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Religous Freedom For Muslim Women In Danger
Throughout several countries including Canada and countries in Europe, Muslim veil bans are being made or have been made. Muslim women in these countries have been wearing the niqab for years, practicing their religion in peace. The arguments in favor of the bans don't add up or make sense, yet many bans have already been passed. Now that new laws are coming into play, some women are feeling trapped inside their homes and have suffered fines, insults, and numerous physical attacks. Many of these women are trying to strike back and keep the laws from passing and getting rid of the ones that exist, deeming them unlawful. The veil bans are wrong, and in many cases cause a negative change in the lifestyle and well-being of Muslim women in non-Muslim countries of Europe.
For an understanding of the veil bans, it is necessary to understand what a Muslim veil is. There are several types of veils that are specific to certain areas. Different people have different views on exactly what veils are for, but the two main reasons are religion and purity. The most common type of veil is the hijab. It is a rectangular scarf worn to cover the head and neck. Unlike other types of veils, it leaves the face open. There are many different types of hijabs, some covering more than others. The chador is a full body cloak that is often worn with a tight headscarf underneath. Another type of hijab, the Al-amira, is a close-fitting cap with a tube like scarf over. Popular in the Persian gulf region, the shayla is long and rectangular and is wrapped around the head then pinned at the shoulders. The khimar is much like the chador, but hangs only to the waist, covering the neck, head, and shoulders, but leaving the hands uncovered. All the hijabs, whether they are chadors, al-amiras, shaylas, or khimars, are used to cover various amounts of the body and they all leave the face entirely clear.
The less common and more controversial styles of head coverings are the niqab and burqa. Unlike the hijab, both the niqab and burqa cover sections of the face. The niqab is a long wrap around that comes up to just beneath the eyes and extends past the shoulders. It is accompanied by a hijab, usually a chador, being the most conservative of the hijabs. The burqa covers the most out of all the headscarves. It consists of a large sheet-like covering that completely covers the whole body, hands, hair, and face. A small mesh screen rests at the eyes, allowing the women to see out, but nobody to see in. These two extremely modest coverings are the least common, but can still be found in areas with Muslim religion.
Although the Muslim veils can be found throughout the world, there are specific areas where certain styles are more common. All of the veils are most common in Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The chador is popular in Iran. Burqas are required for all women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. These are just a few specific areas that have a particular style, but many areas will accept any style.
For most women who wear the veil, it is religious reasons that lead them to do so. In their holy book, the Quran, men and women are instructed in modesty. One version of the Quran says, "Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their scarf to cover their bosom" (Quran, 24:31). Some, such as Sonia Khan, a 32 year old woman from Pakistan who does not wear the headscarf, argue that there is no clear understanding of the Quran and what it wants. However, most agree that it instructs them to cover their hair, shoulders, and chest.
Sumayyah Hussein, a wearer of the hijab, presents various reasons for wearing the veil. She is 24 and has been wearing the hijab since she was a child. She believes first and foremost that it's something her creator has instructed her to do. When presented with arguments about it being restrictive to women, she says that her god knows better than she does what is good for women, so she obeys.
The issue of the niqab is a little bit more complicated. Some believe covering the face is required, while others simply wear it as an extra declaration of their faith. Sheikha El-Kathiri said on an interview on CBCtelevision, "it's just a little bit that I am doing to enable me to go through this path of spiritual discovery, and it's something that I really am glad and happy, and I feel so wonderful for having done… it exemplifies the fact that I am an honorable Muslim woman…" Sheikha is 20 years old and had been wearing the niqab for religious purposes for a year at the time of the interview. She feels she is pleasing her Creator and completing her faith. In response to Sonia Khan stating that the Quran doesn't say what women are supposed to wear, she said that she believes the Quran clearly requires women to cover the hair, but the niqab and burqa are acts of extra virtue. This is disputed within the religion, but many have decided only the hijab is required.
Besides religion, women have several other reasons for wearing veils. There are those who wear it to protect themselves from men, some who wear it as a reminder of their purity, and some for what they believe is regular modesty. Along with these reasons, there are many more that lead women to wear the veil.
Sheikha El-Kathiri says she likes to present her character to society, rather than her face. She doesn't feel that beauty is something for the world to see, but for the individual to enjoy and be thankful for. On the issue of protecting herself from men, she says that it not only helps to keep her from being uncomfortable but helps the man conduct himself in a moral manner. Although she doesn't believe it exempts them from acting as they should, she believes it is something she can do to help a little.
Like Sheikha, many others use the veil as liberation from men's prying eyes, but others have simpler reasons. Converts from different religions often use the hijab to show other Muslims that they are one of them. Sometimes they are required by their parents or husbands to wear a veil, but studies have shown that the majority of the time, it is the woman's choice. Others wear it simply because it is the ethnic wear of their country and has become a part of their culture. From woman to woman, the reasons vary for wearing the veil, from religious purposes to being a part of their culture.
An understanding of what the Muslim veil is and why women wear it allows an understanding of the arguments for banning it in some countries. The reasons presented by France and other countries banning or trying to ban the veil are that it is oppressive, intimidating, a form of male domination, anti-social, and a security risk.
For those who say that the niqab is oppressive, the opposing argument is that women choose to wear the burqa or niqab. Ms. Flavia, a 22 year old wearer of the niqab living in the USA, says "Niqab is a very liberating and empowering experience. It allows me to realize my goals by having a career and going to school without worrying about the prying eyes of men. It forces people not to judge me based on my appearance, but on my thoughts and character." Most other women wearing the niqab agree, saying that the niqab is not oppression, but liberation.
Sometimes the niqab can seem intimidating because people don't know much about it, but behind the veil is a woman trying to practice her religion and be a pure woman. When asked how people could get a feel for her if they couldn't see her facial expressions when they were talking to her, Sheikha El-Kathiri replied, "How do you get a feel for what someone is saying when you talk to them on the phone?" Another niqab wearing Muslim, Zara Syed, reasoned, "If we started making decisions based on the irrationality of people and what they find intimidating, we would have to do justice to every citizen by banning every single thing, dress, or type of person that scares us. Will we also ban Jewish people with skull caps, Sikhs with turbans, and Catholic nuns? What about women who go bald, emos, hippies, punks, homeless or shaggy looking people? Given the rise of obesity in the West, can we also ban people who are grossly overweight?" Muslims and many others agree that it is downright wrong to ban something just because it makes you uncomfortable and intimidated.
As to the veil being a form of male domination studies have shown that most of the women who wear a veil do so out of their own choice. In fact, many women in countries like France and Canada where the niqab is in danger of being banned are unmarried and/or have been advised by their husbands or parents not to wear the niqab. Sheikha El-Kathiri says she wears the niqab by choice, not because anyone is forcing her or she believes she has to, and she is glad she wears it. Although there are some cases in Middle Eastern countries where the men force their wives and daughters to wear veils, the majority of women in countries where the ban is in question do so by choice.
Another excuse for banning the veil is that it is anti-social. This applies mostly to the niqab and burqa because niqab and burqa wearers are covering their face. But what is keeping them from interacting with people? Not being able to see someone's face doesn't prevent you from talking to them. Sheikha El-Kathiri protests that being behind a veil doesn’t make it hard to interact because people should be able to treat and talk to her as a human being even though she covers her face. True social interaction is just getting to know people and their ideas and lives. Nothing about the niqab, burqa, or hijab prevents women from doing this. Others, like Sonia Khan, disagree. She thinks that the niqab limits interaction because of the natural and unavoidable tendency of others to judge you by what you wear and how you look. Sonia reasons that if they see someone in a niqab and are intimidated, they are not going to want to interact. She views this as a hold-back to their religion as well, because it will prevent Muslims from bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together using social interaction. Both Sheikha El-Kathiri and Sumayyah Hussein say that people should be able to interact anyway, and that is their problem at their loss if they can't get over a difference in clothing.
Perhaps the prime reason for banning the niqab is security issues. Although there is a much stronger argument for this issue because of identification issues, security is not as much of a risk as it may seem. Most women wear it for religious reasons, and they are only required to wear it around men. This means they can be taken into a private room with only women for identification. Others argue that if people's faces must be seen to identify them, why are women allowed to plaster their faces with makeup, which can make them unrecognizable? Despite the fact that there are some people who would wear a veil to prevent security from identifying them, there are ways to work around the identification issue in a respectable way to the Muslim women.
Another argument against the niqab ban is that it is purposely targeting Muslims. Although many disagree and insist it is for the safety of the people, evidence shows otherwise. Some of the exceptions to the face covering ban in France do not seem any less dangerous than a niqab. Medical masks are one exception. A criminal could just as easily cover her identity with a medical mask and say she was sick as wear a niqab and say she was Muslim. Sunglasses are also allowed, which cover the most recognizable part of the face - the eyes. Even the niqab lets the eyes show. The most ridiculous of the exceptions is masks used in "traditional activities" such as carnivals or religious processions. This sounds like it should include the niqab, because it is traditional religious wear, but since it is not used in any processions, it technically doesn't fall under this exception. Carnivals use masks, which can cover someone's identity even more than the niqab. The fact that these things are exceptions raises suspicion that the law is targeting the religion of Islam.
These are the main reasons for the veil bans, but there are a few other small reasons people have concerns. For instance, in Afghanistan, women are beat if they do not wear a burqa. People are worried about this behavior in their country, but the treatment of women in Afghanistan is considered very extreme and is not seen often in other countries. Besides, if this is the problem, why not only ban forcing women to wear veils? Others who want to ban the veil say that it sends a message for equality and women's rights in Islam, but the women who wear veils are having their rights violated by not being able to wear the veil and practice their religion. A better message to send to Islam would be accepting their practices even though they seem odd to outsiders. One case where it would actually make sense to require the woman to (temporarily) remove her niqab is in court. In a case in Canada, the defendant attorney wanted to be able to see her facial expressions so he could get a better feel for what she was saying, her emotions, and whether she was telling the truth. These things are important in court, so this would be one time when it would be reasonable for the woman to take off the niqab. There are many various reasons for banning veils, but most of them just don't make sense and can be easily worked around.
Even among Muslims, the ban is disputed. Sonia Khan, who wears neither a hijab, niqab, nor a burqa, thinks of veils as barriers. She believes Muslims are meant to be missionaries, and it makes it hard for them to be a missionary when people are intimidated by them. Her philosophy is that "people perceive you by what you wear," and it's not your fault that they judge you, but it's a fact of life that they need to adjust to.
There are others who are inconvenienced by the niqab ban, but learn to live with it. They know that the law is the law and they can't change that, so they find ways to practice their religion and obey the law. Some women wear the niqab, but take it off when asked to. Others use the same technique, but wear a medical mask underneath. That way they can argue that medical masks are used for health purposes to protect them from dangerous diseases as well as protect others, a right the government would be wrong to deny them. Many women have found ways to work around the law, despite the fact they disagree with it.
The majority of the population of the countries in question, non-Muslims, must also be taken into consideration. It is ultimately their decision, because they have a majority. Michelle Hutchison thinks that the niqab should be banned in France. She says in her blog, "As a liberal society, we aim to avoid prohibiting actions unless those actions are harmful in some way. Covering one's face does not seem harmful. However, in some cases, people covering their faces do cause harm- usually criminals who want the police to be unable to recognize them. In this sense, covering your face is a bit like refusing to walk through the metal detector at an airport. You, as an individual, refusing to walk through the metal detector would not seem to be harmful, because you know that you are not carrying concealed weapons. But since we don't know who is carrying concealed weapons, the only way to keep everyone safe is to make everyone go through metal detectors."
Likewise, giving another example, Hutchison says, "You, as an individual, know that you are not going to rob a bank when you don a baklava. But in order to protect society as a whole, we have a norm against wearing baklavas."
On the other side, she takes into consideration that unlike people wearing a baklava, wearers of the niqab "worry that they might inspire the wrath of an omnipotent God." Reasoning with this, she also states that "because God is just, if the government prevents followers of a religion from covering their face, presumably it will be those in government who will suffer God's wrath, rather than the followers themselves."
Although this is a good point that deserves consideration, whether God's wrath will go to the government officials or not is irrelevant. Either way, there is a violation to freedom of religion, which many countries, which have banned the veil or are trying to, are strongly against. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18:1 states, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to…manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching." Both Canada and France, two of the many countries trying to ban the niqab, have signed and ratified this covenant.
Unfortunately, there are bans in place already as well as pending ones. In 2010, France banned full covers such as the niqab and burqa in schools, hospitals, govt. offices, transport, and other public places. Belgium also banned burqas in public the same year. The city of Barcelona in Spain enforces a ban on burqas in public areas as well. Although Canada has not yet fully banned the veil, the burqa or niqab must be removed before the oath of citizenship. Other countries that have burqa and niqab bans in place are Turkey and Spain. All of the countries listed have also signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, referred to above.
More recently, in April of 2012, another law was passed in France. Before this new law, called the "religious neutrality law," was passed, the most common jobs available to those who still chose to wear the niqab when not in public were a cleaning lady or a nursery worker. Other employers often refused to employ a niqab wearer. After the "religious neutrality law" was passed though, women working in nurseries couldn't wear any religious symbols. Because it was passed on the one year anniversary of the niqab ban, many people view it as a law targeting niqab wearers to prevent them from wearing the niqab even out of public places. The fact that's even more shocking is that women can't even wear religious symbols such as the niqab as a nursery worker in their own home. For instance, if they were babysitting for a friend or taking care of people's kids while they were at work, even if they took them to their home, it would be against the law to wear the niqab. In addition, cleaning ladies in government offices cannot wear the niqab. Many women are waiting for them to extend it as they extended the nursery worker law to private homes.
There have been many instances where woman have been banned from activities because of their religious desire to wear the niqab. Sarah Benkirane was barred for the league where she had a stable job as a referee because of her hijab. In another circumstance, two women were kicked out of their language class because they refused to remove their niqab and expose themselves. Stephanie (no last name given) was swimming in her niqab at a local beach and someone called the police on her. She was sent to court, where she had to life her veil for identification. The prosecutor, who did not agree with the niqab ban, sent her home without a fine because she caused no danger to anyone and hadn't done anything to disrupt anyone's rights. These are just a few out of many times that women have been forced to give up something important to them because of veil bans.
Along with the bans that are already in place, there are prejudices and many other consequences. One niqab wearer, Hind Ahmas is 32 years old and lives in France. Her life has been greatly changed by the niqab ban. She says, "My quality of life has seriously deteriorated since the ban. In my head, I have to prepare for war every time I step outside, prepare to come up against people who want to put a bullet in my head." When speaking about the law itself, Hind says that "the politicians claimed they were liberating us; what they've done is to exclude us from the social sphere. Before this law, I never asked myself whether I'd be able to make it to a café or collect documents from a town hall. One politician in favor of the ban said niqabs were 'walking prisons.' Well, that's exactly where we've been stuck by this law."
In addition to prejudice and not being able to go in public safely, she is having financial trouble. Although she started wearing a niqab before she married and was able to get a job, now that the niqab ban is in effect, she can't find a job. She says she'd contacted many employers to find a job, asking if they will accept the veil. "They say, 'It depends on what type. If it's a tunic and trousers and a headscarf, that's okay, but a long robe is not.'"
Her ordinary life has changed to adjust to the ban. "If I have a meeting, I'll always leave the house at 6:30 a.m. instead of 8:30 a.m. in case a bus won't take me and I have to wait 45 minutes for another one," Hind explains. Even though her daughter doesn't wear a niqab, she is feeling the ban as well. Her mother says, "Life is hard and I have to work. If my daughter wants something- even a Barbie doll- and I can't pay for it, it breaks my heart."
Rachid Nekkaz, a French property developer, and owner of the association, Don't Touch My Constitution, describes the effect of the law, "The perverse effect of this law is that women in niqab are effectively under house arrest." His group staged high-profile protests when the law was enacted. He has also set up a $1 million fund to pay fines over the niqab for women in France.
Prejudice and fines are not the only problem, though. Some of the prejudice has gone so far that women have been attacked in the streets because of their clothing. In one attack, a woman was told to go back to Afghanistan. Another attack was against a woman at a zoo, who was holding a 13 month old baby. Samy Debah, head of the French Collective Against Islamophobia said about the attack, "Her child was traumatised by the zoo attack and is now being seen by a psychologist. These women blame themselves; they see a baby in that situation and think, 'It's my fault.'"
"My husband doesn't dictate what I do, much less the government," said Kenza Drider on French television before the ban came into force. Now she refuses to take off her niqab, but lives in fear of being attacked. "I still go out in my car, on foot, to the shops, to collect my kids. I'm insulted about three to four times a day," she tells an interviewer. She also says that most people tell her to go home, but some have threatened her. In one extreme threat, a man told her, "We'll do to you what we did to the Jews." She says in her worst attack, a man tried to run her over with his car. Since then, the police have stepped in to protect her from the attacks, but there's nothing they can do about the insults. Even when the police step in to protect her from attackers, she risks being fined for wearing the niqab.
Many women are standing up for their beliefs and fighting back. When Hind Ahmas and Najate Nait Ali where arrested for wearing the niqab in public in France, Hind said she wanted to be fined. She explained, "Without a condemnation I can't move forward. There has to be this sanction with a fine so that I can take this to the European Court of Human Rights. It's imperative that there's a sanction." Najate Nait Ali also wanted to take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Hind was fined 120 euros, and Najate was fined 80 euros. They were the first of 91 women arrested and they were the first to act on the law and try to stop it.
In her case, Ahmas assured the judge that her parents weren't Muslims. In fact, she had once partied in miniskirts, before she rediscovered faith and converted to Islam. She began wearing the niqab six years ago, before she was married. Having convinced them that wearing the niqab was by her own choice, she told them of the assaults she had suffered since the ban. She described all the insults she received as well as telling the court about being punched in the face by a man who was angry about her niqab.
Another woman standing up to the law plans to run for President in the election. Kenza Drider is a political figure admired by the hundreds of niqab wearers in France. She believes strongly that ban is wrong and wearing the niqab is a personal right that is protected by other French laws. In an interview will BBC news, she said, "The reality is, there is a lot of unemployment in France and a lot of problems in France so let's not focus on what I wear, let's deal with the real problems. So my candidacy is really being done for that. To say don't stop at what I'm wearing, but go much deeper."
The bans currently in place should never have been passed. The reasoning is flawed and many of the dangers can be worked around easily. Religious freedom of Muslim women in Europe is in danger because of these laws that have been allowed to pass without much question. Their fate is decided by the majority, who has standing prejudices against the Islam religion. Now they live in a state of fear, not being able to go in public because they cannot practice their religion and lifestyle.
As for the bans still pending in Canada and other such places, it is up to the people to decide. Ban the veil and send the Muslim women of the country into constant inability to do what they feel will please their Creator, or allow them to have religious freedom to make their own choices about their dress?
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Isa Gonzalez, "Why Do Muslim Women Wear Veils?" http://www.youthcomm.org/story/id/NYC-2011-05-17.html. Copyright 2012. Viewed 10/22/12.
Michelle Hutchison, "Was France right to ban the burqa?" http://blog.practicaleithics.ox.ac.uk/2011/04/was-france-right-to-ban-the-burqa/. Copyright April 16, 2011. Viewed 10/25/12.
"The Muslim headdress debate around the world," http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/12/12/f-muslim-headdress.html. Copyright December 12, 2011. Viewed 10/22/12.
Shabana Mir, "17 Reasons Why Women Wear Headscarves," http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/152/17_reasons_why_women_wear_headscarves. Copyright March 27, 2008. Viewed 10/22/12/
"Why do muslim women cover their face with veil, why niqab, face veil, hijab, headcover," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwcVU3RiwbU&playnext=1&list=PL362A3D9FDAE161E9&feature=results_main. Copyright February 26, 2012. Viewed 10/24/12.
Zara syed, "Banning the Niqab," http://www.islamicinsights.com/news/international-news/banning-the-niqab.html. Copyright June 21, 2010. Viewed 11/9/12.
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