By Adnan Syed
It does not matter if niqab is indeed mandated by Islam or not. For those few hundred women out of 1 Million Muslims living in Canada, or for that matter in Europe or anywhere in the world, niqab is mandated by Islam. They prefer to move around behind this hideous and dehumanizing dress, happy with their chastity preserved, away from the prying eyes of lustful men, and feeling liberated while being covered from head to toe.
They and I can go on quoting our versions of whether niqab is mandated by Islam, or it is a redundant cultural attic from tribal and patriarchal societies that we just do not want to part with.
There are many pseudo religious practices that the modern societies have banished. From the extreme Hindu religious practice of Sati, to the female genital mutilation that is still disturbingly practiced in the Muslim African societies, the world has taken a clear stand against the atrocities in the name of religion. Such practices go against the principles of equality and welfare of the population; where members of the society are either coerced into acting in a certain way, or are too young and helpless to stop their own genital mutilation.
We have also examples of extreme Christian sects that have indulged in widespread polygamy in the name of religion and the states have come down hard on them, thereby forcing them to practice the polygamy in secretive societies. Freedom to act in the name of religion is absolutely not limitless. There are clear instances when religious followers have engaged in self destructive manner (refusing to get modern medical treatment for kids afflicted with cancer), but their religious views were trumped by the state in the name of these people’s safety.
But first, what are the non issues about the Niqab; There are known medical issues with women in Afghanistan who have developed serious medical conditions due to the absence of Vitamin D. We can also argue that niqab disengages a person from integrating into a society. After all, the communication between two people is less words and more intonations, facial expressions and body language. People have speculated that a woman wearing a full niqab has less peripheral vision and is therefore a danger to herself and for people around her if she is driving.
Yet, we cannot assume that niqab is forced upon Muslim women in the western societies, and the state ought to liberate the women from this symbol of male dominance to keep the women’s chastity intact from strangers’ eyes. It is almost impossible to prove this hypothesis, especially when many women clearly are choosing this dress voluntarily to realize their own version of empowerment. For a state to goad its members to emancipate is a slippery slope that will set dangerous precedents. We usually associate this stern behaviour with the modern day Saudis or the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we force women to stop wearing burqa today, then tomorrow states will be stopping men from having excessively long beards. If medical issues are taken as a reason to stop women from wearing full body clothes, then tomorrow it will be states creating legislation for its residents to live in a certain way to maximize their health. It is state’s responsibility to educate its residents, but the decision to adopt certain lifestyle rests with the residents.
An open society cannot ask all of its members to conform to the way majority lives; even if it means that certain minority practices create an impression of exclusivity or segregation. It is the right of individuals to practice their faith as long as they don’t endanger others.
Niqab is not a religious issue. If it was, then Hutterites, Hasidic Jewish women or Amish women would have been the first ones to be forced to conform their bulky and disengaging dresses that they don day in and out.
Niqab is different from hijab, or a Christian Nun’s dress or a traditional Jewish garb due to the fact that niqab conceals the whole face. Face concealment is what distinguishes niqab as not a religious argument, but a society’s safety issue.
The debate about burqa comes down to this single word: safety. The single most relevant point here is this: For a tiny portion of Muslim women in the West, and even in the Muslim countries, is niqab incompatible with society values for safety? At what point, does a society comes in and says that enough, freedom to practice religion should not come at the cost of making the rest of the society, and even the individual herself, unsafe. At some point, the state mandates legislation, compelling the individuals to act in a certain way to ensure the individuals’ own welfare.
Take a simple example of burqa driving; if it is proven that burqa impedes proper vision for safe driving, it must be disallowed for burqa clad women to drive the automobiles. This action is akin to the seat belt laws that most countries have in place. These laws are designed for the individuals’ own safety, since studies have conclusively shown that seat belt saves lives.
Now imagine a fully burqa clad woman milling around in a crowded enclosed shopping mall. This person has an unfair advantage over all the other people. The person is faceless and absolutely unrecognizable. Any other person dealing with the niqabi woman has no way of ascertaining who he is dealing with. If a fraud is perpetrated by the niqabi woman, and detected later, the other party is helpless to recognize the person that committed that fraud. The primary safeguard in our daily dealings, facial recognition, is simply not there.
Take this example one step further; a faceless woman is milling in the shopping mall which is thronged with hundreds of people. This burqa clad woman (or a man) is strapped with a potent bomb. There is sweat running down her face, she is nervous, there are deep doubts gnawing in her chest about the wanton destruction and loss of life that she (or he) is going to perpetrate. Yet for hundreds of innocent people around her, there is no way of detecting a nervous individual whose body looks slightly out of proportion due to the massive suicide belt wrapped around the body. There is just no way for any security guard to realize that the nervous looking person is out to do a massive mischief. The full body and face covering have masked all the first lines of defence that are available to helpless people going about doing the basic chore of daily shopping; facial and body language recognition.
It is not only that a niqabi woman has the right to practice her faith and fully hide herself. We have a right to at least see her face, and be assured that it is she who she is. There have been cases of niqab clad men robbing jewellery stores in Canada and in Europe. There have been burqa clad assassins in Pakistan that managed to get away unrecognized after their kill.
It is not about practicing religion any way we wish. It is about whether a religious practice goes against the welfare and safety of other society residents. It is not just a burqa clad woman’s right to wear what she wants. The society has the right to recognize her face as well, for society’s own safety.
No one is asking women to throw away the niqab altogether. But facial recognition is a must in a society in the name of safety. It does not need to be a major suicide bombing by a niqabi clad woman or man to realize this fact that a faceless person walking in the middle of crowds is a major security risk. Freedom to practice religion is not unlimited. A faceless masked person has no place in modern societies not because their practice of covering themselves is outdated. A faceless mask needs to be outlawed since it gives that individual anonymity that has and will be used for nefarious purposes due to their ability to stay unrecognized.
Niqab at its heart is simply not a religious argument.