Two women wearing niqab face veils (file pic) Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The canton of Ticino, an Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, has banned the Niqab, the face veil worn by some Muslims. The decision came after a referendum in 2013, in which 65% of the population of the region voted in favor of the ban. Niqabs have been a subject of controversy since France outlawed them in 2010. The journey of the Niqab’s evolution began in the Middle East. As those who wear them have travelled to other parts of the world, they have stirred up a controversy—an unnecessary controversy—that is still brewing. Niqab is not a dress code, but a tool to disguise identity. Attempts to frame Niqabs under the freedom of choice is not just wrong, but also disingenuous.
My experience with the Niqab began while I was attending medical school in Cairo when one of my secondary school acquaintances decided to start wearing the face veil. She changed not only her dress, but also her behavior. The funny, witty, cheerful girl I knew had transformed into a rejectionist of her society, labeling others as infidels and bad Muslims, advocating the banishment of female identity as the right path to what she describes as “true Islam.” We had many intense debates in which she did not concede any of her views; only reluctantly accepting showing one’s face as permissible, but not the “best practice,” as she put it. Her justification was a Quranic verse containing advice to the Prophet’s wives to “hide their identity to avoid being attacked by enemy of Islam.”
Such a literalistic interpretation of Islam’s holy book was shocking and alarming. It simply ignored the order during war time and clearly elaborated that the purpose of the Niqab as disguise of identity, and not a way of life. My Niqabi acquaintance was my first ___ and rather rude___ introduction to various Salafi groups that mushroomed in Egypt in the 80s, under the eyes of Mubarak’s authorities who turned a blind eye to their brainwashing activities. What was even more frustrating was the lack of counter-narrative or challenge of the Salafi’s interpretation. Such intellectual cowardice was wide among both Egypt’s rulers and elite. Both opted for the easy path of ignoring Salafism and pretended it did not exist. They then acted surprised when Salafi groups earned about 20% of parliament seats in the 2012 election. Recently, however, the head of Egypt’s top institutions of higher learning, Cairo University, Gaber Nassar, bans female academic and hospital staff from wearing the Niqab. Furthermore, a court order has upheld the ban. Nassar, is the first brave intellectual to point out the core problem of the Niqab, which is the concealment of identity.
Many Muslims and advocates of women’s freedom of choice claimed that the ban is against freedom of women to choose their dress, ignoring the identity question that lies at the core of pro-Niqab advocates. A Niqab is used for the concealment of identity regardless of color or garment of the woman’s dress. The problem, however, lies within the selfishness of Niqabi women who want to hide their identity but still enjoy the freedom granted to other women who are willing to face the scrutiny of identity checking.
The question then becomes, can Niqabi women have it all? Can they hide and enjoy freedom? The answer is simply no. Not in our current era of terrorism and security checks. It may be okay to be Niqabi in Yemen or Saudi Arabia where the control of women is a pillar of the culture. It will be up to Saudi, Yemeni, or any other woman from a native Muslim country to accept or rebel against the practice. But once any woman decides to immigrate to any other country that requires identity checks, the Niqab should be removed. Why should a country be required to hire an army of female police officers to be placed in all its public building, shopping centers, trains and airports to confirm the identity of Niqabi women so that their sensitivities are not hurt? It is not just asking too much, it is frankly outrageous.
Moreover, it is unsettling to see other Muslims rush to defend the Niqab. Standing with the Niqab plays into the hands of Islamophobes. Defending a practice used by the most oppressive Muslim regimes as well as radical groups such as ISIS empowers the argument that all Muslims are zealous, rigid, and unwilling to integrate into Western societies. Defending the Niqab is as absurd as defending nudity in the Muslim world. Can you imagine Westerners demanding their right to march topless in Muslim cities? Why do we want the West to accept our cultural sensitivities in their societies? I cannot even describe the Niqab as a cultural sensitivity, as it can only be seen as cultural backwardness.
Banning the Niqab is not a move against women’s freedom, but respects Niqabi women choice to conceal their identity. The formula is simple: if a woman opts to conceal her identity, then she has made a conscious choice to hide from the society. That is perfectly acceptable; what is not acceptable, however, is to expect others, particularly in non-Muslim societies, to go out of their way and offer her a freedom that she rejected in the first place.