We’re closing 2018 by republishing our ten most-read articles of the year. Here’s No. 9: Qanta Ahmed on the niqab:
As a Muslim woman observing Islam, I am fully supportive of Boris Johnson’s rejection of the niqab. And I wonder how many of the former Foreign Secretary’s critics understand my religion, what this form of dress represents and the subjugation it implies. To defend the niqab and to defend Muslim women are, I can assure you, two very different things indeed.
Growing up Muslim in Britain, not once was I compelled to cover my hair. This changed when I moved to Saudi Arabia to practice medicine. Arriving in the Kingdom, by Saudi Arabia’s Sharia law, I could not go out into public without concealing my entire body, save face and hands, in a flowing, black abayya. This was my first experience of enforced veiling. And my last.
But even there, in the pre-9/11 Saudi Kingdom, the epicenter of Islam, the niqab (which covers most of the face) was not adopted by most women. Only the ultra-orthodox ones following Wahabisim or, perhaps, tribal Bedouins. And even these women, the most rural Bedouin women I treated while working there as a doctor, bore serious facial sun damage and tribal tattoos to their faces - indicating their faces were not veiled from sight or light for whole lifetimes.
Twenty years later, while Saudi Arabia is itself liberalising, the niqab is increasingly adopted by Muslim women living in the West, often as an anti-Western pro-Islamist political statement opposing secularism. For this reason, Denmark has legalised the ban on the niqab – a move I strongly supported in Denmark’s leading newspaper Politiken. Women wearing a niqab in public in Denmark are now in violation of the law and can be forcibly removed from the public space. Most commendably, Danish law now prosecutes any individual compelling a Muslim woman or girl to wear the niqab.
This ban follows other bans on the niqab first initiated in 2011 by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in December 2016 supported legalising a niqab ban ‘by all means’. In Bavaria, the full-face veil is now legally banned. Austria followed suit in January 2017. Belgium has had a full-face veil ban in effect since 2011. We can expect more European states to follow suit.
When Boris Johnson mocks the niqab, he is emphatically not mocking Muslim women because – and this is a point that we Muslims seem to be unable to get across to non-Muslims - there is no basis in Islam for the niqab. Claiming otherwise is a profound distortion of Islamic belief. That’s why Muslim nations are themselves regulating and banning the niqab and burqa - as in both Morocco and Turkey where these coverings are seen as an invasion of Salafist affinities and a risk to national security and societal integrity.
My religion certainly does mandate modesty. In the early Islamic period, the word khimar, 'veil,' did not connote face or even head covering. In the Quran, Sura 24:31, the reference to 'khimar' reminds Muslim women of the need to 'draw...[it] over their bosoms' as integral to female modesty. Similarly, the verse of the veil commanded only the prophet Muhammad’s wives, to speak from behind a 'hijab,' meaning a curtain within the Prophet’s home (Quran Sura 33:53), their privacy being a mark of their high distinction.
Later traditions asserting khimar to specifically mean ‘niqab’ may have been fabricated. Records show Aisha - known to Muslims as the Mother of the Faithful in recognition of both her eminence among Prophet Muhammed’s wives as a great scholar and as the foremost teacher of early Muslims - provided great detail on the color and fabric of the khimars in her day. Aisha was known as the 'One with Red Hair' as the Prophet himself referred to her, suggesting her head and hair were uncovered in public. Nonetheless, no record exists as to how exactly khimars were worn and which parts of the body were to be covered with these elaborate cloths.
This convenient vacuum has allowed some to insert their own interpretation of veiling, for their own motives, including enforcing gender segregation and even gender apartheid, while also portraying Muslims in Europe as besieged by the false construct of Islamophobia which capitalises on a false victimhood that so empowers Islamists as the persecuted darlings of blind liberalism. It is this blind liberalism that is now baying for Boris Johnson’s blood unaware that their indignation and calls of ‘Islamophobia’ do not protect Muslims but instead empower an Islamism that further dominates pluralist Islam.
Literal interpretations of the veil, derived largely by Muslims ignorant of the true dictates of our own religion, are derived from cultural misogyny. Thus, with their bans on the niqab, neither France, nor Germany nor Denmark are impinging on religious freedom. Instead they are legislating anti-democratic cultural mores that do indeed repress women living within their societies.
In the holiest sanctuary of Islam, in Mecca at the Ka’aba, facial covering is forbidden by Islam. There is no evidence in Islam that veiling of the face is either religious or required. In fact, it is actively discouraged at the time of a Muslim’s greatest act of religious devotion - during Hajj.
Today the adoption of the full-face veil, particularly in the modern secular world is far worse than looking like a letterbox. It’s both a symbol of cultural misogyny and a political marker for Islamist sympathies. The detractors of Mr Johnson would do better to consider their own role in marginalising true, civil, pluralist Islam in favour of its anti-secular anti-democratic variant, Islamism.
The jihadis want to present their bizarre dress code as the face of Islam, and for that they need useful (non-Islamic) idiots in the West to help them do so. I will not be the only British Muslim woman who is thankful that Boris Johnson is not playing along.