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.
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:
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.
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...
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."
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.
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.