On August 5, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, published an article in The Daily Telegraph. Entitled “Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it”, the article created a furore both within and outside his own Tory party, and for more than one reason.
Johnson is currently the strongest candidate to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister, given her increasing weakness as a leader, largely due to the problems surrounding Brexit and her inability to create a suitable deal for it. This is relevant to the furore. Johnson is an ambitious politician who is given to making controversial comments.
Despite his popularity in some circles, Johnson has his enemies, and not just within Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (where the slightest hint of what is called Islamophobia must at all costs be condemned). It is regrettable then, that his careless remarks on women in niqabs and burqas resembling letterboxes or looking like bank robbers brought down the wrath of the politically correct and ended by ignoring the far more constructive statements in the article as a whole.
The varied, mostly negative, responses to Johnson’s article have been well explained by Soeren Kern. But not everyone thought badly of Johnson’s piece, given that he had not called for the full face veil to be banned in the UK, even though it is banned in several European countries and elsewhere. Before the Dutch ban, there was a ban by Denmark this year. Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked, but writing in The Spectator, described Johnson as having taken a liberal stance on the veil by refusing to let the state determine how citizens may dress. He also pointed out that “as we now know, you’re not allowed to say anything even remotely critical about Islam or its practices these days”.
The controversy arising from Johnson’s article reignited a basic problem for liberal democracies. On the one hand, no democratic state can dictate rules for people on how to dress, eat, drink, engage in sexual relations, conform to heterosexual norms, and much more. Unlike Islamic states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where even a woman dancing alone for pleasure can lead to a criminal charge, and where rules for female dress and comportment are centrally strictly enforced, Western countries and Israel pride themselves on huge liberties for everyone, including on how they dress.
On the other hand, the presence of Islamic garb from hijabs to niqabs and burqas on the streets of Britain is a problem for democrats precisely because of Western notions of individual freedom. To many, female Islamic clothing represents the powerful oppression of women’s rights. While some Muslim women insist that being covered represents modesty, provides respectability and insures that they will not, in public, be targets of unwanted attention, on Western streets they look as if they could be symbols of the undue pressures on women to conform to a patriarchal, deeply misogynistic code and the punishments that can be and often are inflicted on women for even a slight avoidance of the rules. Even in the West, women have been murdered by their own families in honour killings where they have opted to wear Western clothes (for example, here, here and here), however modest in our terms, or, in Europe, the United States, and Canada, just for being “too Western”. There are about 5,000 honour killings worldwide every year, even merely for refusing to wear a hijab. In 2015, an Indian Muslim man killed his four-year-old daughter for not covering her head while eating. Those are far from being the only cases. The murders seem often to be carried out by victims’ fathers, mothers, brothers, and cousins, or extended family members.
“[T]here is no basis in Islam for the niqab…. That’s why Muslim nations are themselves regulating and banning the niqab and burqa…” — Dr. Qanta Ahmed. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Is it, then, appropriate for such garments to be seen in countries where democratic norms find such abuses unacceptable? Some observers also feel that it is especially painful to see Western feminists marching and wearing black face masks in order to protect some Muslim women’s right to wear them, but failing to support the rights of other Muslim women who plead not to be forced into them.
Many Muslim women do wear hijabs and niqabs out of a mistaken belief that they are required religious garb; but many are also forced to wear them by family members.
Wearing full face coverings happens not just in the first generation of immigrants, but also in the second and third generations, often with the youngest more radicalthan their grandparents — a total reversal of what has happened to all earlier immigrants, notably in the US for Irish, Jews, Poles, Chinese, Japanese, and more.
As far as wider society is concerned, Islamic clothing serves to demarcate Muslim women from others. In two recent reports from the UK, Muslims have been identified as the most difficult of the country’s ethnic and religious communities to integrate, with women suffering in several ways from that inability to fit in. An article by Sir Trevor Phillips, once the architect of Britain’s multiculturalism policy, admitted that Muslims had not embraced the demands of living in a diverse society. Additionally, a 2016 government-sponsored review of social integration by Dame Louise Casey also concluded that Muslim communities were the most resistant of all incomer groups.
It is important to note that a number of Muslim women are strongly opposed to the veil, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Saira Khan, Masih Alinejad, possibly because, even when devout, they apparently want to integrate without the marks of the clerical oppression in their everyday lives. One of these is Qanta Ahmed, a medical doctor who has achieved some prominence as a journalist. She made a point of congratulating Johnson in a pointed and bracing article entitled “As a Muslim woman, I’d like to thank Boris Johnson for calling out the niqab”. She writes, revealingly, that “while Saudi Arabia is itself liberalizing, the niqab is increasingly adopted by Muslim women living in the West, often as an anti-Western pro-Islamist political statement opposing secularism.”
Referring to the various European bans on full-face veils, she writes:
“When Boris Johnson mocks the niqab, he is emphatically not mocking Muslim women because – and this is a point that we Muslims seem to be unable to get across to non-Muslims – there is no basis in Islam for the niqab. Claiming otherwise is a profound distortion of Islamic belief. That’s why Muslim nations are themselves regulating and banning the niqab and burqa – as in both Morocco and Turkey where these coverings are seen as an invasion of Salafist affinities and a risk to national security and societal integrity.”
After giving a brief description of why these veils are not Islamic in origin, she writes that:
“This convenient vacuum has allowed some to insert their own interpretation of veiling, for their own motives, including enforcing gender segregation and even gender apartheid, while also portraying Muslims in Europe as besieged by the false construct of Islamophobia which capitalizes on a false victimhood that so empowers Islamists as the persecuted darlings of blind liberalism.”
The Qur’an does not even use the word hijab (or the verb hajaba) to refer to a head-covering for women. Nor does it mention niqab or burqa as suitable garb for women. As Ahmed notes, Islam only calls for women to be modest, as many other religions do without demanding veils of any kind (although married Orthodox Jewish women do cover their hair with scarves, hats or wigs, and many Roman Catholic nuns also cover their heads).
The most popular Salafi website in the world (available in several languages) is Islam Question and Answer, a forum on which fatwas (often very long) concerning just about anything are posted as answers to questions from believers. It was founded by Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid, a scholar born of Palestinian refugee parents and educated by Salafi shaykhs in Saudi Arabia. According to al-Jazeera,
Al-Munajjid is considered one of the respected scholars of the Salafist movement, an Islamic school of thought whose teachings are said to inspire radical movements in the Arab world, including al-Qaeda and a group called al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wal Sham (also known as the Islamic State, IS or Daesh).
In a fatwa published in 2004, in answer to the question: “Could u (sic) please supply me with some quotes (sic) from the Hadith and Quran on the importance of hijab for women.[?]”, we come across an extremely distorted reading of some Qur’anic verses. Here is a translation of part of a well-known verse in The Study Qur’an, a modern fully annotated version of the sacred text produced by a team of Muslim and non-Muslim scholars:
And tell the believing women to lower their eyes and to guard their private parts, and to not display their adornment except that which is visible thereof. And let them draw their kerchiefs over their breasts….” (Sura 24 [al-Nur], v. 31)
Now, here is the way the fatwa (in English) translates and interprets the same part verse:
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)
It should immediately be clear just how much the fatwa introduces that is simply not there in the text. There is nothing in the original verse that necessitates veils, gloves, headcovers, or aprons, nor is there any requirement for women to cover their faces, necks, or bosoms, or reveal only one eye. For example, the word “adornment” (zayna) means “decoration, embellishment, finery, or something that beautifies”, or, in Hans Wehr’s authoritative dictionary, also “clothes, attire, finery”, can refer to things such as jewellery.
Most striking is the gloss given to the badly-transliterated word “Juyoobihinna” (better as juyubihinna) to mean “their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms”. The Arabic word juyub is the broken plural of jayb, which the always reliable Wehr translates as “breast” or “bosom”. It can also mean “heart”. It has nothing to do with whole bodies, faces, or necks, which is why the Study Qur’an renders it as “breasts”. Even in the modern West, it is normal for women to cover their breasts in public.
Finally, the translation “draw their veils” is misleading. The word for “veil” is actually simply khimar, pl. khumur. For some time, the khimar has been interpreted as a head covering, but the context is obviously not that. A more detailed examination of its original and Qur’anic meaning by a Muslim author, Joseph A. Islam, shows that a khimar is just something that covers something else. He translates the line in question as: “…And to draw their coverings over their chests” (24:31).
As Salafism grows in influence across the Middle East, in Europe, and North America, Salafi clerics are demanding that women wear, not just the niqab that shows only the eyes, but just one eye. In 2008, the BBC reported on Shaykh Muhammad al-Habadan, a Saudi ultra-conservative, for making just this demand. In Mosul, Islamic State enforcers made women wear full veils and gloves.
It seems that what is happening here is that religious fundamentalists, all men, often elderly men, want to make women invisible and wholly lacking in any female characteristics that could lead to their own sexual desire. By covering women’s faces and bodies, they make it impossible to distinguish one woman from another when in public, which is possibly the intent: to abolish a woman’s identity outside a close family circle that they say they are protecting.
All the while, it is not the Islamic religion that justifies these suppressions but a culturally-defined patriarchal system that could not be more out of keeping with Western societies, where many women are increasingly asking to be in command of their lives, and where men, however powerful, who abuse women are exposed – and sometimes arrested, tried and imprisoned. Yet we are expected to feel guilty if we dare to question what some Muslim women question: if shariah law is really the most wholesome lifestyle for many women.
The Netherlands is just the latest EU country to have banned the burqa in a major step towards affirming our democratic convictions about human rights and respect for the autonomy and individuality of everyone. Already, some twelve European countries have passed laws for full or partial bans on the burqa, while the UK government still stumbles over even the slightest restriction suggested.
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