National Security & Defense

Forced Unveiling of Muslim Women

Qanta Ahmed in her Saudi veil (Photo: Jack Alterman/Jack Alterman Studios)
French secularism loses its bearings.

Like all women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I was forced to veil when visiting that country. Born Muslim, raised by pluralist Muslim parents, I had never been compelled to cover my hair. Arriving in the Kingdom, though, I could not — by law — go out in public without concealing my entire body, save face and hands, in a flowing black abaya. So when I recently saw a burkini-clad Muslim woman forcibly stripped in France, in the name of secular democracy, her objectification by a Western democracy reminded me of my own by the Saudi theocracy.

France’s objectification of this Muslim woman and, through her, all Muslim women, is an incredible act of humiliation of all Muslim womanhood. While, as an observing Muslim, I argued in favor of French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2011 ban of the niqab — wearing this face veil is now punishable by fine in France — the public stripping of a Muslim woman neither preserves the secular space nor builds unity among French citizenry, when France is particularly brittle following a spate of Islamist terror attacks. One has to ask: Is France, home to more Muslims than any other nation in Europe, deliberately seeking to instigate widespread hostilities against Muslims symbolized by veiled women? Does France yearn to trigger civil unrest?

This obscenity of the burkini-ban enforcement aside, as an observing Muslim woman I still stand by banning the niqab in all public spaces, whether in France or indeed any country, Muslim or not. Exposing the visage promotes security and human connection at a time when both are imperiled. Being able to identify everyone and know one another’s intention and demeanor in public spaces is imperative to a cohesive society. Further, eliminating the niqab removes a polarizing symbol of neo-orthodox Islam from the public space: Only Islamists mandate that women wear a face veil, distorting the Quran from the origins of Islam.

Certainly Islam mandates modesty. In the early Islamic period, the word khimar, “veil,” did not connote face or even head covering. In the Quran, 24:31, the reference to “khimar” reminds Muslim women of the need to “draw . . . [it] over their bosoms” as integral to female modesty. (Similarly, the Quran commanded only the Prophet Mohammed’s wives to speak from behind a “hijab,” meaning a curtain [33:53], privacy being a mark of high distinction.) Later traditions asserting “khimar” to specifically mean “niqab” may have been fabricated. Records show that Aisha (one of the most eminent of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives, a great scholar and among the foremost teachers of early Muslims) provided great detail on the color and fabric of the khimars in her day. Aisha was known as the “One with Red Hair,” as the Prophet himself referred to her, suggesting that her head and hair were uncovered in public.

Nonetheless, no record exists as to how exactly khimars were worn and which parts of the body were to be covered with these elaborate cloths. This convenient vacuum has allowed some Muslims to insert their own interpretation of veiling, for their own motives, including enforcing gender segregation and even gender apartheid. Literal interpretations of the veil, largely by Muslims ignorant of the true dictates of our own religion, are derived from cultural misogyny. Thus, with its 2011 niqab ban, France is not impinging on religious freedom so much as on cultural mores that do indeed repress women.

Unfortunately, this same vacuum also allows non-Muslims to insert their own biases against Islam and its symbols to serve their own agendas. Citing France’s laïcité​, Muslim women are intimidated and demeaned; not only orthodox Muslim women, but many pluralist Muslim women, prefer to remain conservatively dressed. Still others – whether a Christian nun or an orthodox Jewish woman, on or off the beach​ – also prefer modesty. Demanding that a woman disrobe in the name of secularism is a move just as domineering against women as ISIS’s, the Taliban’s, or Saudi Arabia’s enforced veiling of women.

Far from her beaches, France in this toxic climate has lost its bearings. It is now penalizing not only Muslim women, but France’s Muslim and Jewish children. In the name of secularism, some schools deliberately serve pork. Claiming laïcité, the state goes out of its way to deny young Muslim and Jewish children food, refusing to offer non-pork options. Children go hungry. Sarkozy himself recently, in announcing his 2017 presidential bid, has promised pork menus, in an opportunistic move to pilfer from opponent Marine Le Pen’s voting base. Welcome to secularism gone rogue.

We don’t do what France does because we still believe in tolerance as a cornerstone of a pluralistic democracy.

It might be asked, Why is banning the niqab okay, but not the burkini or the hijab? The niqab is strictly affiliated with Salafist and Wahhabi genres of neo-orthodox Islamism. When I was living and practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia, even the most rural Bedouin women I treated bore serious facial sun damage, indicating that their faces were not veiled from sight or light for their whole lifetimes. Today, the adoption of the full-face veil can be interpreted as both a symbol of cultural misogyny and a political marker for Islamist sympathies. In the holiest sanctuary of Islam, in Mecca at the Ka’aba, facial covering is forbidden by Islam. There is no evidence in Islam that veiling of the face is either religious or required. In fact, it is actively discouraged at the time of a Muslim’s greatest act of religious devotion — during Hajj. In contrast, the burkini and the hijab do not obstruct identity, communication, connection, or function in modern society. Further, women of all faiths have covered their hair for centuries, whether in headdresses, hijabs, hats, or hairpieces. This is true of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women.

As Americans, we are particularly puzzled that France should do this. I am writing from New York City, where we suffered 9/11, and daily continue to suffer from it, as I see in the patients I treat with many illnesses from Ground Zero. Even so, Americans do not humiliate Muslims in this manner. In Israel (site of decades of Islamist terrorism), a country to which I travel often; Afghanistan and Pakistan (targets of relentless Islamist operations that have cost over 150,000 lives), to which I have traveled all my life; and my native Britain (where jihadist fellow citizens operate among us), chastely dressed women aren’t stripped.

We don’t do what France does because we still believe in tolerance as a cornerstone of a pluralistic democracy. We fight Islamism and we do so effectively without such bans because we value pluralistic democracy. But of all the reactions to the shocking enforcement of France’s burkini ban, most grotesque of all remains the fact that not one fellow beachgoer defended this woman, not one person challenged the all-male cadre of police encircling her, not one person offered to shield the Muslim woman from the men, from the cameras, from the public eye. Worse, this despicable act generated French applause. It is the French themselves who are a threat to their democracy.

Qanta A. Ahmed — Qanta. A. Ahmed is a British-American Muslim physician, the author of In the Land of Invisible Women, a member the Committee on Countering Contemporary Anti-Semitism through Testimony (Shoah Foundation, University of Southern California), and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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