Protecting women from the veil

EuropeNews March 03 2008

The Islamic veil is probably the most debated piece of clothing on the planet at this moment, and not least whether it is permissible for states to regulate the use of it in certain situations.

First things first. The hijab, jilbab, abaya, khimar, niqab, isdal, chador, burqa are all variants to mark women as being pious Muslims according to this Quranic verse:

Quran 33:59:

O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should case their cloaks over their bodies so that they be recognized as such and not be molested.

While other Quranic verses are less clear, the combination of the Sirat (the Islamic accounts of Muhammads’ life) and the Quran shows that the veiling is an explicit Islamic feature, not a retrofitting of patriarchal traditions upon a supposedly liberating religion, and that it is an imposed obligation. It is like this that women will be recognized as Muslims and ‘not molested’. It is also a tool to separate Muslims from non-Muslims.

The ‘not molested’ part needs to be taken seriously. In conservative Islamic countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, ‘religious’ police patrol the street and enforce proper Islamic clothing. Many articles, such as this, illustrate what happens to women not toeing the line:

Attacks in Tehran on unveiled women.

While the veil is supposed to protect women from ‘being molested’, it is taken as a carte blanche by religious radicals to molest women who do not wear it. This makes the veiling, in a very real sense, mandatory. Various countries have different traditions, and largely the most conservative Islamic countries have the strictest dress code for women, as well as the most vicious enforcement. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan are leading in enforcing religious clothing.

It is often debated whether the veil is voluntary or mandatory. Given a sufficient display of consequences in the form of violent intimidation, women usually adopt it quite willingly. The alternative is certainly more brutal, and thus it becomes an easy choice to wear it. That it also signifies submission to Allah and thus makes the wearer an elevated religious person is an additional bonus.

Then, there’s the creepy ‘knock on the door’. According to Danish journalist Ulla Dahlerup, the veil is ‘voluntarily’ imposed by means of sincere Muslims wanting to demonstrate their religious zeal, by visiting families where they have noticed that the wife or teenage daughters are not wearing the veil. The husband is informed that the lack of religious zeal in his family has been noticed, and the visitors firmly suggest him to set the situation right towards his women, that nothing bad may happen to them.

This practice of local intimidation is taking place not only in Tehran, Iran, but also in Copenhagen, Denmark, as well as probably in many other cities with a significant Muslim population. It is hard to document, for no writing is involved and the involved parties agree that it is ‘voluntary’ and that the threats are benign.

Different styles of Muslim headscarf are on display at BBC.

Is the veiling genuinely an Islamic tradition?

One position on the veiling of women is that it is not an Islamic tradition at all. Let us have a look at that, and how it relates to scriptural evidence:Uncovering the Meaning of the Veil in Islam
By Sahar Amer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

From the Conclusion:

In conclusion, it seems that the hijab is a construction created shortly after the Prophet’s time and maintained till today by patriarchal society in order to keep women in a subordinate position. Because of the vagueness of its prescriptions on the dress code for women, the Quran has been manipulated at various historical times, including in our own times, in order to uphold various political agendas.Fatima Mernissi, in her famous The Veil and Male Elite, has poignantly explained the political construction of the veil throughout the post-Islamic times. She has described how shortly after the Prophet’s time, Muslim men attempted to keep the privileges they enjoyed in the pre-Islamic world over women by denying women the equality of the sexes preached by Islam.

This is disingenuous, for the veiling was, as can be seen in the Sirat, imposed by Muhammad by way of a Quranic command. There was a time before the veil, where it can be assumed that the Arab women would dress themselves as dictated by the weather, not by religion.

This is described in a scene immediately after the battle of Badr, where some prisoners are brought to Sawdah bt. Zamah, one of the wives of Muhammad. The mention of the veil is short and clear, and gives a crucial piece of information:

Al-Tabari VII p. 66:
”This was before the veil was imposed on the women.”
This is a reference to Quran 33:59, mandating the veiling. It is uncertain exactly at what time this was published. A likely context is that of Aisha, at the age of 14, possibly having an affair with a young man in the desert. That was also the occasion for Muhammad to mandate four witnesses to convict a woman of infidelity. Since exactly three had stood up against Aisha, they received a flogging for bearing false testimony and Aisha was acquitted of guilt in the matter.

While many other traditions in Islam, such as Hajj and stoning, can be ascribed to pre-Islamic traditions, the veiling cannot.

The situation in Turkey

Turkey is, for good and bad, in several ways a frontline state between European and the Islamic world. Since the Turkish (Seljuk) conquest of Greek/Byzantine Asia Minor, a gradual Islamization of society has taken place through centuries.The Ottoman Empire, being the Caliphate, under Suleiman the Magnificent implemented Sharia law, and as part of this the dhimmi system to differentiate between Muslims (superior), ‘People of the Book’ (Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians – tolerated in a state of humiliation), and others (not tolerated). That included a very detailed dress code based on the religion of the individual, much more extensive than for example the yellow star worn by the Jews in the 1930’s.

19th century Tanzimat reforms sought to abolish the system, but the reforms abetted the rise of Balkan nationalism, led to uprisings and Ottoman reprisals, and gradually the liberation of the Balkans from Ottoman rule. In Asia Minor, things went the opposite way, with a reassertion of Turkish identity and elimination of the better part of non-Turkish minorities.

Kemal Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”) abolished the Caliphate and implemented a strong secular rule, where religion, and Islam in particular, would be under control of the secular – primarily military – elite. Restrictions on religious clothing, such as banning the fez, was part of the effort to rein in religious influence in public and political life. Secularism (Laïcité) is a defining principle of the Turkish Republic, and the constitutional court is the guardian of this.

The Turkish PM Erdogan is a key figure in this. Himself a devout Muslim and convicted of incitement to religious violence, he observes Ramadan fasting, his wife is never seen without a headscarf, and his daughters study abroad because they are not permitted to attend a Turkish university wearing the Islamic veil. His opinion on a supposedly ‘moderate’ Islam, often used to describe his AKP party, is straightforward:

These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.

His view on the headscarf may be related to is view on assimilation of the (Islamic) Turkish diaspora in Europe. In a speech to the Turkish parliament, he also made it clear that Turks must under no circumstances assimilate in Germany: “I repeat… assimilation is a crime against humanity.” Unfortunately, this comes across as somewhat hypocritical when compared this to the Turkish policy against the Kurdish minority in the east.

The issue of the headscarf ban has been contentious in recent years, with women claiming that the ban prevented them from taking an education. However, research conducted by the Turkish think tank, TESEV, concludes that only 1 percent female students do not enrol in universities due to headscarf concerns.

Some have been using wigs – deliberately chosen to be as ugly as possible – to circumvent and ridicule the ban, in an attempt to gain leverage to have it removed.

In 1998, Leyla Sahin took the issue to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the ban prevented her from taking an education. A full 7 years later, in November 2005, the ECHR ruled to uphold the ban, as gender equality is a fundamental democratic principle.

In 2008, the Turkish parliament amended the constitution to pave the way for a removal of the headscarf ban but these amendments were cancelled by the Constitutional Court. This, in turn, increased the risk that the AK Party itself would be closed down due to violations of the secular principles of the Turkish Republic. While the AKP was indeed found guilty at the Constitutional Court, it was fined but not closed and is still in power in Turkey.

Erdogan has a track record of demonstrating, formally or informally, his commitment to Islam, and his support for its application in Turkish society. While actual Islamization proposals have usually been stopped, the intentions are fairly clear, and it is possible the AKP will reintroduce the proposals at a later and more appropriate time. This would be when the secular elite has been further weakened and the stops against Islamization of the Turkish society have been removed.

For the moment, the principle of Laïcité stands in Turkey, with important support from the European Court of Human Rights, which defended it in 2005. As long as restrictions on the veil exist in Turkey, the road towards a comprehensive re-Islamization of the country is blocked.

References concerning Turkey:
BBC, July 22 2002:
Turkey: Battle of the headscarf 

The Islamists, for their part, proclaim a new-found moderation – one their critics find unconvincing. Nur Vergin, professor of sociology at Istanbul University, thinks it is purely tactical. She believes that if the Islamist groups are left unchecked, they will poison the minds of the 8,000 boys and girls at Istanbul’s Islamic schools.

BBC, November 10 2005:
Court backs Turkish headscarf ban 

In a society where men and women are equal, it said, a ban on religious attire such as the headscarf was justified on university premises.

Der Spiegel, October 24 2006:
Erdogan Too Religious for Turkey?

Erdogan had already been under fire by old-guard secular opponents who said Turkey had no room for a leader whose wife wears a headscarf. Erdogan’s devout spouse, Emine, never appears in public unveiled.

BBC, February 11 2008:
Turkey divided over headscarf ban

Many [demonstrators] were women who fear that relaxing the rules on the headscarf is a first step towards increasing the influence of Islam on society. They see it as a serious threat to their own non-religious way of life – changing the face of modern Turkey. “Turkey is secular and will stay secular!” they shouted, turning the whole area bright red with thousands of national flags.

Reuters, June 05 2008:
Court annuls Turkish headscarf bill, blow to government

[C]onservative secularists saw the amendment as a violation of strict separation between Mosque and state, and evidence the AK Party has a secret agenda to introduce a system of Islamic law.

Erdogan: assimilation is crime against humanity
Middle East Online

“I repeat… assimilation is a crime against humanity,” Erdogan said in a speech to parliament in Ankara.

Historical background articles
On the occasion of Turkey starting EU membership negotiations in October 2005, Dr. Andrew Bostom revisited the history of ‘tolerance’ in the Ottoman society:

Turkey: Back to the Future?

Ottoman Dhimmitude

From Failed Reforms to a Modern Jihad Genocide

The Jihad Genocide of the Armenians

The situation in France

France is, since the French Revolution, one of the most staunchly secular countries in the world. The principle of Secularism (Laïcité) lies at the very heart of the French Republics, and while initially a revolt against the suffocating embrace of the Catholic Church, it is now being challenged and re-asserted due to the influx of Muslim immigrants, mainly from the Maghreb countries.The issue has been debated for decades, with a 1989 court ruling permitting the headscarf in schools, provided it is not made a tool of proselytism. Individual secular schools, however, would ban the headscarf. Muslim students have been trying to break these individual bans, and have been expelled in dozens of cases. This brought the issue to a head, and into public debate, where many French saw the headscarf as a symbol of oppression of women and a rejection of secularism. In 2004, the government voted with great majority to ban headscarfs in schools.

This caused some Islamic outrage, including demonstrations and a half-forgotten kidnapping, where the kidnappers demanded the headscarf ban to be lifted. The kidnapping, in particular, made it clear to many Frenchmen that they were dealing with religious fanatics, and helped significantly to galvanize the support of the ban. The matter was later be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The ruling in a similar case in Turkey made it likely that the Court would uphold the French law, and this was the case. See Dogru v. France (27058/05) and Kervanic v. France (31645/04)

Today, the situation is largely at rest. Non-public schools can permit headscarfs, and many, including Catholic schools, do. The ban in public schools, public offices etc. stands, and is not likely to be challenged. Other more urgent problems are drawing the attention anyway.

References concerning France:
Q&A: Muslim headscarves

France’s Headscarf Problem

(The traditional leftist view is that banning the headscarf fuels racism and xenophobia:)
Headscarf ban fuels racism, Islamophobia

France backs school head scarf ban

France Sticking By Head Scarf Ban, While Efforts To Free Kidnapped French Journalists Continue

The rationale behind the ban, explained in detail by a member of the proposing board:
A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf

Dogru v. France (court ruling)

The situation in Denmark

Denmark probably has a more open and honest debate on issues regarding Islam than any other country. A small country with limited impact on international affairs, the Danes are using their small linguistic reach to debate issues too hot for most larger countries. In particular after the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis in 2006, many Danes have the perception that Islamic customs are unjustly being forced upon society, and that it is the duty of the concerned citizen to protest against this.At the 2007 elections, a Muslim woman Asmaa Abdol-Hamid was running for elections for the socialist/communist party Enhedslisten. She is never seen without strict Islamic clothing, yet the formerly secular party, in the name of ‘tolerance’, accepted her as a candidate. The party had a ferocious internal debate over the matter before the election. It lost two seats and Asmaa was not elected.

Being an election official at this election, I noticed that many Muslim voters came to us and asked where to find her on the list. They had been told by their imam to vote for her, but had no idea what party she was running for or what it represented.

The election triggered another debate, that of how to handle the situation in case she was elected. Islam has, by definition, a legal system that does not respect secular law, or the idea that humans can give laws at all. According to Islamic thinking, humans only interpret the divinely given law and are not in a position to alter it. That has some subtle implications in case an Islamic oriented person is elected to the law-making function of a modern parliament. Eventually it was decided that religious clothing can be permitted in the Danish parliament.

A related debate soon flared up, that of clothing permitted to be worn by judges. The debate was sparked by a controversial campaign from Dansk Folkeparti, who placed newspaper advertisements with pictures of judges wearing full Islamic clothing. Judges have to appear in a decent, neutral way when in office, and after an extensive debate it was decided that the Islamic veil is off limits for judges, as well as for jury participants and the like.

In the corporate life, it is largely up to the employer to decide over matters. It is common practice to bar women from wearing veil or other Islamic clothing at checkout lines and other functions visible to the public. In a recent case in Netto, a woman insisted on wearing the Islamic veil. But after many complaints from customers of all kinds, the shop owner demanded the woman either dropped the veil or dropped her job. She quit the job.

The Islamic veil was eventually permitted to be worn by members of the Danish parliament.

Veils to be banned from Danish courts:
Flertal mod dommere i tørklæder

Danish state television to run a beauty contest for veiled women:
DR vil kåre Miss Tørklæde

Woman quits her job in chain store Netto, preferring headscarf over income:
Netto-fyring i Ry er usand

Mogens Rukov explains why Islam as such is incompatible with the Danish Constitution:
Islam violates our Constitution


The situation in Norway

Norway, a relative newcomer to mass immigration from Islamic countries, has for a long time had a relatively low-key debate on issues of immigration and Islam. Being a relatively religious country, wearing religious symbols in public has largely been accepted, shop owners do not have the right to bar their employees from wearing them, and members of the Norwegian army can generally wear any kind of religious clothing they may want.However, when it came to the police, the Norwegians drew a line. A student at the police academy had asked for permission to wear the hijab with the police uniform. The first response from Norwegian authorities was positive, and they were moving to change the guidelines, to accommodate the request. The guidelines for police uniforms in Norway states that it is not permissible for police officers to wear symbols of their political or religious affiliation.

But an unusually fierce public debate followed. Fremskrittspartiet, other right wing parties and the leader of the police union Arne Johannessen, protested against the proposal, on the grounds that the police is not a religious institution, that they have to give a neutral impression in the varied contexts they work in, and that there should be no doubt that the police draws its authority from the secular state, not from some more or less arbitrary religion.

That a Norwegian imam, Ahmed Esmaili, chipped in that female police officers should largely not apprehend men, and that the hijab is a full body clothing, not just a headscarf, probably did not help the cause of the Islamists.

Others, notably police officer Sugharan Khan argued that permitting religious clothing within the police force was a bad idea, as it would easily lead to more religious rules obstructing police work, such as a ban on women policing along with men or the like. Since hijab is not permitted in the police force of her country of origin (Pakistan), she saw no reason to permit it in Norway.
Hot on the heels of a scrapped proposal to implement stricter blasphemy laws, this represents another clear defeat for the religious (largely Islamic) fundamentalists in Norway.

Imam Ahmed Esmaili requests that female police officers do not apprehend men:
Muslimske politikvinner bør ikke pågripe menn

Police officer Sugharan Khan argues that hijab is bad in the police:
Hva blir det neste? At de ikke kan patruljere med menn?

The Norwegian minister of justice drops the proposal for permitting veiling within the police:
Norge skrotter politi-tørklæde

Muslim girls beaten for not wearing the hijab
In my office, women cried brave tears over having to go with a hijab. Countless young women despairingly told me that they don’t have the hijab on all the time, they’ll get a beating.

Closing remarks

Restricting the use of the veil, as well as other religious clothing, has several important functions:In the context of law enforcement and judicial functions, Islam assumes a doubly problematic role. Islam has – largely is – an extensive set of religious law known as ‘Sharia’. If police officers, judges etc. were permitted to wear Islamic clothing, their neutrality would be cast in doubt, as they may be suspected of respecting religious law instead of secular law whenever possible. In these functions, it is particular justified to ban religious clothing.
In society at large, religious clothing has another adverse function, that of dividing society by religion.

On an individual level, when you can tell the religion of a person from his/her clothing, prejudices and adverse experiences will enter the encounter, associating the wearer of religious clothes with actions done in the name of that religion. Also in this field Islam has a particular problem, in that many violent actions take place in the name of this religion, and any person wearing Islamic clothing will – consciously or not – be associated with these.

On a collective level, dividing population groups by their religion in this way has historically been instrumental for implementing various forms of discrimination. While we currently have quite strong anti-discrimination laws, the risk of these laws being undermined is real, not least from the side of radical Islamists, who may quote Surah 5:51 and other passages to justify discrimination on basis of religion.

In conclusion, banning the veil in certain contexts is not an expression of discrimination, nor is it repressive to women. It is an important secular response to religiously mandated clothing, and in particular for women creates a sphere where they are free not to wear religiously dictated clothes, and thus in some places in life be free of having to show their religion in public.

Better this way. We have enough religious trouble already, and could use a break.

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