West must respect the Muslim veil

June 27, 2009 - 0:0

Sarkozy should not seek to dictate to women who follow Islam about what they can and cannot wear.

Speaking in Cairo, U.S. President Barack Obama recently criticized a French law that prohibits Muslim girls and women from wearing body and face-covering garments in public schools. “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,” Obama said.
However, this week French President Nicolas Sarkozy supported attempts to bar Muslim women from wearing body-cloaking robes such as the burqa. “The burqa is not a religious sign,” Sarkozy said. “It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”
Sarkozy is not the first major political leader to speak out on matters of Muslim women's dress. In October 2006 Jack Straw, former home secretary, commented in on the wearing of the face veil (the niqab) by Muslim women. Writing in the Lancashire Telegraph on October 5, 2006, Straw argued that it was a “visible statement of separation and of difference”. His comments created a national debate that at the time drew other notable political figures to make similar claims: prime minister Tony Blair, then chancellor Gordon Brown and the shadow leader of the opposition, David Cameron.
The veil is often portrayed by its critics, whether in France or in Turkey, as a symbol of women's inferior status in Islam. Opponents link veiling with backwardness and oppression and Western dress with individuality and freedom. Critics of veiling, Muslim and non-Muslim, stress the importance of self-expression, which they associate with the distinctive way in which a woman dresses and wears her hair.
Supporters of veiling explain that they choose to wear the hijab because it provides freedom from emphasis on the physical and from competing with other women's looks as well as from being sex objects for males to reject or approve. It enables women to focus on their spiritual, intellectual and professional development. Some scholars have argued that in returning to Islamic dress, many Muslim women attempt to reconcile their Islamic tradition with a modern lifestyle.
Many young Muslim women have adopted Islamic dress to symbolize a return to their cultural roots and the rejection of a Western tradition that in their view shows little respect for women. They think that Western fashions force women into uncomfortable and undignified outfits and, often in the name of liberation, actually turn them into sexual objects as reflected in modern media and mores.
Western and Muslim critics of Islamic dress, on the other hand, question those who say it is their free choice to wear the veil.
Women who wear the scarf point out that women of many other cultures and religions - Russian women, Hindu women, Jewish women, Greek women, and Catholic nuns - often wear head coverings. They ask why these women are not viewed as being oppressed. If opponents assume that women of other cultures who cover their heads are liberated, why can't they imagine freedom for Muslim women who wear a veil? Muslim women often talk about what the hijab symbolizes: religious devotion, discipline, reflection, respect, freedom and modernity. But too often nobody asks them what the scarf means to them.
Whether veiled or not, majorities of Muslim women -- even in some of the most conservative Muslim societies -- support equal rights. In sharp contrast to their popular image as silently submissive, socially conditioned women who readily accept second-class status, majorities of Muslim women in virtually every country surveyed say women should have the same legal rights as men.
There are, of course, some important differences between a headscarf and a niqab. Masking the face can make it difficult to communicate directly with others, creating barriers and further isolating the very people that Muslim minorities need to better engage with. More importantly, the niqab can raise legitimate identity concerns, such as with driver's licenses or security badges that require a photo. However, this is only a problem when a woman wearing a niqab refuses to accommodate these regulations.
The fear and loathing of any form of veiling sometimes expressed by those who object to what they see as a symbol of backwardness is not all that different from objections to the traditional religious garb and perceived lifestyle of Catholic nuns in the past (and, for some, still today). One could raise similar questions about the dress of Amish women and men, the practice and status of ultra-orthodox Jewish women, and others. Does the 'medieval' garb of the pope, patriarchs and other major religious leaders diminish their intellect or ability to negotiate life in the modern world?
Modernity should not be defined solely from a Western, liberal, secular-centered point of view. Our world today is one of multiple modernities, in which societies are increasingly multicultural and religiously and non-religiously pluralistic. Western societies should respect the rights of Muslim women who choose to wear the veil.
Dr. John L. Esposito is director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.
(Source: Gulf News)