For Muslim Women, Veil Is Power And Beauty
By Riad Saloojee, For The Calgary Herald October 14, 2009
Nothing can carve out cultural divides quite like the issue of the Islamic head covering (hijab) or face veil (Niqaab). Both continue to be the subject of not only debate but legislation the world over. We are not immune. Few Canadians would be unfamiliar with Quebec and its history with scarf-wearing Canadian Muslim learners. The issue has exhibited a tenacious longevity but, alarmingly, it continues to be hotly contested in ways that rarely rise to a sphere of mature discourse so essential to the functioning of any healthy civic society.
A case in point is the recent discussions on the topic, fuelled by plans of the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University to forbid entry to women students who don the face veil. No sooner than the reported plans were revealed, did the Canadian Muslim Congress call on Canada to ban the face veil. The arguments raged from the face veil being a “symbol of Islamic extremism,” a “medieval practice,” the result of a patriarchal “male misogyny” and a “security risk.” The head scarf and the face veil, it was asserted, are “alien” to Islam, and the Islamic primary sources speak nothing of them.
The arguments were trite in that they summarized the prevailing wisdom of the antagonists; they were troubling in that they were generalizing, absolute and boldly simplistic.
The face veil is not a symbol of Islamic extremism, if extremism is understood as political violence against innocents. From the earlier inceptions of Islam, some Muslim women have worn face veils, believing, as they did then and do now, that it is either a religious prescription or something meritorious. Marrying the face veil with political violence is nothing more than a fanciful stretch.
The issue of the face veil within Islam is even clearer. More than 1,400 years of mainstream classical and modern Islamic scholarship have asserted that the head scarf and face veil have a religious basis, much of which is reported in explicit texts which are so numerous they cannot possibly be denied by any objective study of Islamic jurisprudence. Difference does arise as to which, the head scarf or face veil, is mandatory and scholars differ in opinion. And a radically dissenting view of one scholar in the corpus of the Islamic legacy is just that: the view of one scholar. But the religious and legal basis of the veil is a consistent feature in mainstream scholarship and the most elementary books on jurisprudence. Like it or not, it can’t be wished away. More liberal Muslims, and others, may well want to wish it away. The recent audacity of declaring the religious foundation as non-existent displays more than a callous ignorance to a long-standing legacy of scholarship –it robs hundreds of millions of Muslim women who wear the head scarf or face veil of any agency or religious sensibility. What are they–Muslim women from China in the East to the U. S. in the West–if not sequestered automatons?
Perhaps the idea might be a bitter pill to swallow but many, if not most, Muslim women root the veil in their values of modesty, a reclamation of femininity –even humanity–in the face of the ever-increasing commodification of women, a tipping of power in their favour through covering, a proud fusion of their spirituality and identity. For many, it is not and never was paternalism and patriarchy. For many, it is beautiful. At any rate, a point and counter-point that aims to convince is futile; what really matters is the daring to walk a little in the other’s shoes.
The characterization of face veils as a security risk also betrays a torrid ignorance of Islamic sources. Classical scholars have long acknowledged that a face veil, while a personal right, is never absolute. The state has the right to demand a temporary unveiling in issues of business or testimony and, a fortiori, public safety. Such exceptions can obviously be handled privately, but they represent a cogent consideration of broader social, economic and political needs.
The essence of our democracy is the sanity to agree to disagree. And the evidence for the call for a ban for the face veil rests on a threadbare premise: personal diktat. No self-respecting democracy allows personal diktat to heft legislation to crush basic expression and criminalize it.
Has this debate become so emotionalized that this fundamental linchpin principle becomes a plaything of fear mongering? Gangway to a slippery slope: let’s deny veil-wearers entry to basic education, curb them from jobs in public service, fine them, and veil them with bars of iron.
Riad Saloojee Is A Canadian Lawyer And Member Of The Canadian Council Of American-Islamic Relations’s Advisory Board. He Is A Full-Time Student In Arabic And Islamic Jurisprudence.
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