Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Progressive Muslim Union and the great Niqab Debate

By Pamela K. Taylor

As many of you may know, I'm Co-Chair of the Progressive Muslim Union. A lot of people ask me what does that mean. Are we political/economic Progressives who happen to be Muslim? (Yes.) Muslims who are progressive about our Islam? (That too.) Or some weird mix? (No doubt.) Are we excited to see the Republicans lose a bit of power. (Yahoo!!!)

As the debate about niqab (the face veil that leaves only eyes showing, or sometimes not even those) rages in Britain, there has been a small murmur here in the States. A few op-eds, but mostly heads stuck in the sand. Meanwhile, there have been challenges in various states to laws requiring that a woman's face be visible on her driver's license. What the point of an ID where you can't identify the person is, I'm not sure, but that these challenges are being seen here in the US means we should not ignore this issue.

The radicalism of Britain's Muslim community is caused by a lot of factors, many of which are absent in America. As a result, the American Muslim population tends to be a lot more moderate than that of Britain. But there is also an intensive proslyetizing effort on the part of the most conservative elements going on in the US. We should be thinking about issues surrounding the niqab such as can a public school teacher be required to remove her face veil during class. Or can a theater or sporting arena demand to verify one's identity before one enters? What about a police officer stopping a woman for a traffic violation?

Anyway, I wanted to post the Progressive Muslim Union's position (penned by yours truly with help from members of the Muslim Canadian Congress) to open some dicussion on these issues before they get dumped in our lap. We don't want to be reacting on an instinctive rather than rational basis. Here's our position.

The Progressive Muslim Union urges Muslim women to reject the Niqab

It's neither required by Islam nor is it a mark of civil society

The Progressive Muslim Union acknowledges the right of a woman to dress as she sees fit, but we maintain that the use of the face veil as an expression religious identity or as a symbol of political defiance is neither in the best interests of Muslim women and the Muslim community at large, nor is it a requirement of the Islamic faith. We also remind the Muslim community that the religious rights and freedoms of an individual have to be balanced with the rights of the wider society and measured by the impact it may have on Muslims in North America.

Religious grounds

For Muslims, what is prescribed in the Quran is obligatory, with the proviso, also from the Quran, that "there is no compulsion in matters of faith."

The following verse prescribes modesty of dress, demeanor, and conduct:

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that would make for greater purity for them and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons or their husbands and sons ortheir sisters sons or their women or their slaves whom their right hands possessor male servants free of physical needs or small children who've no sense of theshame of sex and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments and O ye who believe turn ye altogether towards God that ye may attain bliss."- (Quran 24:30,31)
The Quran, we see, is explicit in asking women to cover their chests, but nowhere does God ask women to cover their faces.

This is confirmed by a narration from the Prophet's life. Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 74, Hadith Number 247 reads:

Narrated 'Abdullah bin 'Abbas:

Al-Fadl bin 'Abbas rode behind theProphet as his companion rider on the back portion of his she camel on the Day of Nahr (slaughtering of sacrifice, 10th Dhul-Hijja) and Al-Fadl was a handsome man. The Prophet stopped to give the people verdicts. In the meantime, a beautiful woman from the tribe of Khath'am came, asking the verdict of Allah's Apostle. Al-Fadl started looking at her as her beauty attracted him. The Prophet looked behind while Al-Fadl was looking at her; so the Prophet held out his hand backwards and caught the chin of Al-Fadl and turned his face in order that he should not gaze at her...

Clearly the woman's face was uncovered, and, equally clearly, the Prophet did not ask her to cover it, not even when the young man began staring at her.

Even conservative scholars such as Dr Yousuf al-Qaradawi, agree that the niqab is not mandatory according to Islam. He recently said in a Friday sermon, "It is not obligatory on Muslim women to wear the Niqab (full face veil)." He went on to tell his congregation, "The majority of Muslim scholars and I do not support the Niqab in which women cover their faces."

Social Issues


Every society has a legitimate need to know a person's identity under certain circumstances - on public transportation and in public venues such as theaters or sporting arenas. We need to be able to identify an individual when he or she is voting, completing banking transactions, or being pulled over for a traffic violation. Increasingly retail outlets are requesting photo IDs when customers use a credit card due to the raging epidemic of identity theft. Veiling of the face makes such identification impossible, especially when the wearer refuses to remove the veil even temporarily, or demands photos for driver's licenses and other id be taken with the face veil in place.

The needs of a society to be able to identify its citizens in some circumstances outweighs even religious rights and freedoms.

Economic Impact:

A face veil will invariably close the doors for most professions where face-to-face human interaction is absolutely essential. A man or a woman in a face mask is unlikely to find employment in North America as a police officer, a physician, a retail clerk, a nurse, a school teacher, an airline pilot, a journalist, an elected official, a taxi driver, a judge, a lawyer, a bank clerk, or even as an office receptionist.

Virtually any job that requires face to face interaction will be unavailable to women who wears a face veil. Wearing niqab thus virtually ensures that women are forced to retreat from the workforce and to remain within the home, being permanently dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers. While raising children is a serious endeavor which should not be discounted, neither should the importance of an economically vibrant community, nor women's needs for intellectual stimulation outside of the home, economic independence, and in many instances a job simply to feed, clothe and house their children.

The face veil adds another obstacle to the economic empowerment of the Muslim community, which already faces ethnic and religious discrimination in the workplace. Instead of trying to overcome the hurdles and fight discrimination, advocates of the niqab are creating additional obstacles in the path of progress for North American Muslims.

Social and Familial Pressures:

The Progressive Muslim Union is aware, that like members of any minority group, Muslim women can come under intense pressure to conform to certain norms of behaviour and dress, to overtly display community patriotism, and to remain silent regarding the organized, institutional disenfranchisement of Muslim women.

We are gravely concerned that although many North American women choose of their own free will to wear the veil, that their choices are effectively limited by social and/or familial pressure. The Saudi Arabian clerical establishment, with access to oil wealth and the patronage of the Saudi and American governments, has been aggressively exporting the notion that niqab is required in Islam.

This phenomenon is the product of the 20th century accession of the family of Ibn Saud to power in the states of Nejd and Hijaz where the showing of a female face was determined to be a punishable offence. Historically, from the early Arab Ummayads and Abbasides to the Persian Safavids, the Indian Moghuls and the Turkish Ottomans, at no time have Muslim women ever been required to cover their faces as an act of religiosity and piety, or national law.

In defiance of religious teachings and Muslim history and heritage, the proponents of Wahhabi Islam are today targeting young Muslim women, convincing them of their own second-class status.

The Progressive Muslim Union urges all Muslim organisations to refute the myth being spread that the Saudi sponsored face veil is a matter of piety, individual choice and religious practice.

We also remind all Muslims that the relgious freedoms we call upon so freely in supporting women who wear niqab and hijab, extends equally to Muslim women who choose not to wear the niqab or the headscarf. Women who do not wear scarves or face veils, for whatever reason, should not experience discrimination within the community, or pressure to change their practice or their point of view. It is sheer hypocricy to demand freedom of religion for the most conservative of Muslims, while declining to extend it to another subset of our community.


Bill said...

How can you eat an ice cream cone with your face covered?

On a more serious note. While I know little about Islam, I've always found the compulsiveness of the religion quite strange. Maybe it isn't as compulsive as I imagined though. I think you've written an outstanding post. Personally, I think people of different faiths want a sort of novelty to hang on to that identifies them. The covering of muslim women seems to be just that. I mean based on the passage you cited, it would be just as appropriate to wear a crew-neck t-shirt or sweater or a blouse that doesn't expose your chest. While certainly our culture (America) has alot of uncovering going on, I still think there is plenty of respect afforded to those of modesty. It is this modesty that seems to be appropriate to achieve, the head covering seems to undo this modesty by pronouncing your faith uncomfortably to people at times. Of course this is more the American (or Western) muslim than maybe the women in Saudi Arabia who have fear as a strong controlling factor of what they wear.

As far as the law goes, you bring up good points there as well. I wish you success in providing encouragement to muslims in changing their direction regarding this issue. Which, may seem specific, but is really an issue of isolation yet pronouncement of the muslim community. I'm hoping, because real muslim leadership is needed here and elsewhere across the world to encourage peaceful and healthy relations with everybody else.

Pamela K Taylor said...

Hi Bill!

>How can you eat an ice cream cone with your face covered?

I have no idea! :D Although there is a really gross video you can watch on youtube of a couple of women eating spaghetti with their faces covered. I suspect it is a spoof, except that it looks just too real.

>Personally, I think people of different faiths want a sort of novelty to hang on to that identifies them.

I think there is definately an element of that. There's another passage in the Qur'an (that I didn't quote) that, in fact, addresses this issue, telling Muslim women to dress in a manner so as to be known as Muslims. This was in the context of women having to go out to use the bushes at night, and men approaching them for a business deal. The women were advised to wear distinctive clothing so they wouldn't be bothered by men trying to purchase their wares, as it were.

While that is not so much a problem any more, the notion that one wishes to identify oneself as a practitioner of a particular faith, and to have one's clothing act as a form of witness is not particular to Islam.

>based on the passage you cited, it would be just as appropriate to wear a crew-neck t-shirt or sweater or a blouse that doesn't expose your chest.

And there are plenty of Muslims who argue just that point of view. The traditional scholars all agree that the headscarf (not the face veil) is required by Islam, which makes it a bit of an uphill argument, but many Muslim women (and men) don't think even a headscarf is required. Of course, there are just as many who would side with the traditional scholars and believe it is required...

>While certainly our culture (America) has alot of uncovering going on, I still think there is plenty of respect afforded to those of modesty.

I would argue there's a decent amount of respect afforded to even people dressing scantily. There's a hot issue in the Muslim community right now about an imam in Australia who make the outrageous comment that women who are not covered are like uncovered meat, if the cat eats the meat, don't blame the cat; ie if men ogle, fondle, rape, etc women who aren't hijabed, then don't blame the men. (!!) I wrote an article for Naseeb.com showing why this is a totally bankrupt statement from an Islamic point of view, and one of my side arguments was the men here in America have proven just how wrong the notion that men are uncontrollable beasts who can't help but act upon their urges in the presence of unclothed women is -- most women can walk down the street dressed like Brittney Spears or Beyonce and still not get much beyond a second look.

>It is this modesty that seems to be appropriate to achieve, the head covering seems to undo this modesty by pronouncing your faith uncomfortably to people at times.

I think there is a balance to be achieved. If a woman wants to cover her head as part of her understanding of what it means to be modest, well, I think we shouldn't be too uncomfortable with that. A lot of Jewish men wear skullcaps, many Sikhs wear turbans, a lot of christians wear crosses. If a Muslim woman wants to identify herself with a headscarf and/or defines modesty as having the head covered, I think we should be able to expand our comfort zone to include that. I am totally against the sort of state imposition of veiling ala Iran or Saudi Arabia, but if it's a woman's individual choice, as it is the vast majority of the time here in the US, then I think we need to get over feeling too uncomfortable with it.

Of course, sometimes wearing a cross or scarf goes hand in hand with an attitude that is really unpleasant (which is probably why some of us are uncomfortable with them), but I think in that case we need to focus on the root cause -- the attitude -- not the symptom, a piece of jewelry or a scarf.

>is really an issue of isolation yet pronouncement of the muslim community.

That for me is one of the big issues regarding the face veil. It is far more isolating to go around in clothing such that no one can identify you. I had a good friend who started wearing a face veil, and the first time I saw her with it on, I walked up and introducted myself because I didn't recognize her. I can't imagine having a teacher who wears a face veil, as facial expressions and the movement of the lips are so important for full communication.

Similarly, you find women wearing scarves in just about every profession, but a woman wearing a face veil is cut off from so much of society.

Which, of course, is only one of the ways face veils act to isolate. The other is that they represent a point of view that encourages separation from society, and in particular from Western society which is seen as decadent and decaying. Again, it may be that a face veil is a symptom of a much deeper problem -- but I hope that encouraging women not to wear them will help overcome that problem. As we get to know one another better (or for those of us who are thoroughly American Muslims, as we bring together the people in our lives who haven't yet bridged the two communities as we have)the stereotyping and alienation falls away, but with a literal barrier to communication in the way, that is much less likely to happen. We need more communication, more understanding and appreciation of the good things each of us have to share.


Diane Silver said...


Thanks so much for making this post and for your follow-up. You've given me a much better understanding of the issue. I have to admit that it always has made me uncomfortable to see a woman in the niqab. I do so appreciate your argumetns and your perspective.

Bill said...

Thank you Pamela for your generous follow-up. I think wearing the head scarf is fine, in fact your profile photo proves this. I'm not too concerned about the exact dress a Muslim wears. It's my own thinking though, maybe wrongly, that it is a compulsiveness that drives the extremes in religion.

Do give you some background. Personally I'm atheist in my beliefs. And, rituals and dictated clothing can seem strange to me. Islam isn't the only compulsive religion by any means. But, much of Islam seems to be practiced in a similar manner to orthodox Judaism, where following the law rigidly and making sure to worship properly are compulsively observed. For instance, in Judaism they can't type or speak God's name in case they say it wrong. This to me is a compulsive form, whereas, not assuming things about God, or placing blame on God for woes is much less compulsive, but both derive from "not using God's name in vain".

I think there is also compulsiveness in fasting and other rituals (like praying 5 times per day facing Mecca) in these two religions and in some other religions including orthodox Christianity. I'm sure there is importance to these rituals, but I think when their observance is seen more important than the underlying reason for them, true meaning is lost in the religion and the religious leaders are capable of corrupting people into following their will instead of the actual religion.

This seems to be the case in much of the muslim world, where the state and religion are not distinct, and also in extreme madrasas in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or heck even closer Great Britain. It's seems that the passion behind following the religion strictly is more related to violent subjugation and paradise than it is to any core values that define a just God.

I hope you don't take this as a slam on your faith. I don't know any more about the way you live your life and practice your faith than any other individual on this planet. We all see things from a unique perspective and it's intolerant to try to put everybody in a straight line. Hopefully you see some understanding in my reply, as I've found in your post.

Pamela K Taylor said...

Hi Bill,

I think you are raising really important issues when it comes to rigidity in faith. Obviously there are some issues where what one person thinks is rigid others will not, like the daily prayers you mention.

To me, it's not extreme at all to pray five times a day in a ritual format, rather the prayers are a beautiful ritual, that provide just the right balance -- short reminders throughout the day of your true place in the universe (something I think atheists can relate to very well, or I least I certainly did when I was an atheist and was always amazed at how religious people thought they were the center of the universe, whereas it was really clear to me that we are just specks in the face of the infinite.) Most of us need a regular reminder cause it's so easy to get caught up in the petty. And by having it formalized in a set pattern, you don't have to think about the words, you only have to worry about the feeling, the lesson you are supposed to be learning. Does everyone approach it that? I wish!

As you say, a lot of people get totally focused on the performance rather than the spirit. And there, I think you are right in drawing parallels between orthodox Islam and orthodox Judaism.

I almost always go for the spiritual, forgiving, compassionate face of faith, but I have been thinking about the more rigid approach -- that is, the belief that the more perfectly executed an action is, the more devotion to God it shows.

On the one hand, I can't imagine a God capable of creating the universe (or setting it in motion via the Big Bang) as really caring about picayune details. But on the other, I see how precise the laws of nature are, and how even a tiny adjustment in certain constants would render life as we know it impossible, and then I think, well, maybe these folks are onto something.

The real key to me is to be able to believe in whatever way you believe but still leaving other people to believe what they want to believe. The evangelical Christians probably have it toughest in this department, since your eternal soul depends upon believing what they believe, but a lot of Muslims are vying for the title of most self-righteous on the face of the earth.

It's pretty sad, because the Qur'an has incredibly powerful passages of tolerance and mutual acceptance. 1) it's one of the few religions I know of that actually, specifically, and repeatedly says people following a different religion live in the pleasure of God and have a place in Heaven. 2) even those who are not following one of those religions are told, "To you your way, to me mine." Wow! Not convert or die! And this is in the chapter dedicated to "Kaffirs" unbelievers.

Anyway, I wax poetic. Unfortunately, most of the Muslim world seems to have forgotten this in the throes of post-colonial, post-industrial revolution, post feminist revolution modernization under brutal dictatorships and/or theocracies.

Ridigity and extremity in dress is just a manifestation of the extreme upheavals these societies are going through. In the face of overwhelming forces which they have no control over, and terrible stituations they have no hope of changing, religious practice becomes a bastion of order and meaning. I think the same thing happened in America -- in the face of sweeping social change and political processes which seemed beyond the influence of common people, we saw a return to religious fervor and ridigity.

Interesting topics! Thanks for bringing them up Bill!


Bill said...

Well thank you for your well thought out responses. While I think everybody has slightly different beliefs about the world, I hope that leadership and communication from people like you can inspire a tolerant muslim community. It seems at times the liberal, non-violent, tolerant and thoughtful people in the world struggle in getting their message heard over the loud beat of bigotry and fear.

I won't blame the fundamentalist or the orthodox individuals for all of the world's woes. I believe they do seek out a good life, a life of living in righteousness. I think they sincerely try, but sometimes get caught up in thinking others aren't trying similarly because they have different views about the world.

Personally, I think the world needs less emphasis on beliefs and more on understanding each other and working towards common goals. To me that is the easiest thing for people to lose faith in, that is each other, losing faith in the possibility that the "other side" is not so different from ourselves in needs and desires. Rather than reach out to others in times of distress, we shelter ourselves from their frustration, sometimes even looking at them as less than ourselves simply because they have met hardships that are difficult to respond to and we haven't.

As far as our place in the universe. Who the heck knows? But let's not let our opinion get in between us and others. Sorry, I've taken this discussion away from it's topic.