There has been much talk recently about women wearing veils in the West. Adding fuel to the debate was yesterday’s statement by Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali – Australia’s most senior cleric – who said women who did not wear a hijab (head dress) were like “uncovered meat”, somewhat implying that if they get raped they are begging for it. This statement was particularly insensitive since Sydney was the scene six years ago of a series of gang rapes committed by a group of Lebanese Australians, who received long prison sentences.
The comment will certainly reignite the heated debate that took place in the last few weeks in the UK about the niqab, the full-body veil that only has a slot for the eyes. But it also will raise more questions about Muslim attitudes to women in general. Three articles are quite illuminating on this front. The first one, from Anne Applebaum on the Washington Post, brings our attention to the fact that fully-covered faces in the West are as culturally insensitive as miniskirts in Indonesia. It’s not just a matter of politeness, I would add. Hidden faces in the West are associated with bandits, robbers, kidnappers or at best actors (sic!), and in this moment of heightened tension between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the West, what might be an act of piety can only come across as a provocation.
The second article, always on the Washington Post, is by Asra Q. Nomani, who points out a deeper – and more difficult – issue:
“Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, have recently focused on Muslim women’s veils as an obstacle to integration in the West. But to me, it is [verse] 4:34 [of the Koran] that poses the much deeper challenge of integration“.
The verse – “and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them” – has been preached by some Muslim scholars as moral justification for “mild forms” of domestic violence in many Muslim homes. Clearly, this is not to say domestic violence is solely a Muslim problem, or that there aren’t similar verses in the Bible pointing to women’s inferior status or to the physical punishments they should receive in case of sinful behaviour. But clearly we have a problem when Muslim preachers are unquestioningly spreading these teachings, something that – to my knoweldge – other religious leaders are refraining from doing.
This comes in stark contrast to Yvonne Ridley’s account of How She Came to Love the Veil, also on the Washington Post (you can tell John had a hand in all this). While her feelings about how Islam offers a new route to female emancipation, with the veil offering a concrete means of creating a visual identity, might be true, her dismissal of male politician’s understanding of the issue (their arrogance [is] surpassed only by their ignorance) is simply misplaced.
It is worth remembering here that the problem is not the head-scarf (hijab), since there are plenty of examples of veiled women in the Western traditions, from nuns to brides. The problem is the face-veil (niqab). I can see how the niqab – allowing a woman to see without being seen – can be very empowering. But the niqab represents a real cultural clash between the Muslim world and the West, one which poses real difficulties to politicians trying to defuse the current tensions, and which cannot be simply dismissed as ignorance. A covered face is threatening in the West, be it of a man or of a woman, and what Ridley fails to understand is that the West, like other cultures around the world, has its taboos, prescriptions and social norms that have to be respected like in any other society. When I decided to get a tattoo, for example, I knew I’d never be allowed to enter a Japanese public bath, because tattoos in Japan are associated with criminality. I accept the (small) consequence of my decision. So should Muslim women who live in the West.
The debate, I am sure, will continue on a newspaper/TV set/website next to you…