A Woman's Right to Choose Should Trump Niqab Ban

A Woman's Right to Choose Should Trump Niqab Ban

Several years ago, it was clear that British Muslim communities were beginning to view themselves differently in relation to wider society. The dominant discourse was no longer about “finding space” or about “integrating”. Instead, Muslims were identifying themselves as individuals and as communities that were integral to British society – instead of viewing themselves as yet another ingredient in the salad bowl, they could be the sauce that improved the entire flavour.

Back then, the niqab issue was hardly a cause for concern for anybody because so few women in Europe wore it. Nevertheless, in an article I wrote some years ago, I discussed the niqab as part of an argument articulated by Islamic legal scholars about how a religious practice could be put aside given an overriding interest.

Some scholars throughout history have judged the niqab to be a religious duty. According to the Shafi’i school of thought (one of Sunni Islam’s four canonical schools), for example, the original opinion was that it was compulsory. Yet, the overwhelming majority of Shafi’is around the world do not follow that position based on the advice of legal scholars.

The explanation given by one Shafi’i scholar I know from South East Asia, where most Shafi’is reside, was that wearing the face veil was simply too alien to the culture of the region. They chose to take the alternative position, which is also prevalent in Islamic jurisprudence, that the niqab was not compulsory.

By the same token, I proposed, Muslim Britons that observed Islamic law should consider all the options available to them in the greater body of legal discussions, and avail themselves of the options that they deemed most appropriate to their circumstances.

That line of argument has made many opponents of the niqab quite pleased, and politicians that wish to ban the niqab have already gone to Islamic legal authorities looking for religious arguments to justify banning the niqab on European streets. But there are two key flaws in that approach, flaws that persist today as countries compete against each other to ban the niqab in the West.

The first flaw is that regardless of how many people, Muslim or not, who do not support the wearing of niqab (including myself), the garment does have standing in some strands of Muslim thought. There are positions within Islamic jurisprudence that justify the wearing of the niqab. Even if there are opposing opinions, they do not nullify the others.

Ultimately, an individual Muslim woman should decide whether she follows one opinion or the other. No one is authorised to take that freedom away from her. It is ironic that while some European politicians go “shopping for fatwas” to restrict a woman’s freedom, many Muslim scholars would defend a degree a freedom of choice that even Voltaire would have found laudable.

The second flaw is that within traditions of the West, we are treading on dangerous ground when we begin to legislate what a woman can or cannot wear of her own volition. The current justification that it is a security issue is as vacuous as pretending that the 2004 French ban of “ostentatious religious symbols” in schools was aimed at anyone besides Muslims.

It is very clear what is at issue and why: the niqab is targeted because many people are uncomfortable around women with fully covered faces. This is for a variety of reasons, from ideas that the niqab is an infringement on women’s rights to concerns that a woman wearing the niqab cannot engage in normal civic activities.

Those reasons are entirely understandable, but they are not sufficient grounds to deny a woman her choice. What is more, most people understand that basic fact – that is why notions of security have to be invoked. But the reality is that there is not a valid security argument.

It is not illegal for people to wear motorcycle helmets – the only legal requirement is that they take them off when they need to be identified, such as when they appear in court or in a bank for example. European laws already empower authorities to ask someone to identify themselves for security purposes.

Personally, my preference would be for women to avail themselves of the option to put the niqab aside. One consequence is that anti-Muslim groups would have one less weapon in their arsenal.

But my wish is immaterial. That is what it means to be a European citizen: all people are entitled to their own opinions, but they will put those opinions to the side when the individual liberty of any European citizen is at stake. Muslim Europeans who choose to wear the niqab may not have our approval, but they should still have our support for their right to choose.

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Dr. HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding

This article was published at thenational.com on July 31, 2010 at www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100801/OPINION/707319956&SearchID=73398866580474