Thursday, August 12, 2010

Islam and the West: the wearing of the burqa

The current controversy surrounding the French parliament's decision to ban the wearing of the burqa in public is much misunderstood. Often people think that European governments are seeking to ban the wearing of all distinctively Islamic clothing, but such is not the case. For Islamic women there is the niqab and the burqa, which fully covers them (the burqa even obscuring their faces entirely, the niqab leaving open an area around their eyes), then there is the khimar and chador, both of which leave the face exposed from chin to forehead and from cheek-to-cheek. There is also al-amira and the shayla, as well as the hijab, the latter, often worn with otherwise Western clothing, is essentially a headscarf, while the former covers a bit more of the female form.

In France, for example, the only one of these being banned is the burqa. Recently, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an internationally recognized expert on Islam who focuses on issues concerning Muslims in the West, wrote an article for AsiaNews entitled French ban on burqa a welcome law! In this article he makes a very detailed and accurate case for the French law. It is most important to state up-front, as Fr. Samir does, that "there is not the slightest reference in the Koran or Islamic tradition (Sunnah) regarding this issue. Therefore it is not an Islamic norm. None of the Koranic scholars dare say so, but there are many who claim that it is a religious norm." Beyond that, we have to be aware that even "in many Muslim countries the burqa has been banned because (as in Tunisia) 'it is not part of our tradition', in Turkey it is forbidden in the name of secularism. In Egypt, in November 2009, the late Rector of the Islamic Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the highest religious authority in Egypt, banned it, saying to students: 'The niqab is only a custom, it has no link with Islam, neither close or distant!' In February 2010, Egyptian Prime Minister Nazif, called it 'a denial of woman!'"

Most importantly, we have to understand what the law does and does not do. According to Fr. Samir, the French law "provides for six months of time [to] allow people [to] become used to the new rules, to allow reflection and evolution. The wording is very cautious: it does not talk about the full veil, rather it refers to the complete covering of the face. It explains exactly how and when it is forbidden, it also outlines exceptions (illness, medical bandages, carnival, etc ...). This law does not want to be anti-Muslim - even if the occasion was born of the full 'Islamic' veil - but a more general rule that applies to everyone, a standard of living together. The penalties are also interesting: a fine of 150 Euros or citizenship education, a kind of educational training for coexistence."

The French law wisely includes a sharp distinction between women who choose to wear the burqa, who will be fined €150 or be required to attend a state-sponsored intergration class, which I suppose to be bit like attending traffic school to eliminate points from your driver's license when cited for a moving violation, and a man who forces a woman to wear it. Men who force the veil on women will be fined €30,000 and be sentenced to a year in prison, two years if the female is a minor. The law "also explains [and] outlines the following types of cases: men or women (not just husbands or fathers) who by threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power, abuse of authority force someone to cover her face."

Peter Hitchens addresses the rise of ideological Islam in a recent article he wrote about his visit to Turkey earlier this month: The disturbing picture of growing repression at the heart of 'Eurabia'. It is no secret, except to Pres. Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, that Turkey is going backwards, moving away from the West and towards such allies as Syria and Iran. As Hitchens observes, "Those who think of Turkey as a relaxed holiday destination, or as a Westernised Nato member more or less 'on our side' need to revise their view." I wholly concur with his assessment that "there is a strong chance that we will soon lose Turkey to the Islamic world," if, indeed, this has not already occurred.

Peter Hitchens in Turkey, August 2010 (picture from Hitchens Daily Mail blog)

Hitchens sees in the willingness and even eagerness on the part of some Turkish women to embrace being covered as symptomatic of what is happening in Turkey, and to some extent among Muslims living in the West. He observes that while Iranian women "mock the headscarf" by pushing it "as far back as possible on the head, revealing as much bleached blonde, teased hair as piety will allow," effectively saying, "The law can make me wear this, but it cannot make me look as if I want to." While their Turkish sisters, by contrast, embrace the at least the hijab and increasingly the chador and even the burqa, making the statement "This is how I want to look, even if the law says I cannot." He makes the salient point that "while Iran is a secular country with a Muslim government, Turkey is a Muslim country with a secular government."

So, this is becoming in West not just a simple matter of religious freedom. I think Fr. Samir quite right in pointing out that in France and across the Western world "the full veil is worn by women who have never worn it before and also by converts. For this we can conclude that the choice to wear the full veil is not born of tradition or religious values, but a ideological spirit that preaches a return to the cultural tradition of seventh century Arabia, often in opposition to the West." This ideological Islamism, which in some parts of Europe is becoming an existential challenge, must be met.

Left unchallenged, we will inevitably start to see things like the case of the woman in Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was given 99 lashes for having "illicit" relationships with two men after the death of her murdered husband, in whose death she has now been implicated, who recently "confessed" her crime on Iranian state television (it ought to bother us all that iran can point to U.S. to justify the death penalty).  Don't think for one minute that I am panic mongering. It was but a few short years ago that no less a figure than the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, seriously suggested in public that Muslims in Great Britain might be allowed to implement some kind of attenuated form shar'ia, if only among themselves. Yes, what we need is a return to the juridcial system of the Ottoman Empire! Laws, such as France's, have as their purpose the preservation of equality and freedom. This challenge must also and even more importantly be met at the cultural level, which is a far greater challenge, but one made more difficult by the abandonment and outright denial of Europe's Christian heritage.

Literature is a great way to enter into the cultural challenge posed by the rise of ideological Islam. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, is a great guide, at least to contemporary Turkey. Two of his books are indispensable reading: Snow and his memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City.


  1. there is nothing in the Quran and Sunnah about niqab and burqa?

    Quran: And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful. (24:31)

    the khimar is what the women wore over their heads as known from the language of the arabs.

    O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (33;59)

    The Sunnah is also full of references to it which are more than you can count.

    Also the MODERN differences in the uses of hijab, khimar, chador (not an arabic word), shayla (new word) etc. is all modern terminology.

    Hijab in islamic terminology means for a woman to cover her head and entire body except for the face and hands, with some the face as well and some say it is an extra option for the woman herself.

    this ''expert'' on islam is nothing but an ignorant propagandist.

  2. Arshad:

    I appreciate your comment very much. Like you, I am a pretty up-front debator. I certainly make no claim to be an expert in Islam. However, I would have to say that what you cite is certainly open to interpretation on the one hand. On the other hand, I understand these have been interpreted and codified in Islam (i.e., there is a way these texts have been received and lived).

    I suppose the question for Muslims becomes static vs. dynamic. Christians, too, both men and women are certainly to dress modestly. This is ignored even by many who go to Church. For my purposes, I am only interested in the modern uses and application of these terms. Above all, I believe that women must be free to choose for themselves, which is why I think there is something admirable about women who choose to dress modestly and to wear what is called a hijab.

  3. i m so much confused about hijab and burqa.. if i cover my whole body with clothes is it still necessary to wear an outer cloth(burqa etc) ?????

  4. A burqa is worn over regular clothes. In places like Turkey and even Saudi Arabia the clothing women wear under their burqas is often Western, such as jeans and a sweater.