Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Facing the veil

The debate over niqab currently ensuing as France enforces a ban on face veils somewhat bewilders me, mainly because I live in Dubai, a city of striking contrasts that attempts to cater to the values of many of its varied residents who hail from countries around the world. Dubai has become a “salad bowl” of cultures that strive to co-exist while maintaining traditional practices, including attire. On some occasions, I have sensed that women are more liberated in their clothing choices in Dubai than they are in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

During a visit to one of Dubai’s many malls, one can pass by scantily clad women wearing mini-skirts and provocative tops and, a few seconds later, walk beside a woman of Gulf Arab nationality donning a black abaya (robe) and full face veil, sometimes accompanied by her husband and children, sometimes with other female relatives or friends and sometimes on her own. 

Diverse attire worn in Dubai shopping mall, courtesy Gulf News
Despite warnings in malls about ensuring that people dress modestly, women are able to buy and wear a diverse array of clothing. Some dress in stylish and modest Western dress, others wear decorative abayas with or without a head-covering, some wear Western-style attire with hair covering, and still others wear traditional Asian attire such as the Indian sari or Pakistani shalwar kameez.

I suppose living in this nuanced environment for a number of years has desensitised me to the issue of women’s attire. I am pretty much fine with what a woman wears so long as she is comfortable. In my view, clothing choices to a large degree are not independently reached. Rather, women are conditioned by the familial and cultural influences they were exposed to growing up. Many women believe their individual liberty can be expressed by exercising their freedom to wear revealing clothing. Many others feel they derive liberty from modest attire that distracts attention away from their physical manifestation and forces people they interact with to focus on their intellect.

The face veil is not an exception to this debate. Cultural interpretations of God’s expectations from women practising the Islamic faith have in a limited number of cases idealised this form of dress. My perspective is that the face veil is not rooted in Islamic texts, nor do I regard clothing in general to be among the primary markers of one’s Islam, an Arabic term meaning “submission to God”.

Unfortunately, face veils are in certain cases a misogynist cultural convention that has conditioned some Muslim women to believe that the clothing they wear will dictate their fate after death. However, the motivation behind wearing niqab is not exclusively so; many women wear niqab out of deep conviction that it draws them nearer to God and removes their physical self from the glare of sexual objectification.

One of my aunts began wearing a face veil a few years ago. She was widowed two decades ago, lost a teenager daughter eight years ago, and now lives on her own. She came to the decision as she draws herself more deeply in worship, showing her face only to God when she prays. While I witnessed a number of individuals in the family question her rationale for making this choice, arguing that it does not have a legitimate basis in the faith, I defend her freedom to choose. As someone attempting to embrace  the true spirit of Islam, I am obliged to be kind, tolerant and nonjudgmental. I feel deeply that if a woman is wearing a face veil as an expression of her identity and belief, it should be her right to do so in a society that values freedom of expression.

An outright ban on a garment of clothing only perpetuates oppression and hatred. It demeans the cultural tradition, puts in jeopardy community bonds and can incite an angry backlash, rather than advancing women’s rights and guarding public safety. On the contrary, people understandably tend to cling to their values when they come under threat.

Supporters of France’s ban deem it legitimate because they argue face veils are incompatible with gender equality and pose threats to public safety. If there are legitimate security concerns, then Amnesty International’s proposal last July for “targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations” would suffice. “Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks. French law already allows for such limited restrictions,” Amnesty, which opposes the ban, continued.

If there are genuine concerns over the treatment and coercion of women by their husbands, these should be addressed through greater emphasis on and funding of cultural institutions dedicated to assisting women who choose to leave abusive circumstances. There should be steps taken to influence the conditioning process, so women who have not been exposed to the variety of viewpoints rooted in Islamic values are able to, over time, make informed, independent choices.

While growing up in Canada and the United States, I came across a number of women of various nationalities and faiths who faced abuse (physical, verbal and emotional) by their husbands. Through community support networks, interactions with women in their neighbourhoods and watching talk shows like Oprah Winfrey, these women found the courage to leave their abusive households. 

As many of these women were reliant on their husbands financially, their means of escape was facilitated by the existence of local shelters for battered women. These institutions offered them a secure environment, moral and financial support to progressively tackle their situations and help them begin new lives. Strengthening and funding such community programmes is much more essential for empowering women than making a blanket assumption that all women who wear a face veil must be brain-washed, oppressed and abused.

France’s niqab ban stems from an intolerant government policy rather than any genuine interest to advance women’s equality and protect society. When France began enforcing the ban on face veils this week, I read pages of anti-Islam comments congratulating the government and encouraging it to follow up with new policies, some going as far as calling for all Muslims to be expelled from the country. 

The ban has, in this regard, unfortunately taken a gigantic step backward in promoting tolerance and freedom of expression. I am doubtful that efforts to mobilise protests against the ban will be effective due to the overwhelming support in government circles for passing the ban in the first place. If I was a woman who chose to wear niqab out of conviction, I would respect the new law and remove it. I would also, if it was in my power, strive to leave that environment as quickly as possible.

Look forward to your comments!


  1. This is a brilliant piece of writing. Very clear and well argued. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment. There were many points where I felt I could elaborate more, so I'm glad the main arguments were clear.

  3. While reading your blog & listening to the age-old debate on what a woman should, wear & what should not, two questions pop-up in my mind. One is why we, especially men talk of what a woman should wear? No one talks or very rarely talks of what a man should wear. Other one is why as a human being in the process of evolution we started wearing clothes. The answer is to protect our self from the climatic condition of that particular region we started covering our body & over a period, it became a part of our culture.
    Now one more question I have in my mind & it is very radical. What if we had not followed the culture of clothing or covering our self? What if human beings were in their natural beauty or in simple word nude? Once a famous Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee said that the more a woman cover herself the more one is curious about her beauty.
    Having said that, what a woman should wear should be entirely her choice. Ban of a face veil or enforcing a face veil both are extreme step. Banning of veil is against democracy & freedom to wear what you want. European countries call them self a secular & pluralist society. But any such type of ban shows the intolerance of European society.
    I, myself is against any kind of a ban neither i favor a "Niqab" or "Burqa". The choice should be entirely of a woman. She should be allowed to wear what she want. If she likes Niqab don't ban it. If she doesn’t like it don't force her to wear it.
    At the end, I would like to thank you, Daliah Merzaban. Your article gave me chance to express my view. Keep writing & hope you will read my comment even if you don't like it.

  4. Thanks for your comments Bhushan, I appreciate your insights!

  5. Acres of ink have been used on this topic in both the East and West. It has been quite an education to me from the point of view of the Westerner.

    The immediate first reaction I had as a Westerner to all forms of covering is that "why must women cover their beauty? Why instead, don't the men where they live take responsibility for their reaction to them."

    I still feel that it's not a woman's job to be less pretty by hiding her hair, but I've come to appreciate the Muslim focus on conservative dress in public spheres. I feel like it communicates a mutual respect for each other.

    That said, the Westerner in me still struggles with more extreme forms. A group of my women friends from 10 different countries got together to discuss the proposed burqa bans and how we felt about them. Our hostess rented a burqa from a theatrical shop for each one of us to try on and it made me feel completely oppressed and like a non-person. You couldn't see any of my personality! How could I express myself? If I can't express myself, how can I be equal?

    Another struggle I had with the niquab is the unnerving feeling I had dealing with a 9-year-old girl in a niquab. I was stunned that anyone could regard a girl this young as a sexual being needing to be covered, but it was also incredibly unnerving not to be able to read her face and expressions. I finally asked her to lift her veil for the rest of our conversation (about books) and her smile lit up the room. Why would anyone want to cover that joy up? I continue to struggle with that.

    On the other hand, that ladies can't wear their headscarves to University in Turkey seems like a violation of their freedom of religion. Wear it in America, but please, let me see your beautiful smile, so I can enjoy the glory God gave you.

  6. Thanks for your comment and insights Karen. I am staunchly opposed to enforcing a dress code on children because I think it has the potential to damage their relationship with God rather than strengthen it. Too many people use fear rather than love as a tool of advocating belief in God, which to me is inherently wrong and contradictory to God's teachings.

    I don't cover my hair myself, nor does my mother, and up to now I do not feel this has detracted in any way from my faith. I have begun to develop an immense connection with God, elhamd'Allah, and if I feel that this will be strengthened by a change in attire in the future I would certainly do so.

    It is a tradition in Islam to veil whilst praying. Since submission to God implies that one is in a constant state of prayer and remembrance, full body and hair covering does make sense to me in that context. Again, this should be undertaken solely for God, and when done for this purpose, it should not be regarded as a symbol of oppression but, rather, liberation.

    While I can't imagine myself choosing to wear niqab at this stage in my life, I am hesitant to say this will always be the case because I just can't say where my spiritual journey will take me. I think that in order to truly be devoted to God I must approach life with an open mind. I encourage you to read this article Habiba Hamid, who writes eloquently about her decision to stop wearing niqab and the ways in which this reduced rather than enhanced her sense of liberty: http://bit.ly/raGFfC

    I suppose this is why I continue to defend niqab if the woman has made an informed decision for herself. While it may feel oppressive for some of us, I cannot discount that it grants some women greater liberty and nearness to God. You may also wish to watch this CNN interview from earlier this year where two Muslim women (one in a face veil) debate France's decision to ban face veils http://bit.ly/i8JNqQ

    I continue to be frustrated by the obsession with women's attire because unfortunately, there is so much focus on it in Islamic and non-Islamic circles that it threatens to miss the point of submission, and distracts people from the beauty of God's message.