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MPV Conversation Series #1:
on the Veiling of Women

About Muslims for Progressive Values
Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) seeks to bring together progressive Muslims and friends who share their values to work for a more humane world. We welcome all who are interested in discussing, promoting and working for the implementation of progressive values - social justice, human rights, economic opportunity, and separation of church and state - as well as tolerant and inclusive understandings of Islam.
Although subject to cultural and regional differences, the niqab or burqa is generally understood as a covering over a woman's face, whereas the hijab is often understood as a covering over a woman's hair. Muslims around the world disagree about whether the niqab/burqa or hijab are religious requirements.

On June 23, 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a speech at the French parliament where he declared that "the burqa is not a religious sign; it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement... it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic."

MPV asked several of our members to comment on this story.

Pamela Taylor, MPV Advisory Council
Pamela is co-founder of MPV, a multi-genre writer, and a free-lance editor. She is the Director of the Islamic Writers Alliance and a member of the advisory board of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

I'm not for bans, but I really hate the burqa. I think it doesn't have any sanction at all in the religion. It's a denial of women's individuality and identity, and degrading to men who supposedly can't control themselves at the sight of a woman's face... it is most certainly not an example of the prophet's Middle Way; it's as extreme a form of dress as you can have. That it is being peddled as the height of religiosity makes me ill.

Sarkozy's statement is problematic because it denies women agency to make their own choices. I believe people should have the right to be idiots if they so choose, and it makes them happy without hurting anyone else. Of course, the issue isn't that simple. How many French Muslim women wear the burqa due to extreme pressure from their husband/family? I have no idea. I think that people who are not familiar with Muslims overestimate the number of Muslim women who are forced into wearing the hijab, or perhaps not forced, but wear it because of social and/or familial pressure. Almost all the women I know who wear hijab would deny that social or familial pressure figured in their decision to wear the hijab, though that may be a bit delusional too.

Anyway, I could see supporting a ban on very real concerns for public safety. I don't believe societies should be required to put up with unidentifiable women (or at least we think they are women) roaming the streets. We have a reasonable right to be able to identify people who are travelling in public -- on public transportation, even walking on the street -- certain businesses have a strong need to identify their customers -- banks for instance. Having segments of the population walking around with their faces covered simply makes law enforcement that much tougher.

Gehan Sabry, Islamic Faith and Cultures
Gehan is an activist, editor, and publisher who co-hosts the "Islamic Faith & Cultures" weekly radio show with her husband Hesham Sabry.

Only God knows how those who wear the niqab make me cringe... however, and at the same time, my position has always been to defend their right to choose what they want (provided it doesn't come with an attitude of superiority-which unfortunately it does most of the time!)

You are absolutely right about Westerners viewing external appearance and dress codes as a major issue... which is precisely why I am troubled by Sarkozy's sudden expertise regarding it being a sign of subservience. France touts itself as being for "Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite" - so where does banning some dress code fit into this?

Sammer Aboelela, MPV Board of Directors
Sammer is organizer of the New York City Progressive Muslim Meetup.

Unfortunately, this issue has become complicated by many factors - most of which revolve around bigotry. Personally I reject the burqa and niqab for the same reason I reject botox and facelifts: they all suggest that men are unable to see women as anything besides sexual objects, and offer women the choice of exploiting or retreating from that perceived reality. Sadly, though, I must admit that there is something to this perception. The underlying problem that no one wants to speak about is sexism - this is common across cultures, and certainly an enormous problem in France. While western and "Islamic" cultures handle the problem of sexism differently, it is ALWAYS women who bear nearly all of the burden, whether that means covering their entire bodies in heavy cloth or carcinogenic cosmetics, or mutilating their bodies in dangerous procedures with the promise of making them more sexually desirable.

I think that there's an opportunity here to condemn the practice of niqab/burqa while still maintaining the dual progressive critique that is absent from the dialogue in the western press. I'd much rather make this about the promotion of feminism than the denunciation of religious orthodoxy.

Imam Daayiee Abdullah, Al-Fatiha Foundation

Daayiee is the Moderator for Muslim Gay Men and writing on Islamic perspectives on Muslim homosexuality.  
When a Muslim woman lives in a non-Muslim country/state, she must abide by the laws of that place. Though I believe Muslim women should decide how they wish to dress, Muslim women who do not live in Muslim states must also recognize the law(s) are different and (civil) rights are viewed from a different perspective, e.g., civil rights and religious rites... If the burqa is banned, then not unlike in Muslim states where certain women's attire is not permissible, e.g., short sleeves and exposing their legs above the calf, the person must decide whether or not they will abide by the law. If these women do not like it, let them and their families relocate to a place where it is more acceptable to wear burqas. I grow tired of running into Muslims seeking freedom of speech and economic freedom in foreign countries all over the world, but they state very clearly they are not willing to adjust to the laws of the places they obtain such freedoms. I tell them if the situation was reversed, they would want to make the Westerners abide by the laws of that Muslim country... If you can't leave, then abide by the law(s)--you don't have to be a genius to understand it. 

Adriana Decker, MPV Member
Adriana is a medical doctor specialized in epidemiology, and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Islamic studies.

As a Muslim woman being born and raised in the West, I believe that I have the right to dress however the heck I want. And I personally am tired of men and others being obsessed with whatever the heck I want to wear, be it a bikini or be it a burqa.

So, as any other citizen, I will fight for my freedom and civil rights. Yes, if there's anything that endangers others, of course then I will change my preference for the sake of others.

Women who wear niqab in Canada go and get their picture showing their face and then just drive with their niqab on. As far as I know (and I know all the niqabis in Montreal since they're not that many), all of them drive and none have been involved in any kind of car accident.

I am an independent, strong-minded and successful (I guess) Muslim woman who chose to wear niqab for her own reasons that are actually nobody's business. I really don't care what other people wear, and I don't think people should care for what I wear.

And why the HECK should I relocate? I don't think we tell gay couples to "relocate" to states where gay marriage is allowed, or to move to Canada, where we are obviously a step ahead, right? So no, I will not relocate, I will fight for the simple freedom to dress however I want.

Ginan Rauf, MPV Member
Ginan is a full time mom, activist, freelance writer, secular humanist, and member of the New Jersey Arab-American Heritage Commission created by Governor Corzine. She holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature from Harvard University.

I happen to disagree with Sarkozy. On some level the burqa as worn in the West strikes me as being more an affirmation of a militant identity than an expression of piety. It is therefore self-defeating to oppose it. The whole identity is based on reacting negatively anyway so it fans the fuel as it were. This is precisely the kind of attention that these ''idiots'' as Pamela puts it crave. In my view the best thing is to ignore their presence for the burqa is based on a paradoxical assertion of absence as intrusive presence. That is the way to defang them. What a bore really!

I think part of the problem is that we are so used to thinking of individual rights that we forget how individuals acting in concert can often alter social practices and change cultural dynamics. I am going to spend the whole summer in Egypt for example, a country that used to be relatively open in terms of dress for women. It will be really hot and I just realized that so much of my summer clothes are sleeveless. To put on even a light jacket given the heat seems to be an undesirable option. I basically have to buy clothes with longer sleeves that I neither need nor desire. The point I am trying to make is that the ubiquity of the hijab and niqab has determined the range of choices I can make if I don't want to be bothered on the streets. The symbolism of what I am wearing would be defined in relation to other symbols in the same context. A relatively decent short sleeved dress or shirt would be viewed as tawdry or provocative as the case may be. There is real and visible oppression for women now who don't wear the hijab. There is little or no space for their choice- in terrible heat to wear- clothes that MAKE SENSE in terms of adapting to the environment.

Vanessa Karam, MPV Board of Directors
Vanessa is Professor of English and Islamic Studies at University of the West.

Consider the source: Sarkozy has repeatedly voiced racist and, particularly, Islamophobic views. This "ban the burqa" issue seems to be a smoke screen, reinforcing the cant that Islam is in compatible with a "modern and civilized" society. Most Muslim women in France do not wear the burqa. Many wear headscarves, and those have already been banned from public schools and public office.

My sister-in-law is a nurse in France. She was given the option by the public hospital where she works to tie her headscarf at the back of her neck (like a kerchief). So, that's what she does when she's at work.

An alarming number of women in France (and elsewhere) are human slaves to the sex industry. Now there's some real denial of human dignity and freedom. How is Sarkozy addressing this intolerable injustice? When it comes to Muslim women in France, if Sarkozy wants to make a significant difference in their lives, he might work to provide them equal access to education, housing, and employment. But that would require the French to confront widespread and systemic racism. Banning the burqa is so much easier.

Jack Fertig, MPV and Al-Fatiha Member
Jack is a long time queer activist who embraced Islam in 2003 and works as an astrologer in San Francisco.  

I wonder about traffic safety. Can you really drive safely with the visual impediments of the veil? And yes, in any event, faces should be visible for security and safety concerns. Women in western countries should be willing to raise their veils for reasonable ID, safety, or security checks -- whether driving a car or making a charge card transaction. Beyond such basic practical concerns, I'm always amused by the obvious hypocrisy of "Don't submit! Be free, and do what I tell you!"

A couple of months ago the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence -- an order of drag queen nuns -- had their 30th anniversary. Having been one of the Sisters in their early days I did want to see some of the "girls" I hadn't seen in ages, and decided to attend. The events were very much "dress up" and for a variety of reasons I decided to go in niqab. One of my many reasons was indeed to be able to conceal my identity at first (knowing that wouldn't last long) and then to be able to conceal my facial expressions. In ways it was both obliterating and liberating. I enjoyed the anonymity it offered me on the street and the bus en route to and from events. There was an odd feeling of being both very strongly gender-specific and gender-free, as the garb both (mis-)identified and obscured my sex. Drag is usually more obvious and complex in presentation. This was more complex internally, but not visibly.

In the West we equate masks with wickedness or unaccountability. Whether it's the KKK (which the complete face covering of the niqab resembles) or the burglar's mask, or the Halloween trickster or the carnival masks of an illicit lovers' tryst. What I felt in the niqab was very much outside any familiar frame of reference; and in a culture where that is so foreign that I could sense the dissonance. In San Francisco, people are used to anything and everything so after the first glance people paid no mind. I was conspicuous, but unidentifiable. It was a peculiar sense of power.

The act of negating and restricting is empowering to the person who does it, even to oneself if one really chooses it. To accept it on somebody else's say-so, not having a voice, is very disempowering. It all comes back to the question of personal agency. When a patriarchal state (even with feminist trappings) attempts to overrule the pressures of a patriarchal family culture, does that in any way really empower women's' individual agency, or does it just put the sister into the middle of a tug-of-war between two patriarchies? If you really want to empower women, support their independence, education, and job equality. Let them decide their wardrobes for themselves.

Laura Mirza Hussein, MPV Member
Laura is a 38 year-old American Muslim who converted to Islam ten years ago.

This issue is actually important. I know that it is frustrating because some people feel that the "hijab" aspect is just a piece of cloth. However, to most of the women I know that bit of cloth symbolizes and embodies repression.

The issue is repression. I know that many people who wear the scarf do not feel oppressed or repressed. I've actually read about women that have chosen the burqa. Are they oppressed if  they choose it? And this issue in not only with "Westerners." Go to a mosque with hair uncovered (as a woman) and see what happens. When you go to the beach look at the Muslim men having fun with shorts in the waves and watch the girls fully clothed. What inequality! All caused by a few yards of cloth.

I am glad that in America at the moment we have the right to choose our religious attire. While I personally disagree with being forced to wear hijab and burqa, I think women ought to be able to wear these things if it fits with their idea of what their religion is.