Countries from Italy to Sweden are debating the right of women to wear the niqab. Canada is the latest country to enter the fray, with the Muslim Canadian Congress desiring to ban it. Is such a ban possible in the U.S., where its prevalence is evident in certain urban centers, like Philadelphia?
Muslim women's wearing of niqab, the veil covering everything but the eyes, and, by extension, the face-concealing mesh that is combined with a long garment to form the burqa in South Asia, has been introduced into the West as a purported religious obligation, and therefore, is put forward by ideological Islamists as a prospective civil right.
Niqab has become a matter of controversy in almost every Western country, most recently when the French government opened an inquiry into its prohibition – with the support, perhaps counter-intuitive, of that country's leading Muslim figure, Dr. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris. France had already banned all forms of religious dress and symbolism from its state schools. In 2008, Dutch State Secretary for Education Ronald Plasterk, representing the immigrant-friendly Labor Party, called for banning niqab, as well as the burqa and abaya, from the country's primary and secondary schools, both for pupils and for visiting mothers.
The burqa, with its niqab-like eyescreen, is barred from British and some Belgian public schools. Earlier controversies include Quebec's 2007 decision that women must remove niqab if they vote, and a demand in 2006 by British Labour politician Jack Straw that women take off niqab before visiting his constituency office.
The U.S. has seen a number of bizarre attempts to establish niqab as a right. In 2001, Sultaana Freeman obtained a Florida driver's license while wearing niqab, but the license was then canceled.
Niqab is not the same as other practices often referred to generally as "veils" or "veiling" like the:
- hijab, or head-covering,
- the abaya, a loose full-body covering imposed on women in Saudi Arabia , although it is required in that kingdom that it be supplemented by niqab,
- the chador, an Iranian cloak,
- or jilbab, a loose garment covering the body except for the head, face, and hands.
Distinctions between these and various Western styles for women are difficult to make, especially in a civil-liberties environment. Head scarves and long coats or cloaks are worn by many women in cultures around the world, non-Muslim as well as Muslim. But since a hijab or head-covering may resemble a hat, it may be prohibited for all women in certain settings. Also in 2007, a Georgia judge barred a Muslim woman from entering court unless she removed her hijab, just as men and women are required to take off hats and caps when a judge is present. The radical Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) unsuccessfully challenged the judge's decision on the false claim of religious freedom. But religious claims do not override judicial practice, at least in the U.S., any more than they would justify carrying a driver's license that conceals the bearer's identity.
Niqab as a security problem encourages non-Muslim suspicion of Muslims, since it encourages Muslims toward separatism from their non-Muslim neighbors. And the security issue is real. Male terrorists in such varied countries as Pakistan, Britain, Afghanistan, and Israel have donned female coverings in attempting to escape police. Ordinary criminals have put on niqab as a disguise while committing robberies in the U.S., Britain, Canada, India, and Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Niqab is not Islamic. Covering of the face by women is nowhere mentioned in Qur'an, and the opinions of Islamic legal scholars on it are not unanimous. The Hanafi school of Islamic law, which is most widespread among Muslims, specifically rules out face covering, on the basis of women's needs while dealing normally with men, in commerce and elsewhere. In traditional Islam, men are called on to act modestly, and women are not ordered to disfigure and subordinate themselves by masking their features. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said that women making the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca should not cover their faces or wear gloves, although in their typically perverse manner, Saudi Wahhabi clerics now seek to impose it upon them even then.
Millions of Muslim women around the world do not wear so-called Islamic dress, but have retained local customary garments, which do not distort their form or personality. Many have adopted the same fashions as Western or Far-Eastern women. Women in Hejaz, the Western Arabian region in which the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located, did not, in the past, cover their faces, and increasingly protest against the imposition of this practice.
The radicals who promote niqab try to pretend that a woman becomes a "better Muslim" by covering her face. This concept is no more Islamic than niqab itself. In traditional Islam, division of Muslims between the good and the bad, aside from those who have committed terrorist or criminal acts, will be decided by God, not by men or women.
According to established Islamic guidance, Muslims who migrate to non-Muslim societies are required to accept and obey the laws and customs of the countries to which they move. Attempts to introduce niqab into Western countries represent an obvious violation of this principle.
Western nations have developed a doctrine of "reasonable accommodation" of religious beliefs and practices. But acceptance of niqab in the West would embody "unreasonable accommodation."
Appeals for an immediate ban on niqab or face-coverings in Western countries are, in the view of many moderate Muslims, correct. To rid the Muslim world of niqab will require a sustained debate and social development in each country where it is presently found, based on a pluralistic discussion leading to its recognition as a non-Islamic, and dehumanizing, practice.
Author Irfan Al-Alawi is international director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism and a contributor to Islamist Watch. Stephen Suleyman Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, D.C. and a contributor to Islamist Watch