“WHY are you wearing the veil?”
There is a shocked silence in the class-room.
“The niqab (the face-veil) is a cultural tradition. It has nothing to do with Islam,” continues the speaker, an old man with an imposing demeanour.
A teacher tries to explain something, but the old man is adamant. The face-veil must go. The girl must take it off.
This, curiously, is not a scene from a Belgian or French school, but a Cairo class-room in October 2006. The speaker is none other than the late Shaikh Muhammad Tantawi, the Rector of the Al-Azhar University, and one of the most respected Muslim scholars of his era.
The Al-Azhar – founded during the Fatimid dynasty by a woman benefactor in the 9th century – is not only one of the world’s oldest universities; it is also one of Islam’s most authoritative institutions on the Shari’ah, or Sacred Law.
But with the Belgium parliament having voted to ban the niqab last month, the issue of the veil will be very much on the mind of the international Muslim community, a community already sensitive to post 9/11 and 7/7 stereotyping, and angered that typecasts on the war on terror still linger.
The cynical appeasement of the right-wing electorate by vote-seeking centrist parties in Europe will certainly not impress its Muslim communities. Consisting as they do chiefly of migrant Turks, Arabs and Africans, Islamophobia – or naked racism – will be the perception in a world where perception happens to be everything.
These Muslim communities will be more than mindful that President Nicolas Sarkozy has proclaimed that the burqa and niqab are “not welcome in France”; that Italy has anti-niqab draft bills circulating in its parliamentary committees; that the Netherlands is considering the same and that Jack Straw (when leader of the British House of Commons) had stated that he felt “uncomfortable” with the face-veil.
The observation of Dr. Hisham Hellyer, an Oxford political-scientist and author, that the European political establishment is fighting unfounded right-wing fears of a “Euro-Arabian” cultural takeover should be well understood in South Africa, a place where immigrant xenophobia has reached murderous proportions.
Fortunately, in South Africa, our African-ness is defined by our historical cultures and our languages, and is supported by the Constitution. We might be just as hostile to migrants as right-wing Europeans, but at least a South African Muslim woman has as much right to wear her veil in public as President Zuma has to don his leopard skins.
We’re guaranteed of our sovereign differences as South Africans, and thankfully, it’s unlikely that any local politician would even contemplate the same xenophobic discourse on Islam as Europe has.
However, for those socially distant from Islam, the veil saga must be confusing. The inter-changeable terminologies currently used for the veil – hijab, niqab, burqa and purdah – cause tremendous misunderstanding.
Briefly, the hijab is not a face-veil. It’s a public expression of female modesty through the headscarf. The body and hair are covered, but the face and hands remain open. This is the globally predominant mode of Muslim female dress accepted by the vast majority of scholars.
The burqa – found in patriarchal locations such as Pakistan and Afghanistan – is an adaption of the face veil. Sometimes derogatorily described as a “tent”, it’s a single garment thrown over the body with a slit for the eyes. It’s this garment that has come to typify Taliban misogyny.
The purdah (a Persian word) is another term for the burqa, for a woman who covers herself from head-to-toe. The niqab – the face veil – is a piece of material put over the hijab (or headscarf) to cover the woman’s face except for her eyes.
But back to Shaikh Tantawi, who in 2006 was already well past the age of not worrying about fear or favour – hence his public utterances on the face-veil.
His proclamation against the niqab certainly did ruffle feathers, but it did open the book on whether the face-veil was an integral to Islam or not. Obscurantist clerics shouted that those sans the veil would burn in hell, whilst more measured thinkers such as Shaikh Yusuf Qaradhawi urged caution.
He explained that there were diverse traditions, different shades of meaning and varying interpretations in Islamic law.
It was a question of whether the niqab was obligatory or not, he said. The woman wearing the veil should not be condemned, as should the woman not wearing it. In other words, the woman donning the hijab (but not the face-veil) was perfectly within the legal tenets of traditional Islam, as was the face-veil wearer.
Historically, the veil is pre-Islamic and its association with male chauvinism and political extremism is only recent. Early records of the veil go back to Greek and Persian times, as well as Old Testament and New Testament annals. It was St Paul, for instance, who told Christian women to cover their heads.
However, to indulge in feminist clichés about the veil being a sign of demure male subservience, does not present the full picture. For many Muslim women the hijab, together with the face-veil, is a proud proclamation of their identity.
Shaikh Abdal Hakim Murad, a Divinity Professor at Cambridge University, quotes Safinaz Kazim, an Egyptian thinker. For her the hijab, the headscarf, is a “quasi-feminist” statement that enables the woman to reduce her vulnerability to “visual theft”, a man enjoying her visually without her consent.
Murad adds further that the Islamic code of dress – a “moral raincoat” as it were – allows the Muslim woman to be liberated, not from tradition and meaning, but from over-materialistic ostentation and patriarchal denuding.
The niqab debate is definitely not a question that is going to disappear from the socio-political radar overnight. But in Muslim minority societies – such as Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States – I feel there is going to have to be a lot more compromise on all sides.
Responsible Muslim scholars will have to take the lead and allow reasonable concessions to legitimate security concerns of governments, who in the same vein must be as sympathetic to Muslim sensitivities.