We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.
Earlier this year, the head of of Al-Azhar Islamic university found himself in agreement with Italy’s extreme right-wing Northern League, the BNP’s anti-immigration anti-Islam stance and Turkey’s rampantly secular constitution. The subject was the veiling of Muslim women, a topic that makes for unlikely bed-fellows.
Al-Tantawi, the senior sheikh at al-Azhar, was visiting a girl’s school when he told an 8th grade student to remove her face-veil saying, “the niqab has nothing to do with Islam and it is only a mere custom”adding bluntly, “I understand the religion better than you and your parents.”
At his insistence she removed the veil. He said shockingly: “You are actually like this (this ugly). What would you do if you were a little bit beautiful?”
Whether you agree or disagree with his intervention, it surprises me that a scholar -and role model -feels that he can use public intimidation on a young woman, and that he has a right over a woman’s clothing, defining and commenting on her intelligence, her family and her looks.
French president Sarkozy used the historic occasion of his first speech in the French parliament to pick out the veil as an issue of primary concern to the French public. It was subsequently reported that only 367 women in France’s population of over 62 million wear the face veil. This raises questions about why the veil is of greater concern than other issues relating to all women, across all social groups. For example, why not raise the serious topic of domestic violence, whose victims numbered a heart-rending 47,000 in France in 2007? Further, I found it spooky that French intelligence could offer such a specific number of niqab-wearers – were these women being monitored?
Sarkozy’s speech follows a ban on the headscarf in French schools and universities since 2004, not unlike a similar ban in Turkey which labels the headscarf as contrary to the country’s secular principles. Turkey finds itself in the peculiar situation that the out-of-power secular party is advocating against freedom of religious expression, resulting in women who wish to veil being denied high school and university education as well as public sector jobs.
Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi is a man who is not known for his dignified treatment of women. He too is advancing proposals with the anti’immigration Northern League to ban the veil in Italy, overturning a historic exemption in Italian law that allows the veil on grounds of freedom of religious expression.
Wherever you are in the world – Muslim country or otherwise – the issue of veiling is a hot topic. Proposals to wear, discard or ban it are put forward for political reasons that vary depending on the country. But this much is certain – Muslim women are bundled into a single-issue ‘problem’, and that issue is the veil. I’m not even going to elaborate on the many variations in veiling – headscarf, niqab, jilbab, burqa – because that is irrelevant to the discussion. This debate is centred around the interchangeability of ‘Muslim women’ with ‘veiling’, as though a Muslim woman and her veil are one and the same thing. To make matters worse, complex issues underlying the inflammatory political positions of people like Sarkozy and Berlusconi – issues like integration, unemployment and identity – are blamed on the veil. This is simplistic single issue politics at its worst – offering a bland and unintelligent analysis of the very real problems Muslim women, as well as society at large, are all facing, grouping them altogether as caused by ‘the veil’ and producing the wrong ignorant solution: ‘ban it.’
This obsession with the veil as the source of contention is illustrated by the constant stream of news and opinion pieces with titles like “uncovering Islam” “behind the veil” “beneath the veil” and “under the veil”. We don’t need to get under the veil, we need to get over it.
If Obama believes that a nation torn apart by race issues can become a post-racial society, then there is legitimate hope for a post-veil society. It is a society where a Muslim woman can get on with the task of living her life – in education, employment, security and safety in the family, private and public spheres. It is a society where who she is, rather than what she wears is her definition and her contribution. In such a society, the veil is no longer her only definition, no longer even her primary definition. This is a society where a woman’s choice to veil or not to veil is her choice and hers alone.