Britain has been in turmoil over veils in recent days, after a school in Yorkshire suspended a Muslim teacher’s assistant for wearing “niqab”—a form of the traditional veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes. Further stoking the flames, House of Commons leader Jack Straw revealed that in meetings with constituents, he had asked niqab-wearing women to remove their veils for better face-to-face interaction.
The niqab controversy has focused on thorny questions of cultural integration and religious tolerance in Europe. However, it is also a debate all over the world about women and Islam and their Hijab or Niqab.
For Westerners, the veil has long been a symbol of the oppression of women in the Islamic world. Today, quite a few Muslims regard it as a symbol of cultural and religious self-assertion and reject the idea that Muslim women are downtrodden. In our multicultural age, many liberals are reluctant to criticize the subjugation of women in Muslim countries and Muslim immigrant communities, fearful of promoting the notion of Western superiority. At the other extreme, some critics have used the plight of Muslim women to suggest that Islam is inherently evil and even to bash Muslims.
Muslim women are clumped into one large group and viewed as homogenous clones of one another, while their Christian and Jewish counterparts are rarely ever stereotyped in this way. Many people don’t realize, due largely to biased media interpretations, that there are a large variety of Muslim women around the world, from areas such as the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia, Yugoslavia, Northern Africa, and the Southern parts of the former USSR, just as there are Christian and Jewish women in various countries.
For instance, one probably wouldn’t classify a Mexican woman with a French woman, though both may be Roman Catholics and hold the same beliefs. In the same way, American Muslim women are different from Pakistani Muslims, who are different from Saudi Muslims. In these three countries, women are accorded different rights and privileges because of the government and customs in the area. For example, many American Muslim women are discriminated against because they cover their heads.
The Muslims’ Holy Book – Quran has written a lot about Women’s rights, “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will, and you should not treat them with harshness….” (Final Testament, Al Quran, An Nisa 4:19)
One of the basic principles of Islam is justice for all humans and equality in the eyes of God. Women are considered no less than men in aspects of religion and are not denigrated anywhere in the Quran.
In fact, Islam protects women who wear the hijab, or the veil. But Western media often portray the Muslim veil as a suppressive force in a woman’s life. Every Muslim woman is required to wear a scarf or some sort of head-covering and loose-fitting, modest attire. This is not a means of controlling a woman’s sexuality or suppressing her but rather, is used to protect her. It is hoped that by dressing this way she will not be seen as a mere sex symbol but will be appreciated for her mind. Furthermore, it will not subject her to unwanted sexual advances or harassment.
It is interesting to note that the head-covering for women is not an Islamic innovation but was practiced by Judeo-Christian women centuries earlier, and yet is scoffed at by the West today (Sherif 15). Dr. Sherif says: “It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of holiness’ when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of oppression’ when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women” (16).
Perhaps, as some say, women are the key to Islam’s modernization. The West cannot impose its own solutions from the outside—but, at the very least, it can honestly confront the problem.
Lastly, it’s quite obvious that Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of the nations, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of Muslim tradition.
* Iram Zahra is an international reporter at M4 Media