As a Muslim woman and as a feminist, I support banning the face veil, everywhere and not just in France where they are to vote on a resolution and possibly a ban on wearing the garment in public places [hospitals, schools and public transport, but not in the streets] after regional elections end.
I am appalled to hear the defense of the niqab or burka in Europe. A bizarre political correctness has tied the tongues of those who would normally rally to defend women's rights but who are now instead sacrificing those very rights in the name of fighting an increasingly powerful right wing.
Every time I return to Cairo from New York City, where I now live, I wonder what Hoda Shaarawi, the pioneering Egyptian feminist, would say if she could see how many of her sisters are disappearing behind the face veil. Returning from an international women's conference in Italy in 1923 – yes, we had feminists that early in Egypt – Shaarawi famously removed her face veil at a Cairo train station, declaring it a thing of the past. We might not have burned our bras in Egypt but some have described Shaarawi's gesture as even more incendiary for its time.
And yet here we are, almost a century later, arguing over a woman's “right” to cover her face. What is lost in those arguments is that the ideology that promotes the niqab (the total body covering that leaves just the eyes exposed) and the burka (the garment which covers the eyes with a mesh) does not believe in the concept of women's rights to begin with.
It is an ideology that describes women alternately as candy, a diamond ring or a precious stone that needs to be hidden to prove her "worth." That is not a message Muslims learn in our holy book, the Qur'an, nor is the face veil prescribed by the majority of Muslim scholars.?It is instead a pillar of the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam known as Salafism. It is associated with Saudi Arabia, where I spent most of my adolescence and where it is clear that women are effectively perpetual children, forbidden as they are from driving, from travelling alone and from even the simplest of surgical procedures without the permission of a male "guardian." I detest the niqab and the burka for their erasure of women and for dangerously equating piety with that disappearance – the less of you I can see, the closer you must be to God. I defend a woman's right to cover her hair if she chooses but the face is central to human interaction and so the ideologues who promote its covering are simply misogynists.
I abhor the rightwing Muslim ideology behind the veils but I equally abhor the political rightwing xenophobes of Europe. The European political right — be it President Nicolas Sarkozy, his ultra-right rival Jean-Marie Le Pen (who did alarmingly well in the first round of those regional elections) or Dutch provocateur Geert Wilders — do not give a rat's ass about Muslim women or their rights: they are merely using the issue in an attempt to win votes.
The racism and discrimination that Muslim minorities face in many countries — such as France, which has the largest Muslim community in Europe, and Britain, where two members of the xenophobic British National Party were shamefully elected to the European parliament — are very real. But the silence of the left wing and liberals isn't the way to fight it. The best way to support Muslim women would be to say we oppose both the racist right wing and the niqabs and burkas which are products of what I call the Muslim right wing. Women should not be sacrificed to either.
Over the last five years I interviewed 43 British Muslim women for my play, Sisters, a verbatim piece constructed from those interviews. My intention was to dispel the ludicrous notion that there is a single, fixed Muslim female identity. As a non-Muslim who grew up in Singapore surrounded by Muslim women, I was shocked by the mainstream response to 9/11 and 7/7 which was, obliquely, the polarization of "us" and "them." Probably the most offensive thing about it all was how few commentators and analysts in the media, or people in positions of power, had ever spoken in person to a Muslim woman.
I wonder how many niqab-wearing French citizens Nicolas Sarkozy has sat with and talked to. I imagine not many. Because if he had, he could not with a clear conscience say that "the burka is not a religious sign (but) a sign of subservience, of debasement." He is right to assume that there are significant problems with the status of women in certain Muslim communities. This, however, is not oppression on religious grounds but rather, cultural. And the hypocrisy of what he is doing is surely transparent – he, in condemning what he sees to be a symbol of oppression of women by men, is oppressing women's rights to practice their faith as they choose.
To whatever extent a Muslim woman chooses to practice it, modesty is a central concern within the religion (for men as well, although this is often ignored). Everyone I spoke to who wore Islamic dress did so because this issue of modesty is sacrosanct, and they felt liberated not being judged on their appearance. And those who choose to wear the niqab are doing that to an extreme.
Only one character in my play wears the niqab, but the issue of Islamic dress came up in every interview I did. Azra (not her real name), who wore the full covering, was young, had a job and wore it against her parents' wishes. They felt that she would be discriminated against for wearing it.
She took it off when she went to work because she had to, knowing she was "going to get the reward for the time I was wearing it, making God happy by fulfilling his covenant to me."?She related to me an incident that took place when she had her photo taken for her university ID. They requested she remove her niqab, so she asked for a female photographer. When the male photographer at the adjacent booth asked if she'd like the men to look away, she told them not to worry about it, not wanting to cause a scene. And when he did still turn away, she was touched: "I thought, I just wish people could be kind like that."
France clearly needs to address why immigrant Muslims and French converts are rejecting western identity so demonstratively, but this proposed ban is not the way. There is the not insignificant problem that it might contravene articles 8 and 9 of the European convention on human rights which protect the individual's right to a private life and personal identity and freedom to manifest one's religion.
There is no denying that in certain countries the burqa is a manifestation of the oppression of women, but in the west it is nearly always worn out of choice. It is an issue of how a person chooses to practice their faith, and in a democracy we cannot deny any human being that.