Vol. 5 Num 889 Mon. November 27, 2006  

Conscience & Society
The West's problem with the veil

Some days ago Dutch government issued a prescription that a Muslim woman should not wear in public places veil that covers her face. This is likely to be a law in the near future. The Muslims have generally protested such an embargo on the Muslim minority community in Holland.

One detects similar views from a person like Romana Prodi of Italy. Earlier, former British foreign secretary Jack Straw felt "uncomfortable" with Muslim women's veil as he probably thought appropriate communication is not possible if a woman speaks from under a veil. He said that the veil was a "visible demonstration of separateness" and forming "parallel communities" in a country. He reportedly said the women should not wear veil with face covered when they visit his Blackburn constituency office.

It is not only his problem, most of the people of the western world have problem with Muslim veil. France officially banned headscarves and any other religious signs in schools. Even a Muslim country like Turkey, known to be a secular one, banned veils in schools and offices. Jack Straw apparently did not want this to be "prescriptive," as reported by the media. He thought covering of face stand in the way of good community relationship. Many in the Muslim community felt this was highly insulting.

Regardless of the behavioral pattern of men on women, it is generally believed, in the context of social interactions, that the face is the mirror of one's relationship with his/her surroundings. If the face is covered, the results of one's community interaction remain obscure. However, a politician sitting in London and visiting constituency only in long intervals is not a social animal in the sense of day-to-day social interactions in the community and therefore should not be terribly concerned about women's facial reaction. The community reaction is more important. Hence Jack Straw's comment on covering of women face falls even outside his political jurisdiction and indeed appears unsocial to say the least. He was probably guided more by the terror fear arising out of resistance fighters and suicide bombers' covered faces, though the Muslim veil has nothing to do with what the resistance fighters do.

It is not only Jack Straw, a person like Gordon Brown who is set to take over the premiership of the UK as soon as Tony Blair resigns as the prime minister, also has problems with veils and supported Jack Straw's view on it. He said: "I would emphasize the importance of what we do to integrate people into our country, including the language and including the history." One may agree with Brown on language, but history appears doubtful, as this brings in a community's cultures and traditions, which are bound to be different. But there is no problem: each country has different communities including religious and tribal cultures and traditions and they live together in peace and harmony. Only thing is that you do not ask anyone to abandon them against their choice and wish. This is their religious and community freedom.

Even the UK race relations minister went to the extent of asking the school authority to terminate the services of a Muslim woman teacher who covers her face. She was reportedly suspended from her teaching job. In the TV interview she said she did not cover her face when teaching young boys and girls in the school; she only did it when some male colleague appeared before her. So said her students find no problem as her face remains uncovered while teaching. Some politicians, including one Muslim member of parliament, expressed the view that it would be better to keep the face uncovered, though wearing veil, while teaching.

This veil row has adversely affected race relations in the UK as some believe that veil with face covered is one's religious choice and she should be allowed to exercise her religious freedom. Even the attorney of the Muslim teacher, who is British native, said earlier she did not have any problem in her social relationship as she has many non-Muslim friends and she communicates with them without any difficulty. Apparently, her face remains open when she works and talks to women, but she covers her face when male colleagues appear. This is her choice and her way of life.

Everybody cannot have the same way of life. One may walk practically half dressed in the eyes of some, as one may prefer to be consciously less careful about his or her dress. Others cannot say anything as it is their way of life and their choice to lead the life that way. It is terribly embarrassing for any parent, whether Muslim or of any other religion, to go to a newspaper stand with their children in many cities and towns of the West as some magazines and other advertisement papers carry pictures of practically naked women.

The western way of life that Bush-Blair often talk about will not suit the people of the Islamic world. Bush's war against Afghanistan did not change the burqa culture of the Afghan women. This difference in the way of life involving culture and traditions of certain society is as old as civilization and will remain entrenched within the religious divide. No amount of Bush-Blair war or persuasion can change this. And it should not change.

The veil is often a part of culture and traditionally used by the women and particularly Muslim women all over the world. The religious Jewish women also wear veils almost like religious Muslim women. Veils are used by many Christian women while going to church. Veil is a must for a practically all women regardless of religion during wedding. In some parts of India, working women also use long headscarves which seem to a part of their tradition and culture.

However, those used by the Muslim women are of different kinds, ranging from full burqa, as seen in Afghanistan, to veils with fully or partly covered face, as we see more in the Arab world, and hijab, where face and hands up to wrists are not covered. Indeed, hijab with face open is the most widely used dress by the Muslim women now in the various parts of the world and particularly in the western world.

Whatever may be the general public reaction on the issue, the prescription as per Qur'an is:

"And they 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) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosom and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their family members ..." (Sura Nur: Ayat 31).

My interpretation is that hijab with faces open is possibly the right kind of veil that is mentioned in the Holy Qur'an. But may be, some others would interpret it in a different way, and I would respect their views. It is a very sensitive issue. Allah probably never wanted to put people under duress with their dress. The most important thing that must be observed in dress is the issue of guarding modesty -- modesty of both men and women but more strictly applicable to women folk.

Muslehuddin Ahmad is a former Secretary and Ambassador.