are more than these practices, whether mandated by men at home, or men of state. In this regard, Sarkozy’s ban is, in fact, not a test of France’s tolerance, but rather a test of our own.
Can Muslims overcome the rigid myopia of Islamism that emerges from within our midst? Or will we, too, be smothered in a veil of our own making – the asphyxiating veil of ignorance that threatens to strangle us all?
Qanta A. Ahmed is the author of “In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her experience practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook; honorary professor at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland; and a 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter @MissDiagnosis, and her Huffington Post blog.