Muslim Wire

The Niqab Issue in France

Posted in Society by muslimwire on October 19, 2009

During the month of Ramadan, after landing safely in Barbados back from a stay in New York City, imagine my surprise, as I browsed through articles of the local Daily Nation, to stumble upon a page pairing two articles: one treating domestic violence, the other relating the niqab/burqa issue in France. After spending several peaceful days in the Big Apple, where I comfortably carried on fasting, attended Tarawih prayers at various locations, and where I also was showered with great expressions of Muslim fraternity and kindness from brothers and sisters I had never previously met, I was faced again with the erroneous perception the West seems to entertain of Western Muslim women.

Only a few years have passed since the “hijab at school” episode in France, and yet again, my fellow French citizens find themselves vigorously confronting their point of views on Islamic way of dress. And now, in a Republic glorifying secularity in its value system, our leaders seriously contemplate introducing a legislation to ban an insignificant number of Muslim women from wearing their niqab in public places.

Along parallels drawn with situations in Iran, Afghanistan or other Muslim majority countries, photographs of French women wearing niqab in the streets of Marseilles have found their way into articles published by newspapers all over the world, including places like Barbados. The reference to French current affairs in foreign press wasn’t the trigger element of my surprise, but it was the method used to present these issues that I have found disturbing, continuously linking Muslim women with domestic violence and oppression. Inevitably, the amalgam hastily made between religion and afflicted women is explored, greatly emphasizing feminists and self proclaimed French Muslim community representatives’ favorite arguments: the inequality of gender dynamics in Islam, and submissiveness of Muslim women victims of authoritarian fathers, brothers or husband.

Thus, I thought to myself, France, with its turning a simple pedagogical issue into an internationally highly mediatized political battle, is now creating a resurgence of agitation about Islam in Western societies (even reaching those with extremely limited exposure to Muslims) further feeding their fears, ignorance and prejudices. Furthermore, it is inspiring neighboring countries like Belgium to engage in similar actions.

Regrettably, while this polemic serves the agendas of some politicians and attention-seeking feminists, Muslim women are once again forced – much against their will – into the midst of media attention, victimized and infallibly condemned to implacable stereotypes.

Despite its often-dishonest orchestration and exaggerated use in the media, of all criticism directed at Islam, that of women’s status and condition in Islamic countries is the most valid and sensible. We shouldn’t fail however, to consider all aspects of the matter within a context; that is, that we are here dealing with women living Islam in the West. Let us not forget that we are talking about France, not about Afghanistan.

Regardless of cultural background or roots, no one can deny that a French, British or American Muslim is a Western Muslim, hence limiting Islam to an alien or foreign religion is no longer a coherent argument. To the many unacquainted with France’s social climate and history, or unexposed to the way French Muslim women live their faith, this issue is merely a case of the rising of radical Islam, of its patriarchal readings being instrumentalized by oppressive men, and of the inability exhibited by Arab Muslim immigrants to “integrate”. But how can we talk about integration to third generation French born Muslims?

Islam is the second religion in France, not only practiced by Fatima’s immigrant grand-parents but also by Fatima herself, born and raised in France, French citizen on paper and at heart. How can we ignore also Emilie and Sandra, Fatima’s friends, French Muslims too, and the growing number of French women who willingly choose Islamic faith? Surely in their cases, no dress code comes imposed by family members exploiting culture or religion to their own controlling advantage. Most times, in fact, if these women chose to embrace niqab, they are faced with very strong resistance on part of their families against their decision, and furnish much effort and resolution to stand their ground.

As surveys by the Observatoire du Religieux in Aix-en Provence demonstrate, the niqab, far from being imposed, is rather a “super-voluntary veil”, fully assumed, even sometimes against the entourage’s opinions and advices. In fact, it can even be seen as a very feminist, rather arrogant sign of emancipation, which is almost always a “remarkable” ascetic decision, extremely constraining but assertive. And when some claim it to be a provocation against the French Republic and against Democracy, all I have to say is that these women are not breaking the law. Actually, the most engaged Muslim women are also, generally speaking, the most respectful of the law. If France’s desire is to make a law stipulating that, publicly, we all must circulate with our faces showing, then fine, let us proceed. But then why discuss the Muslim nature of what covers the face?

Here it is only question of fear, fear of the threat to French cultural homogeneity. But come on, could a veil truly threaten French identity? Does it truly matter if that veil is more successful tomorrow than yesterday? Whether it exists or not, few chances are that France will ever become an Islamic Republic, unless an impressive majority of citizens so decides one day. Does fear excuse treating these women as if they were criminals?

Polarizing Islam in the West can lead to terribly restrictive and shallow perspectives. Within the wide spectra of practicing Muslim women in France, and at large in Europe and in the West, some wear hijab, fewer wear niqab, some don’t wear any head cover at all. Despite nonessential differences, we live one Islam. We all practice the same religion, we pray the same and fast the same, yet we are individuals with our own will and own responsibility in our actions. Most of us are educated, professionals or students, of European, Maghrebian, Middle Eastern, African or Asian heritage. We do not all come out of ghettos and our choice of dress doesn’t make us more or less Muslim, more or less women, more or less free. Our reader’s background naturally influences our interpretations of certain verses, but we understand the fundamental and universal prescriptions of the Qur’an, which we apply to our daily lives.

How can we say that the women who don the niqab are not good Muslims, or that their interpretations of the scriptures are faulty? Can you imagine members of the government declaring that the Clarisses, in their choice to live in full reclusion, poorly interpret the Gospels, and consequently aren’t good Christians? It is unthinkable to see the State proclaim itself interpreter of religious texts, or getting involved in the Orthodoxy, as if its representatives were imams.

How can it feel, for these women – who want to prove that they can self impose strict rules in life, that they are more devout, or that they indeed reject a certain mercantilism in our Western society, even perhaps its racism (but who are in no way rejecting Democracy nor the Republic) – to hear politicians, philosophers and others, tell them what real Islam is, and what a shame to Islam they can be?

How could we, in the name of secularity, deny these women the freedom of choice and practice; the respect owed to human beings? Aren’t spiritual and intellectual independence, and individual freedom, the foundations of our Western societies? Wouldn’t this interdiction represent a violation of the fundamental public freedom?

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One Response

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  1. Al Sunna said, on November 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Assalam walakum,

    This blog is a very nice blog, I have found it very beneficial to know more about Islam. Thanks for sharing the information.


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