When the face veil (including both the burqa and the niqab) was banned in France, this was one of the arguments in support of the burqa ban:
‘Women who wear the burqa are coerced to wear it’
This is one of the strangest claims supported by little or no evidence. I know of many Western women who are converts to Islam and who have chosen out of their own free will to observe the veil. They are not forced to wear the Islamic veil by their Christian, Jewish or even atheist parents and relatives!
There are also many women coming from Muslim families who choose to wear the niqab as an act of devotion to their Creator: an act that helps them concentrate on their spiritual and inward journey. In fact, sometimes, their parents or husbands refuse to let them wear the niqab and they will have a hard time persuading their parents or husbands to respect their choice. It does really offend these women when you pass by them and comment: ‘Poor woman! Her husband has forced her to wear it.’
In a handful of countries (such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and parts of Yemen), you can say that there is some kind of ‘societal expectation’. In many places, religion and cultural norms are intertwined. So a Saudi girl may wear the niqab for religious reasons and also because every woman in her family wears it. But even this does not always mean force. In England, people speak English because the society expects them to communicate in this language and because this is something they have learnt since childhood. Does this mean that English people do not love their language or that they are speaking this language against their will? Of course not. Some Western women think that they are free to wear ‘what they want’; whereas they are equally – if not more – subject to social pressures. If tomorrow a Western woman decides to go out in 17th century Western clothing, in an Indian saree, or in a niqab would she expect no strange reactions?
Anyway, in Europe, the situation is completely different. As far as I know, an overwhelming majority of niqabi women in Europe wear it out of ‘personal choice’. They are often strong-willed women who are swimming against the current. Aside from sentimental judgements, are there any statistics suggesting that most if not all of the French niqabi women are forced to cover their faces? Are there any statistics showing that the burqa is closely related to violence against women? Is there any evidence suggesting that there is more violence against women in Muslim families than in non-Muslim ones?
If there is something which is most related to violence against women, it is not the niqab, the burqa, or any other kind of religious clothing. It is alcohol. Would the French government ban the overconsumption of alcohol first in order to protect its women from domestic violence?
This is really a Western colonial attitude: Since we consider uncovering the face and the hair more liberating than covering them, Muslims must do the same. Since we define liberty in this way, Muslims must have the same definition. Muslims should follow our cultural norms, or else they are not civilised.
What kind of liberty is this that even dictates its own definition of liberty? Does freedom mean that we are not free to understand what we mean by freedom? Do we want freedom and liberty to be imposed on us as an ideology from a secular government? Do we want the West or the Western media to dictate us what to think and what not to think? Does the government know better than us what is good for us and what is not?
For us Muslims, freedom does not mean to be free from religion. It means to be free in religion. It does not mean to be free in following one’s desires, but to be free from the prison of our egos and our never-ending desires. If the French government – or any other Western government – really values freedom, they should realise that we are free to have our own understanding of freedom; even if it is different from theirs.
I do not deny that there are some men who force their wives to wear the niqab. But there are also men who force their wives not to wear the niqab. There are parents who do not allow their daughters to wear the hijab. There are men who force their wives to wear revealing clothes or high-heel shoes. Is niqab the only type of garment that can be forced? How do we know that Indian women are not forced by their husbands to wear the saree? How do we know that Sikh boys are not forced by their fathers to wear the turban?
I simply cannot understand the logic behind this argument: If one wants to ban an item of clothing because there is a possibility of some force or coercion, then one must ban every single item of clothing and in fact every single thing. Coercion and domestic violence are already banned – and rightly so -; but if the government decides to ban the burqa because women can be forced to wear them, it should also ban revealing clothes because women are also often forced to wear them especially in the West.
If it is wrong for husbands to dictate what their wives should wear, is it not also wrong for the state to dictate what women should wear and should not wear? In fact, to be coerced by a government – regardless of whether the government enforces the hijab/niqab or outlaws it – is even worse than being influenced by one’s parents, siblings or spouse. When a woman obeys her husband (even in something she personally does not agree with), she does so because she loves and respects her husband; but when she obeys the government, she does so simply to avoid getting fined. This is because government-citizen relationship is not an intimate relationship.
Besides, why is it unacceptable for a woman to be influenced by her husband, parents, religion or culture – but totally acceptable for her to be influenced by the state media, by advertisements, by corporations, by the latest fashions, by the secular education system and all the other things that tell citizens how to think and how to behave? Why is the former called oppression and not the latter?
What does really degrade and subjugate women? The hijab, niqab and other forms of modest dress? Or sex magazines, pornography, nude photos, tight jeans, revealing clothing, and all of the other products that came out of the Western world? If we are really concerned about women and their value in the society, why not ban these things instead?
We have a country like France in which prostitution is legalized. It is perfectly fine to go out in public wearing something that covers no more than the genital area. In the very same country, women are fined for covering their faces: for emulating the saintly women of the first generation of Islam. Do we live in an upside-down world?
If the Iranian government imposes its interpretation of Islam on the population, it is condemned by the West as being undemocratic. But what about France? Is it not imposing its own interpretation of secularism on the people? What makes France any more free and democratic than Iran? Why is it so bad to restrict people’s freedom in the name of religion but good to do so in the name of irreligion or secularism? Who has said that exposing one’s hair or face is more liberating than covering it?
Some people say that the French ban is not specific to Islam; “the French law is religion-neutral and refers only to a generic face-covering”. We all know that this law is not religion-neutral. No one objects to a non-Muslim French woman pulling her hat down over her ears and wrapping her scarf around her head to protect herself from cold weather. No one objects to people wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the flu. No one says that these people are threats to the country’s security. No one says that dentists, surgeons, doctors, ice-skaters or motorcyclists are oppressed because they cover their faces while at work. Therefore, the problem is not covering the face. Covering the face becomes problematic only if it is associated with a religion, and particularly with Islam.
They oppose the niqab not because it covers the face (or else they would also outlaw surgical masks, helmets and scarves) but because it is an expression of Islamic identity. All of the other arguments supporting the burqa ban are lame and poor excuses. Throughout centuries, the Western civlisation has always imposed itself upon the rest of the globe. Muslims do not want to impose themselves upon the West. They only want to be themselves. They want to be free to understand and practice their religion. They want to be free to be Muslims, and to willingly submit their will to Allah’s will. Insha’ Allah.