Facial exposure does not constitute as big a threat to Muslim women and their religious rights as gender bias.
France's obsession with the burqa continues. Its lower house, the National Assembly, has voted to ban it by an overwhelming margin of 335 to 1 despite an official advice from the Conseil d'État, France's constitutional watchdog, not to pursue “the bill to forbid concealing one's face in public” as it violates the principle of laïcité (secularism) recognised in the French Constitution.
But France is not the only country suffering from burqaphobia. For several years now, Belgian MPs have been demanding a ban on the voile intégral which resulted in the lower chamber of the Belgian Parliament approving an anti-burqa bill. Spain, Italy and the Netherlands too are contemplating a ban on the full veil, and a week ago British MP Phillip Hollobone sought to include Britain in this group when he tabled a private member's bill to ban “certain face coverings” in public.
The present European stance against the Muslim attire seems hypocritical when compared to the huge support the Danish cartoonist got across that continent for his criminal act of depicting Prophet Muhammad as a promoter of terrorism. And interestingly, “freedom of expression” was the reason cited by government after government for not proscribing the provocative cartoons.
Nonetheless, all is not lost for the European Muslims yet. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) last month unanimously opposed a general EU ban on the burqa saying although the veiling of women is often perceived as “a symbol of the subjugation of women to men,” a general ban would deny women “who genuinely and freely desire to do so” the right to cover their face.
But the question is: Does facial exposure constitute such a big threat to Muslim women and their religious rights that they should expend so much time and energy debating this issue? The truth is that most Muslims are unaware of the fact that the word “burqa” is not part of the Koran's sartorial terminology. The terms used by the Koran are jilbaab, an outer wrapping garment which is to be worn around the body (33:59), and khimaar, a kind of covering for the head and the bosom (24:31). It may be noted here that jilbaab and khimaar denote just modest clothing and not a head-to-toe shroud like the burqa with just a small opening for the eyes. Had this been the case, the Koranic instruction to Muslim men to “lower their gaze” (24:30-31) would have made no sense. For how could a fully shrouded woman be gazed at? And what does one say of hadith in Bukhari which asks women not to cover their faces during Haj?
Another word that is equated with the burqa is hijaab. It occurs eight times in the Koran (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51 and 83:15) but interestingly, not once in the traditional meaning of burqa as understood by Muslims today. Hijaab actually refers to an imaginary or real barrier between people or things. For instance, verse 17:45 talks of a hidden barrier (hijaaban mastoora) between the non-believers and the Prophet, and verse 33:53 teaches social etiquette to the not-so-literate Arab guests of the Prophet by instructing them not to confront the women of his household directly for their requirements but to talk to them from behind a curtain (min waraayi hijaab) as a mark of respect.
Why then this insistence on the full veil in some Muslim societies? The answer lies in the fact that some of the widely read translations of the Koran are not exactly honest on this issue. For example, in The Noble Quran, an English translation authorised by Saudi Arabia, a perusal of 24:31 would reveal that an attempt has been made to introduce, without any basis, an extra-Koranic meaning to the following text concerning the dress code; walaa yubdeena zeenatahunna illa ma zahara minha wal yazribna bi khumurihinna ala juyoobihinna. The Noble Quran translates this as: “[Tell the believing women]…not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent [like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, head cover, apron], and to draw their veils all over juyoobihinna [i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms].”
The meaning that is sought to be conveyed in the parentheses is a clear addition to what is contained in the Arabic text wherein “khumurihinna ala juyoobihinna” only means “to put a covering over the bosoms” and not the face. The translators of The Noble Quran have also tried to support their views by mistranslating a hadith from the Bukhari which quotes Hazrath Aisha as saying that when verse 24:31 was revealed women tore off pieces from their waist sheets (murooth) to use them as a covering for their “heads and faces.” Once again, the words “heads and faces” are not found in the original hadith text, shaqqaqna muroothahunna faqtamarna biha, which means “they tore off the murooths to cover themselves up.”
The aforementioned facts coupled with the Prophetic saying (in Abu Dawood) advising women not to reveal any part of their bodies “except the face and the palms” clearly prove that neither the Koran nor the hadith forces a woman to conceal her face. Muslim women, therefore, need not worry over a French ban on the burqa because wearing a niqab minus the face veil does in no way violate the Koran or the Prophet's teachings.
What Muslim women really need to take cudgel against is the gender bias prevalent in their societies. They must realise that Muslim patriarchy rallies around them when they demonstrate against issues such as the proposed ban on burqa (which could be easily circumvented), but the medievalists are conspicuously absent when it comes to pressing problems like instant triple talaq, hedonistic polygyny or child marriage.
Unless Muslim women recognise this truth they would not be able to claim their legitimate Islamic rights.
(The author is the secretary-general of Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought among Muslims. He may be reached at email@example.com)