The Niqab Debate, 1: Beyond the Veil

Over the next few days, we will run various articles that debate the arguments for and against the niqab legislation that is underway in European countries. Niqab, or full face and body covering introduces a conundrum in Western societies, and we suspect this issue will not be limited to only the Western societies in the near future. While religious considerations must be respected in secular democracies, there come instances when the religious argument runs afoul of the society safety and welfare of its members. We must remember that the argument is between extreme interpretations of religion that runs against the law of the land. There have been reports of Jehovah’s Witness members refusing modern medical treatment. The Western Governments took clear stand against the fact that extremely sick people were not treated in the name of religion. Canada has seen observant Sikhs demanding their religious and symbolic right to carry ceremonial sword, yet the state stood against this extreme interpretation of Sikh tenets.

Does the Niqab symbolize extreme Islamic values, or is it a cultural issue. Does it keep women sequestered in urban ghettos in societies that encourage women to participate? Do women that don burqa day in and out suffer from serious medical conditions due to the absence of Vitamin D? Is a sight of completely faceless person covered from head to toe a security concern for the hundreds of people walking in the same enclosed space with that same person? Niqab is indeed a complicated yet fascinating issue as an increasingly secular world seeks to accommodate free practice of religion in its diverse and multi-religious societies. 

(Editors- PTH)

Beyond the Veil

Monday, April 5th, 2010

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

– American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald

By Fitzgerald’s standards, the wave of anti-veil rhetoric sweeping across Europe has probably catapulted the continent’s politicians into the intellectual equivalent of the Andromeda galaxy.

Consider the following quote from a liberal Belgian MP following a vote that could put that country on track to be the first in Europe to ban the burqa and niqab: “It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual. Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society.” The vote was unanimous, from the Greens to the far right.

When politicians see no contradiction in curbing religious expression by evoking liberalism and tolerance, well, something’s up.

Belgium is not alone. Eight of Germany’s 16 states contain restrictions on wearing the hijab. Throughout that country women in burqa or chador are forbidden to drive motor vehicles. A 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools bans all clothing which constitutes an ostensible religious symbol from government-operated schools (including Jews and Christians). The Netherlands took steps to implement a burqa and headscarf ban, but no action has been taken despite overwhelming public support.

Many of the countries that have implemented bans or are considering doing so have attempted, often to hilariously contradictory effect, to rationalize their actions. The laws are being passed for the women’s own good. Women who wear the headscarf, niqab or burqa are being forced to do so by troglodyte male relatives, so the state must swoop in to save them from this demeaning second class citizen status. To paraphrase Orwell, slavery does not equal freedom.

All this blather is utter nonsense. There have been no statistics published that demonstrate that women who cover are being forced to do so by their families. Is it possible and indeed likely that some girls and women who wear the niqab and burqa would prefer to assimilate to Western society and go about uncovered? Can it be that many women and girls are being forced by their relatives, both male and female, to adhere to tradition? Of course. But there is no evidence to suggest that every covered women has chosen to adhere to this form of dress as a result of coercion.

The truth is very simple, as truth usually is. The Europeans have grown increasingly worried about the inability of some Muslim immigrant communities to assimilate. The Mohammed cartoon riots and the murder of Theo van Gogh underscored the fear and loathing building in Europe. Covered women simply become the most obvious symbol of a group perceived as being intolerant and parochial. Liberate them and their narrow-minded relatives will learn by example.

That and women in Niqab and burqas make Westerners uncomfortable, plain and simple. It is a form of religious dress closely associated with societies known for beheadings, stoning, child marriages and other atrocities.

The storm over veils, burqas and other coverings is a sham, a fig leaf used by craven European politicians to pander to their voters while avoiding the heavy lifting necessary to ensure that Muslim women living in the West are afforded actual rights. The governments of those countries would go a long way if they dropped the obsessive focus on headgear and instead allocated resources to helping women in immigrant communities understand their legal rights, including directing them to women’s shelters to escape domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation — as well as enforcing harsh penalties on the perpetrators. On these issues Europe’s politicians have been less than enthusiastic to act.

Finally, if European governments want to ban the burqa and hijab they can do so for security reasons. No society would consider it acceptable to allow its citizens to walk around in balaclavas or Klan hoods or any other article of clothing that hides the identity of the wearer.

Maybe that can be the new slogan: In a public place, you must show your face.



Filed under culture, Democracy, human rights, Pakistan, Religion, Rights, secularism, violence, Women

28 responses to “The Niqab Debate, 1: Beyond the Veil

  1. Its a good initiative to put this issue for arguments and critical analysis….will try to participate as the debate goes further…

  2. Rashid Saleem

    In my opinion “Niqaab” is more of a personal choice with inspirations from culture and religion. But the ultimate choice to do it must be left to the person. We cannot force someone to do it or abandon it. Both sorts of extremist ideologies need to be confronted. If the woman doing it is happy with it and it’s her choice, let her do it. If she doesn’t want to do it, let her choose for herself. Live and let live.

  3. Sher Zaman

    Wearing headgears or Niqab is first and foremost the choice of the wearer, unless she is forced to do so. Enactment of a law that prohibits women from wearing Niqab won’t do any good, as by doing this they will go against their self proclaimed secularism.

  4. Mustafa Shaban

    Very interesting topic. I believe a women should not be coerced into anything, she is free to wear what she likes. The burqa may have issues but nobody has the right to forbid a women to wear it.

    It is not a must to wear burqa, niqab according to Islamic Law. So every women is free to choose.

    Also I believe the European politicians are becoming very anti muslim, the Swiss minaret case is a good example of that.

  5. Mustafa Shaban

    This is a lecture by Sheikh Ammar Nakshawani on the Niqab controversy and the islamic significance of it.

  6. A god article.

    Readers could also refer to Christine Delphy’s article on this issue.

  7. Its not a matter of choice, where the choice come from, from religious obligations as interpreted by the literal and hardliner interpreters of religions, as these interpretations are condemnable, all the obligations drawn and extracted from such interpretations are equally condemnable…why we want to be more pious than the pope…

  8. What we are practicing in the name of religious practices are never practiced in the whole history of muslim monarchies…
    It is mere hypocricy that we at our countries oppose secular traditions, liberties and equality beyond religious descrimination, but when it comes to India or west, we expect them to tolerate our cultural dogmas labelled as religiosity…

  9. fair mind

    I think the best way to solve all the issues related to Islam in Europe is to propagate peaceful, rational, tolerant, inspiring, loving, non-sectarian message of Islam. A great foundations and example was set by Khawaja Kamal Ud Din and his friends in 1912 in form of Woking Muslim Mission, UK. Unfortunately, since early 1970s Mullah-Mafia has made every effort to subotage that mission and its efforts in Europe. And even by force usurped the very same mosque and building.

  10. Ron

    Looking at a person’s face while speaking with him/her is VERY IMPORTANT

    Its actually a part of real life communication.

    Facial expression often indicate many things!

  11. Tilsim

    Even if it were not for the current highly charged political atmosphere, the burqa and Europe’s tolerance for personal freedom in clothing (or promiscuity for some) are opposites in a sense and do not sit well together. The burqa is purportedly about hiding a woman’s physical appearance so as to protect them (and men) from falling prey to sin. Europeans tolerated the burqa as long it was perceived as a dying trend amongst a small minority who might eventually assimilate.

    Now more inflexible and narrow interpretations of Islam are on the increase amongst a small but growing group of European muslims; as a result more and more women are chosing to wear the hijab with some reverting to the burqa. In contrast, non-muslim European cultural and societal attitudes are continually evolving towards greater tolerance for all aspects of sexuality which can be considered sinful in a traditional Islamic cultural context.

    Europe’s patience and tolerance towards certain aspects of traditional Islamic culture, including it’s proscriptive attitude towards certain aspects of sexual behaviour have waned after 9/11 and subsequent terrorist events in Europe. There is also a huge amount of ignorance or misinformation amongst Europeans about Islam and the variety of Muslim attitudes towards the burqa and it’s various manifestations such as the hijab – this ignorance further fuels the growing lack of tolerance. Many Europeans believe that the burqa represents the suppression of women and as such is against European ideals. Of course, I suspect good old fashioned racism also plays a part in the mix of attitudes, particularly in France and central Europe.

    So far rational arguments in support of not banning the burqa have not assuaged the anti-veiling lobby in Europe. Whilst it is a strong argument to highlight the importance of personal choice for a woman if she choses to wear a burqa, Europeans are unlikely to accept this as a fundamental human right when they are under attack by terrorists and they feel that fundamentalist/wahabi Islam is a cause of the problem. Every culture or society has it’s own lines that cannot be easily crossed.

  12. Tilsim

    @ Ron
    I have heard the argument before against the burqa articulated the way that you have. I believe Jack Straw, the former Foreign secretary in the UK made this argument too:

    However I don’t believe it’s a strong one as one can of course communicate by email or telephone without seeing facial expressions. This issue is really more complex than that for some of the reasons I outlined above.

  13. Midfield Dynamo

    When in Rome do as the Romans do.
    What if the situation was reversed, the europeans would be imposing their fashion in Swat or FATA. Imagine the reaction, flogging, stoning, cutting of noses would be some of the traditional punishments decreed for the guitly. In view of which it seems that the europeans are in fact exercising a good deal of restraint.

  14. fair mind

    @Midfield Dynamo
    “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

    Howcome when Europeans, canadains, french go to Muslim country e.g pakistan and consume alcohol, have their boy friend/ girl friend and commit fornication adultery?
    Alcohol consumption and fornication/adultery is prohibited in pakistani law.

  15. @fair mind
    You better read “Breaking the Curfew” by Emma Duncan, U are leading the debate on narrow pathline….In Pakistan the company having Al Makkah Cola has its main distribution office in the same premises where the same owner has a bar also….

  16. Khullat

    Now let’s see. We should be just – right? No biases for or against – right? Muslim women should not be allowed to wear the hijab – right? Nuns should not be allowed to wear their headgear – right? Sikh men should not be allowed to wear turbans – right? Sikhs should not be allowed to carry kirpans – right? Christians should not be allowed to wear the Cross-pendants – right? Hindu women should not be allowed to wear the tilak – right? The Pope should not be allowed to wear his Papal tiara – right? Women in West Africa should not be allowed to wear turbans, which by the way are not Muslim-specific, – right? The Dalai Lama should not be allowed to wear his Red robe – right? Jews should not be allowed to wear the kippah – right?


  17. Bin Ismail


    You are so right.

  18. Midfield Dynamo

    Khullat, you are so right.
    Politically wrong though, all of this by the others is done so inobtrusively that no one is finding it to be a threat, on the other hand we are making it out to be a threatening statement.

  19. fair mind

    I’m only questioning the notion “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

  20. fair mind

    You are so right.

    But what is the solution?

    I think the only method to properly educate these Dajjali nations (Caucasian Christian nations), to change their attitude towards islam/Muslims, along with Muslims to change their attitude towards Dajjali nations, is the one that was initiated by Kawaja Kamal udDin and his friends in form of ‘Woking Muslim Mission’, Surrey, UK in 1912.

  21. Khullat

    @ Midfield Dynamo

    Those who make it appear obtrusive, do so by negating the Quranic fundamental of “Laa ikraaha fid deen”(Quran 2:256) meaning ‘there is no compulsion in matters of religion’.

    I’m sure you are equally mindful of obtrusion towards Muslims.

    @ fair mind

    The solution – the solution, once again, is the spirit of “Laa ikraaha fid deen”(Quran 2:256) meaning ‘there is no compulsion in matters of religion’. This rules out all kinds of coercion in matters of faith, towards anybody. In my opinion religious tolerance is not good enough. Respect and regard for the other’s beliefs and sensibilities is also needed.

  22. Nusrat Pasha

    @ Khullat

    Well said. The Holy Quran actually aims at inculcating in its reader and follower an attitude of tolerance, accommodation and acceptance with complete and absolute religious freedom for all. The following references from the Quran deserve attention :

    1: ” There is NO coercion in matters of religion. ” (2:256 )
    2: ” Whoever chooses to believe LET him believe and whoever chooses to disbelieve LET him disbelieve ” (18:29)
    3: ” Permission to fight is given ONLY to those against whom war is waged, because they have been wronged ” (32:39).
    4: ” Your religion is for you and my religion is for me ” (109:6)

  23. Tilsim

    Folks, whilst a lot of the points being made on this posts focus on the personal choice of the burqa wearer, the fact is that many Europeans are not listening to this strong argument because they feel threatened by a perception of growing extremism amongst European muslims.

    Arguments centred around personal choice won’t cut the mustard on this issue. Fundamentalist European muslims also have a responsibility to win the confidence and favour of their fellow Europeans by going the extra mile to reject so called ‘Muslims’ who are silent or otherwise supporting terrorism and extremism. Some progress has indeed been made in this regard but much more needs to be done. Muslims have to be seen to be actively shunning the lunatic fringe and not simply talking about their right to choice or that complaining they are being discriminated against (which they are for the reasons that I have mentioned earlier).

  24. Midfield Dynamo

    Let us send a bunch of padres and nuns with their cloaks and crosses and staffs, or the half naked Hindu gurus painted and smoking cheroot, or European teenage punks wearing S&M clothing into the heart of FATA, what do you think would be their fate?
    When I have read your answer perhaps I will be in a position to elaborate further on the debate.

  25. fair mind2

    @Midfield Dynamo
    Are you saying Europeans living in France, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Austria are as barbarous as people living in FATA???

  26. Bin Ismail

    Extremism is on the rise globally. A global sensitization is needed. How do we categorize the collateral “damage” caused during the US military action in Iraq? How do we categorize the surge of Mullaism in Pakistan? How do we categorize Muslim-Christian riots in Nigeria? How do we categorize banning of the minaret in Switzerland, and hijab in France? How do categorize Shiv Sena in India?

    Not just Muslims – everybody will have to walk the extra mile to eradicate this global surge in extremism.

    As for Muslims, they have to realize that as an article of faith they are not permitted by the Quran to exercise coercion, of any sort, in matters of religion.

  27. Khullat

    @ Midfield Dynamo

    If the fanatical and militant mullahs of FATA are wrong, that does not logically conclude that the West is right. Religious intolerance, whether in FATA or in the West, or for that matter anywhere is wrong.

    In fact, we have to move ahead of being simply tolerant. Who am I to tolerate or not to tolerate someones religious beliefs? As I said earlier, allow me to repeat that “religious tolerance” alone is not good enough. If Humanity as a community is to survive and flourish, it will have to learn 2 elementary things:

    1. To go a step ahead of “tolerance”. To learn to accommodate and respect.

    2. To keep Religion separate from State.

  28. Tilsim

    Friends, this is a great thread. I think lots of thought provoking arguments here but I feel we need to find the most effective way to first get the European anti-Niqab movement to enter into a dialogue before these points are heard . Allow me to introduce you to a useful book that I read on exercising influence: the U perspective – the art of getting what you want by author Lee Miller. To quote, Miller says: “Since our beliefs and values are developed over time, on a subconscious level, most people simply assume that everyone sees the world the way they do. Even when we recognize that someone else sees a situation differently than we do, our first instinct usually is to try to persuade them to see things our way. The U Perspective takes the opposite approach. Its effectiveness is not rooted in the ability to convince others to change their views or adopt different values. Instead, its power comes from recognizing what others already believe and want and providing solutions based on that information.” Food for thought if you want to influence another culture with your arguments.

    btw I am against the Niqab but do see the unfairness in an outright ban for those who chose to wear it as a matter of personal faith.