Stocking up on lunch snacks at Costco, I saw a book that immediately grabbed my attention. It had a picture of a woman wearing a niqab, a face covering worn by a minority of Muslim women.
Intrigued, I bought the book, mentally congratulating the publisher for having squeezed $20 out of my pocket. They know only too well that the niqab sells, grabs headlines and diverts attention. It is also a lightening rod for emotions and fear.
A few months ago, the debate raged among Canadian politicians whether wearing the niqab and voting could jibe, and whether women would be allowed to wear the veil in legal proceedings. It has been discussed in Quebec, England, the Netherlands, Italy and many other parts of the world, usually spun to create false controversy by right-wing politicians.
Predictably, this issue is making the rounds again, this time in France, a country in the midst of identity crises. President Nicolas Sarkozy is making the burqa — a full-body covering with a screen over the face — his flavour of the month to deflect attention from his plunging popularity. Amid raucous applause from his fellow parliamentarians, he said:
“In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity … it is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.”
They know that fear will easily buy votes among a population who feel increasingly vulnerable to the growing number of Muslims, and who will embrace laws which provide a false sense of security in preserving their identity. In 2004, Muslim women were the targets of this strategy through a law banning headscarves from French public schools.
U.S. President Barack Obama addressed this in his Cairo speech two weeks ago: “… it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.”
In defending his words, Obama stated, “I will tell you that in the U.S., our basic attitude is that we’re not going to tell people what to wear.”
He gets it. Unfortunately, the people who lash out at the niqab or burqa are usually those who feel the most uncomfortable with it: journalists, politicians, intellectuals and feminists. Under the pretense of defending freedom of thought, they are actually legitimizing hate, thus generating the exact opposite of what they claim to defend.
Ironically, they don’t seem to be particularly attentive to those whom they are supposedly defending. In speaking for these women, they assume they are oppressed idiots who can only be spoken to, about, or for but never with.
Muslim women wear the face covering for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we never hear their voices, their stories, their choices, how they negotiate the challenges, how it impacts their integration and how they feel.
Sahar Ullah, a Chicago graduate student, voices her experience of wearing the niqab in an online blog, “Most people who had an opinion about niqab never asked me why I wore it although they were willing to express their opinion …” adding “It was actually Muslims that were the cruelest. They insisted that niqab was wrong, I felt more defensive about having the right to make my own choices.”
The laundry list of assumptions people had about her intentions included: ideology; adherence to law; a method of escape; entrapment; pretentiousness; performance of piety; heroism; fear of men; desire to seduce; covered naughtiness; anti-social behaviour; a vain call for attention; a passport to marriage; desire to be silent; an oppressive father; and the classic — anxiety about being too dark.
Perhaps it is time we reassess the biases that are fuelling this debate. To fear means that we lack confidence in ourselves and in others. By allowing this fear to infiltrate our societies, we are entertaining the most serious illusions about our freedom, putting in danger our notions of what a truly democratic society is.
The organization Human Rights Watch concurs: “The ban on the veil violates human rights and stigmatizes and marginalizes women who wear it. The freedom to express religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental rights … and such a ban would send a signal to many French Muslims that they are not welcome in their own country.”
It has been announced that an official commission in France will be created to assess the question of the burqa over the next six months. It smells suspiciously patriarchal.
In looking at the context and origins of the niqab, the majority of Muslim scholars do not view it as compulsory. For the minority who see it as a religious requirement, they should be, under freedom of religion provisions, afforded the right to wear the niqab.
Within Muslim communities, there are growing discussions about Islamic feminism — the struggle for women’s rights within the Islamic terms of reference, against cultural discrimination and a literalist approach to the texts.
These grassroots conversations are an important avenue to reiterate that women should not be forced to do anything against their will. But also that choices made through personal conviction need to be respected — a right embedded in most democracies.
This dialogue had already started during the Prophet Muhammad’s time. He strongly encouraged the active role of women in early Islamic society, insisting that they should never confuse modesty with disappearing from the political, scholarly, religious, social, economic or even military sphere. In other words, Muslim women were the actors of their own destinies.
In concluding his speech, Sarkozy stated that the burqa “will not be welcome on our territory.”
Hopefully he will come to understand that a potential law banning a piece of clothing won’t change anything except outward appearances. True emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women to be free, autonomous and engaged will only occur when they are afforded the right to speak on their own terms, not for someone else’s political agenda.
Shelina Merani is the spokesperson for the network Muslim Presence and has recently launched the local/global website www.muslimpresence.com.
In his daily life, while he was preoccupied by attacks, treachery and his enemies’ thirst for revenge, he remained mindful of the details of life and of the expectations of those around him, constantly allying rigor and the generosity of fraternity and forgiveness.
His companions saw him pray for hours during the night, alone, away from men, in solitude with the whisper of his prayers and invocations which nurtured his dialogue with the One. `Aishah, his wife, was impressed and surprised: “Don’t you take on too much [worship] while God has already forgiven all your past and future sins?” And the Prophet answered: “How could I but be a thankful servant?”[i]
He did not demand of his companions the worship, fasting and meditations which he exacted of himself. On the contrary, he required that they ease their burden and avoid excess; to some companions who wanted to put an end to their sexual life, pray all night long or fast continuously (such as `Uthmân ibn Maz`ûn or `Abdullah ibn `Amr ibn al-`As), he said: “Do not do that! Fast on some days and eat on others. Sleep part of the night, and stand in prayer another part. For your body has rights upon you, your eyes have a right upon you, you wife has a right upon you, your guest has a right upon you…”[ii] He once exclaimed, repeating it three times: “Woe to those who exaggerate [who are too strict]!”[iii] And, on another occasion, he said: “Moderation, moderation! For only with moderation will you succeed.”[iv]
He kept striving to soothe the consciences of believers who were afraid of their own weaknesses and failings. One day, the companion Hanzalah al-Usaydî met Abû Bakr and confessed to him that he was convinced of his own deep hypocrisy because he felt divided between contradictory feelings: in the Prophet’s presence, he almost saw paradise and hell, but when he was away from him, his wife and children and his affairs caused him to forget. Abû Bakr in his turn admitted that he experienced similar tensions. They both went to the Prophet to question him about the seemingly dismal state of their spirituality. Hanzalah explained the nature of his doubts and Muhammad answered: “By He who holds my soul in His hands, if you were able to remain in the [spiritual] state in which you are when in my company, and remember God permanently, the angels would shake your hands in your beds and along your paths. But it is not so, Hanzalah: there is a time for this [devotion, remembrance] and a time for that [rest, amusement].”[v] Their situation therefore had nothing to do with hypocrisy: it was merely the reality of human nature, that remembers and forgets, and that needs to remember precisely because it forgets; because human beings are not angels.
In other circumstances, he would surprise them by stating that the sincerity of a prayer, a charity or an act of worship found expression at the very heart of their most human needs, in the humble acknowledgement of their humanity: “Enjoining good is charity, forbidding evil is charity. In having sexual intercourse with your spouses there is charity.” The companions, surprised, asked: “O Messenger of God, when one of us satisfies his (sexual) desire, does he also get a reward?” Muhammad replied: “Tell me, if one of you had had illicit intercourse, would he not have committed a sin? That is why he is rewarded for having lawful intercourse.”[vi] He thus invited them to deny or despise nothing in their humanity and taught them that the core of the matter was achieving self-control. Spirituality means both accepting and mastering one’s instincts: living one’s natural desires in the light of one’s principles is a prayer. It is never a misdeed, nor is it hypocrisy.
The Prophet hated to let his companions nurture a pointless feeling of guilt. He kept telling them that they must never stop conversing with the One, the Most Kind, the Most Merciful who welcomes everyone in His grace and benevolence and who loves the sincerity of hearts that regret and return to Him. This is the profound meaning of “at-tawbah” offered to every conscience: “sincerely returning to God” after a slip, a mistake, a sin. God loves that sincere return to Him and He forgives and purifies. The Prophet himself exemplified that in many circumstances. Once, a Bedouin came and urinated in the mosque: the companions rushed on him and wanted to beat him up. The Prophet stopped them and said: “Leave him alone, and just throw a bucketful of water on his urine. God has only sent you to make obligations easy, and not to make them difficult.”[vii] Again, `Aishah reports that once, a man came to the Prophet and told him: “I am lost!” The Prophet asked: “Why?” The man confessed: “I had intercourse with my wife during the fasting hours of Ramadan.” Muhammad answered: “Give charity!” The man replied: “I own nothing!” Then he sat down at a short distance from the Prophet. Some time later, a man arrived, bringing a dish of food.[viii] The Prophet called out: “Where is the man who is lost?” “Here”, he answered. Muhammad told him: “Take this food and give it away in charity.” “To one poorer than myself? My family has nothing to eat!” “Well then, eat it yourselves”, the Prophet replied with a smile.[ix]
That gentleness and kindness were the very essence of his teaching. He kept saying: “God is gentle (Rafîq) and he loves gentleness (ar-rifq) in everything.”[x] He also said: “He gives for gentleness what He does not give for violence or anything else.”[xi] He declared to one of his companions: “There are in you two qualities that God loves: clemency (al-hilm) and forbearance [nobleness, tolerance] (al-anâ).[xii] He invited all his companions to that constant effort of gentleness and forgiveness: “If you hear about your brother something of which you disapprove, seek from one to seventy excuses for him. If you cannot find any, convince yourselves that it is an excuse you do not know.”[xiii]
A number of new converts to Islam, who had no home and often nothing to eat, had settled around the mosque, near the Prophet’s dwelling. They were destitute (sometimes intentionally since some of them wished to lead an ascetic life detached from worldly possessions) and their subsistence depended on the Muslims’ charity and gifts. Their number kept increasing and they were soon called “ahl as-suffah” (the people of the bench).[xiv] The Prophet was most concerned by their situation and showed them continuous solidarity. He would listen to them, answer their questions and look after their needs. One of the characteristics of his personality and of his teachings, with ahl as-suffah as with the rest of his community, was that when asked about matters of spirituality, faith, education or doubt, he offered different answers to the same questions, taking into account the psychological makeup, experience and intelligence of the questioner.
The faithful felt that he saw, respected, understood and loved them, and indeed, he did love them, he told them so, and he moreover advised them to remember to tell one another of their mutual love: “When someone loves their brother [or sister] let them tell them that they love them.”[xv] He once took young Mu`âdh ibn Jabal by the hand and whispered: “O Mu`âdh, by God, I love you. And I advise you, o Mu`âdh, never to forget to say, after each ritual prayer: ‘O God, help me remember You, thank You and perfect my worship of You.’”[xvi] Thus the young man was offered, in one outburst, both love and spiritual teaching, and the teaching was all the more deeply assimilated as it was wrapped in that love.
[i] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.
[ii] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî.
[iii] Hadîth reported by Muslim.
[iv] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî.
[v] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.
[vi] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.
[vii] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî.
[viii] According to one version, he brought some dates. Another narrator, called `Abd ar-Rahmân, said that he did not know what kind of food it was.
[ix] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.
[x] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî and Muslim.
[xi] Hadîth reported by al-Bukhârî.
[xii] Hadîth reported by Muslim.
[xiii] Hadîth reported by al-Bayhaqî.
[xiv] A bench had been set up for them near the mosque. Some commentators, looking for the origin of the word “sûfî” (sufism), have linked it to those “ahl as-suffah” some of whom had deliberately chosen to be poor and withdraw from the world, its desires and possessions.
[xv] Hadîth hassan (reliable) reported by Abû Dâwud and at-Tirmidhî.
[xvi] Hadîth reported by Abû Dâwud and an-Nasâ’î