Recently seen circulating on Facebook, the message displayed here is troubling on a number of levels. Perhaps because of my own US background (where the protection of “religion”, and individual choices based on religious beliefs – as long as those choices do not harm others, is still strong), or because of the time that I have spent in places where many women do veil their faces, I have not found that an inability to see a person’s entire face threatens my safety or impairs my ability to communicate with her. (Although this may also be due to a mild case of prosopagnosia.)
While the Qur’ān exhorts modesty, it is not universally interpreted as mandating any particular veiling practice. In fact, although a niqab-banning bill was recently rejected by the Egyptian parliament, less than a decade ago, Egypt’s preeminent religious scholar, the Sheikh of al-Azhar, emphasized the (Arabian) cultural nature of the practice of full-face veiling with a niqab (as opposed to the hair-covering hijab), going so far as to state that the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and is a sign of radicalization.
Historically, most scholars (and Islamic law schools) maintained that women’s faces and hands did not have to be covered. In fact, many scholars would say that, in business transactions, it is mandatory to see the face and hands.
Although qur’ānic exhortations to modesty have been variously, and variably, interpreted throughout the ages, rarely have “Islamic” modesty norms been mandated for non-Muslims. Non-Muslims have lived among, and under, Muslims since the earliest days of Islam, again, with a wide range of societal rules and regulations. There is a large body of literature on recent attempts at the “Islamization” of various Muslim-majority societies, but in the early Christian Arabic texts that I study (from the 9th-12th centuries CE), I have yet to come across any reference to a niqab (let alone a burqa), or an expression of fear of an imposition of Muslim dress codes on non-Muslim populations. There are laments about the loss of their past glory, as well as the reduced (e.g. second-class, subjugated) status of Christian communities. These laments are, however, penned in Arabic, the language of the overlords. (This fact, combined with the pre-Islamic history of Christian-Jewish, and intra-Christian, polemics, leads me to question whether their laments were based on their subjugation, or on their social equivalence with groups they considered inferior.) And, a millennium later, I have never been forced to cover my face (or my hair) in any of the Muslim-majority countries in which I have lived and traveled. Much to my surprise, I have even been told that (as a non-Muslim) I did not have to cover my hair in some mosques (here in the Netherlands, as well as in New Zealand and in Turkey). I have also been told (by Muslim men) that women are more beautiful when they wear hijab. (I have not traveled to Iran or to Saudi Arabia, but I taught in Qatar, studied in Jordan, and have traveled in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.)
As in many parts of the world, there are expectations that you respect local customs. The fear that a face-covering veil necessarily means a rejection of “European” or “Western” or “Dutch” values, as well as the assumptions that a woman who wears one comes from another land, and that she had worn it there before coming here, need to be questioned. What, exactly, are those western or Dutch or European values? Who, in fact, are the women who wear face-covering veils?
These questions are salient and urgent, as the UN Human Rights committee has recently ruled that France’s ban on the full-face veil (in place since 2010) disproportionately harmed women’s rights to exercise their religious beliefs; this summer, the Dutch Upper House of Parliament passed a law banning face coverings in some public spaces (not, however, on streets). The rationale behind the Dutch and other “burqa bans” invokes a range of reasons, including public safety, societal values and women’s rights. If European or Dutch or Western liberalism rejects the mandated modesty of Iran or KSA, is it the mandatory aspect, or the modesty aspect, or the select application, that is objectionable? How is a prohibition on an article of clothing (more) in keeping with these values?
San Francisco’s De Young Museum is currently running an exhibit on “Contemporary Muslim Fashions.” In May-October of this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition on fashion and the Catholic imagination. I have not been able to visit these exhibits (although Contemporary Muslim Fashions will next show in Frankfurt), but am curious if and how veils were featured.
For, it is worth reflecting on whether part of the current “Western” reaction to the hijab, burqa and niqab (although distinct concepts, the terms are sometimes conflated in popular discourse) is rooted in its Christian heritage. For, especially in Latin Christian tradition, women’s head covering was interpreted as due to her role as the “originator of sin” and as a sign of her subjection to authority. Although the biblical account of woman’s creation from man’s rib is known to Islamic tradition, this account is not in the Qur’ān. Rather, in the qur’ānic account, men and women are created from a single soul (reminiscent of the creation account in Genesis 1); elsewhere, man is created from dust (e.g. Q 36:20) or a clot (e.g. Q 96:1-2), but the rib is not mentioned. And, although the Qur’ān contains narratives on primordial human disobedience, it is Adam, not Eve, who is named as disobeying his lord.
Just like the rich and varied accounts in the Bible and the Qur’ān, so, too, the nature of, and reasons for, (female) veiling have varied throughout the ages. Before we judge those behind the veils, we should examine our reasons for judging, as well as the reasons given by those who wear them.