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A veiled attack on freedom in France's Niqab debate



 Tuesday, 07 July 2009 



French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the burka or niqab (face cover) have stirred a huge debate in France and in the Muslim world. Sarkozy argued while addressing the French Parliament that niqab is a “sign of [women] debasement” that should be outlawed in France. A parliament commission is reviewing the issue to make recommendations.


   Trying to support Sarkozy’s decision by arguing that niqab is not a religious obligation is absurd, and beside the point 


I do agree that niqab would be a sign of debasement if women were forced to wear it. Taliban’s government forced Afghani women to wear it, and the Saudi regime forces still beats men whose wives walk around the streets of Riyadh without a face veil. Both regimes have been constantly criticized by Muslims and Westerners alike for their human rights abuses and discriminatory positions. But these positions are not any better than that adopted by the French president, forcing women not to wear niqab. Both positions reflect a belief that the individual woman in unqualified and incapable of making decisions for herself.


Trying to support Sarkozy’s decision by arguing that niqab is not a religious obligation is absurd, and beside the point. Women in France being allowed to wear niqab if they choose to has very little to do with France’s respect of Islamic law. It has much more to do with the French government’s respect of minority rights, and of the basic human rights of the few Muslim women choosing to wear niqab in the country.


   I do have respect for women’s individual choices, and I do believe that no law should define what they should or should not wear 


Ironically, this argument comes from the very same people who have for long criticized Muslim scholars for “hijacking” religious text and dictating what interpretation are to be viewed as authentic. Their argument has always been that there are no priests in Islam, and that the holy text is open for interpretation. This rationale is being completely reversed now. My good friend Mona Eltahawy puts herself in that exact position by arguing in her New York Times piece that niqab has “nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.”


I am not a supporter of niqab, and I like the vast majority of Muslim scholars I do not view it as a religious obligation. But the fact is that there is a large school of Muslim scholars who believe that it is a religious obligation, and their views should be respected as long as they do not violate the individual woman’s freedom of choice. I do have respect for women’s individual choices, and I do believe that no law should define what they should or should not wear.


I wrote an OpEd some two years ago supporting Eltahawy when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Chief Akef called her naked for meeting him without hijab (headscarf). In that article I made it clear that I “support Akef’s stance on wearing the hijab, and like him view it as a religious obligation,” but not wearing it “makes a woman unveiled, not naked.” I asserted that while hijab in an obligation, I believe “it is an individual woman’s choice to uphold it — a choice that the state should not interfere in.”


   In fact, the ban on niqab reflects a trend that has been growing in France over the past decades; political diversity with cultural intolerance 


I adopt the same position vis-à-vis niqab. I do not believe it is a religious obligation, and I believe it detaches women who decide to wear it from the society; more specifically from men in the society. But no law should criminalize or restrict an individual’s decision to decrease her social integration, and niqab is not the only manifestation of detachment and should not be singled out and banned. People should be encouraged to engage in their societies through illustrating tolerance, appreciation of diversity and respect for individuals’ choices, not through fascistic measures that dictate what a woman should wear.


In fact, the ban on niqab reflects a trend that has been growing in France over the past decades; political diversity with cultural intolerance. The French government is adopting a version of secularism that is not separating state and religion, but is using the state to dictate specific religious, cultural and social values. Those who accept these values are integrated into the system, while those who rejected it are banned, and marginalized.


I am afraid the notion of liberalism is being twisted to undermine women rights. In fact I would quote President Obama from his speech in Cairo last month saying: “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”


  • Written for AL ARABIYA. Ibrahim El Houdaiby is a freelance columnist and researcher. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, he holds a B.A. in political science and is working towards a M.A. in Islamic Studies at the High Institute of Islamic Studies.
  • All rights reserved for © 2007-2008





1 -

Western citizen

US CITIZEN [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]

What women wear in their home country is up to them. In the West, however, the majority of people want to see the faces of everyone we encounter. Hiding one's face means somethign very negative in the West. It engenders fear. So, Muslim women ought to abide by OUR rules and customs if they come to Western countries, like France. If they don't like our rules, then they ought to stay home. Conversely, if Western women go to Middle Eastern countries, they should abide by their rules of dress.

2 -

What about respect for european culture?

Nicolai [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]

What you always seem to miss with this kind of argument, is that starting with the reformation 1517, over the enlightenment, Europeans have spend the last 400 years fighting religious suppression, and France was the first country to declare a completely secular state, with the first revolution 1789. And therefore this has always been a major topic in France. Add to that the fights for fight for women’s liberal rights some 100 years ago, still going on to some extent, and you would have a better understanding of why, this is a problem to a lot of Europeans. The constant argument put forward by Islamic scholars like yourself, that the scarf is not forced upon Muslim women is mute. Your own article while trying to respect the right of the individual, is still oozing with scorn toward women who chose not to wear it. It may be the case that in most communities, the scarf is not required by law. But if your family disowns you, and other Muslims call you a whore on the streets, if you chose to live the life of an independent woman, the pressure on these young women is so vast, that you can hardly call it a free choice, regardless where they live. I know devote Muslim woman on my university, choosing to wear a Christian cross, (despite seeing themselves as devote Muslims) simply to avoid being insulted when they traveling through Muslim parts of the city, being both unveiled, and traveling alone without a male family member watching them. The concept of the woman being so dangerously arousing that she needs to hide herself, because men (apparently) are unable to control themselves is twisted,and as we can see in a lot of court cases in Islamic countries, the raped woman gets killeds by family members, and the violators gets a very mild sentence, if any , this speaks volumes of the general stance towards the female gender. What you simply fail to understand, is that it’s not a matter of Europeans are specifically critical of Muslims, or Islam, they are on a general scale suspicious of any religion (including Christianity in all forms), that tries to impose sanctions, culturally, socially or by law, on the individual. Religion is a deeply personal matter in Europe. And its taken Europeans hundreds of years to get to this stage of truly personal freedom. It is not acceptable that small communities try to impose their norms on any individual within or without of their own cultural sphere, be they Jews, Muslims or Christians. When I travel to some Islamic countries, I have to accept, in some countries that my wife is required to wear a scarf, or even worse a niqab, and that I myself might be required to wear long trousers, and a shirt, and that’s fine. But if you chose to come to Europe and settle (and you are most welcome) , accept that there is another culture here, with a strong historical past of apposing religious dogma in all forms, if you are unable to accept this, settle in countries more akin to your preferred habitus. Muslims scholars always demand respect for their culture, what about respect for European culture?

3 -


A CANADIAN CTIZEN [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]


4 -

number 2

dan [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]

well said muslims are always demanding respect yet seem unable to give it maybe its best that they all gi home

5 -


SEMPER FI [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]

If an individual chooses to grovel at the feet of some silly old mullah and dress up like a slave, that is his or her choice. But in western countries we have overcome that oppression centuries ago and do not want to ever go back to it. Apparently muslims came to western countries to escape the dark ages that persist where they came from, and if muslims want to remain in western countries they had better get used to western customs. If that is too much of an effort for them, they are welcome to leave.

6 -

Say it, loud.

Realist [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]

France has problem with Muslim people. It does not want them in France. It does not have problem with Islam or a small cloth on top of woman's head. Should not it be better not to waste time on Niqab, there is few hundred for the whole country out of 5 million muslims and most of these are french Muslim converts, and instead have a real debate of Muslims in France?

7 -

ban only the islamic way of dressing, wat abt the rest?

me [ Tuesday, July 07, 2009 ]

funny is... if hijab is to be ban, the call that french imposed for students, and now niqab, i wonder, does anyone bothered to tell the jewish, amish, catholics, buddhaist , hinduism and nuns to stop wearing what they wearing? not all women who wear headscarves are muslims, some are christians..., jews...

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