Niqab/Burqah Not The Issue Between Islam and France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent call for a parliamentary commission to look into whether the burqa should be banned in public has once again raised a contentious issue.

Calling the burqa worn by some Muslim women “a sign of subservience”, the French leader dismissed the idea that he was attacking Islam.

“We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity,” Sarkozy told the Parliament in a major policy speech that touched on myriad issues. “That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.”

Back in Saudi Arabia, French Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Bertrand Besancenot recently issued written statements to Arab News commenting on what Sarkozy said.

He said the parliamentary commission, which began hearings on Wednesday, consists of MPs from different political parties that are looking into whether the face veil (niqab) is socially acceptable.

Besancenot said the niqab was a “marginal” phenomenon in France, but that its use was increasing and disrupting the traditional social and cultural values of France.

“That is what the majority of French people say,” said the ambassador, underscoring the French government’s concern that the niqab may not always be a matter of choice but rather a matter of coercion. “Is putting on the niqab done by choice or by force? Is it violating the freedom and dignity of the woman? Is it a challenge to public safety? Such questions are legitimate and deserve to be discussed in a democratic way.”

Though the Muslims in different parts of the world have specific and varied terminologies for the different styles of face veils, in the West the term “burqa” is often used in a general sense to mean the full-body black cloak that includes a face veil. The term “hijab” is used as a general term for the head scarf that reveals the face. The term “niqab” is a general term for that which covers all or parts of the face. Only one Islamic school, Hanbali, obliges women to cover their faces. Within this school, scholars differ on whether a woman may show her eyes. Decorative motifs, like appliqué or colorful stitching, are also not permitted and the entire outfit should be baggy and black.

Besancenot pointed out that Paris Grand Mosque Imam Dalil Boubakeur had publicly emphasized the niqab was not obligatory in Islam.

“Those defending the niqab are Muslim fundamentalists,” said Besancenot. “This is opposing what the majority of Muslims are doing.”

In the statement to Arab News the French ambassador echoed Sarkozy’s statements that the niqab alienated women who wear them in a country that is firmly secular and which adheres to full social equality between the sexes.

“Unlike what might be stressed by some, the issue of putting on niqab in France is not a problem between France and Islam,” said the ambassador. “Basically it is discussing an issue that raises a conflict in the social and cultural traditions of France. It is important to ensure that (the niqab) does not violate the principles of democracy in France, including (personal) freedom and women’s dignity.”

France currently bans “ostentatious” religious symbols or modes of dress in its public schools. While no specific items are mentioned, the law has mostly affected Muslim girls and, to a lesser extent, Sikh boys.

In the first school year after the law went into effect on September 2004, the French Ministry of Education reported that 639 students were reported as showing up for classes with religious symbols or clothing; the following school year that number went down to 12, according to a Sept. 30, 2005 report in Le Monde.

While most Islamic scholars say that the niqab is not compulsory, there are those who disagree and claim that women who do not cover their faces lack sufficient knowledge of Islam.

“Covering the face with nontransparent material is what (the woman) is asked to do, and this is what women who followed the Prophet (peace be upon him) were doing,” said Sheikh Saleh Al-Shamrani, a teacher at the Scholarly Institute for Islamic Studies in Jeddah.

According to Al-Shamrani, even slots for the eyes should be avoided unless the woman has trouble seeing through the black fabric.

“If the woman wants to make a space for one of the eyes, or something of a sort, she can do that if it doesn’t attract attention,” said the sheikh. “This is for the woman who has vision problems, or is old.” Stressing that Muslims should ignore the words of non-believers, the sheikh cites the Qur’an as saying that to gain Allah’s satisfaction a woman must be covered “from head to toe.” Al-Shamrani stresses that Muslim women should avoid places where they are not permitted to mask their faces.

“Why shall I go to this place if I know that it has rules against Islam?” he said. “There is a difference between a person who is obliged to (go to such places) and a person who goes there by choice.”

Al-Shamrani explains that the pride and honor of men (as well as families and in some cases tribes) are inexorably linked to the conduct and dress of the related women. In his words, the woman is “shame, modesty and honor for the person (her guardian) and neither that person nor the woman wants (others) to humiliate her honor.”

For his part, Sadiq Al-Maliki, professor of political science at King Abdulaziz University said should France decide to ban the niqab, Muslims should not “blame them on ideological grounds without trying to understand from where they are coming. We cannot simply take a role that is culturally based and try to force it on others.”

He further said people in Saudi Arabia saw the debate over masking the face as part of an “ideological war” without looking at the issue from all perspectives.

“There may be logic in what they are saying,” said Al-Maliki. “They are not against our religion, but they are trying to tell us that (covering the face) does not fit in their society.” Al-Maliki said that since only one school of Islam obliges face covering, “We should not try to force it on the people. We cannot take a rule that is culturally based and try to force it on others.” The professor added that Islamic society may be grappling with the gender issue within its own boundaries, “but it is not trying to eliminate the identity of the woman.”

From Arab News