Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Headscarf Issue Raises Its Ugly Head Again

(Source: Global Voices) On April 16, 2011, France's ban on the niqaab and burqa went into effect, re-stirring emotions on the subject and sparking protests in the European country and beyond.

United States-based Egyptian journalist and media pundit Mona Eltahawy has been outspoken in favor of France's ban, stating in a recent video, “I oppose Sarkozy, but I oppose this on women, because what choice do women have besides covering their face? This ideology doesn't recognize Muslim women's rights.”

In the video, hosted by Eliot Spitzer on CNN, Eltahawy debated Heba Ahmed, who wears a niqaab covering; in counterpart, Ahmed stated that “if [Eltahawy] wants diversity in Islamic belief, then she has to accept my version, just like I have to accept hers.”

This debate, along with other recent debates in which Eltahawy appeared, has engendered debate in the blogosphere, much of which focuses directly on Eltahawy's standpoint.

Shanfaraa, an Egyptian-American blogger who is also a professor of law, agrees with Eltahawy that the niqaab is not a religious requirement, and states that, like her, he rejects the theology that forces women to wear it, but nevertheless disagrees with her stance, explaining:

Mona seems to believe that once a person falls into the grasp of Wahhabi-Salafi theology, they can never escape, but in fact, Mona herself is the best evidence repudiating that view. After all, she grew up in Saudi Arabia and managed to resist that kind of religious indoctrination. Might it not be the case that individuals in liberal cultures are at least as capable of changing their religious commitments as Mona was? The most dangerous aspect of the niqab ban, and the one that I believe Mona radically underestimates, is that the state is giving itself the right to define what a particular symbol, in this case, the face veil, means to those who adhere to it. I doubt any Muslim woman wearing a face veil would agree with the French State’s characterization of it as a form of slavery. I doubt even Mona would agree with that. Yet, by agreeing with the French law, she is acquiescing to giving the state this power of interpretation backed by coercive force over people’s inner thoughts, a very dangerous power indeed.

The Cynical Arab, a Lebanese-American blogger, takes issue with the rhetoric used by Eltahawy in a piece called “On Caged Birds and Liberators”. In it, she criticizes:

Mona Eltahawy, often heralded as a go-to feminist icon for the “liberation” of women, refuses to acknowledge that a number of those who wear the face veil do so out of their own personal discretion. Yet the argument is that they simply do not know any better, they have been indoctrinated to wear the face veil, they have no apparent mind of their own as it has been seemingly been overwhelmed with extremism forced upon them by the male figures in their lives.

A woman wearing a niqaab covering. Image by Flickr user ashi (CC BY 2.0).

A woman wearing a niqaab covering. Image by Flickr user ashi (CC BY 2.0).

Blogger Sami Kishawi, in a piece entitled “Why Mona Eltahawy is fundamentally wrong“, prefaces his piece by explaining that, “This article does not serve to debase Mona Eltahawy as an individual nor should it be read as an attack against the fundamental human rights she claims to defend.” Kishawi then takes to task Eltahawy's debate strategy, explaining:

“Everyone has a right to an opinion” is an old adage we hear almost every time we engage in dialogue, discussion, and debate. Keeping this in mind, I see nothing wrong with Eltahawy promoting her opinions. Whether or not I agree with them is a tale for another day, but the true problem arises in her strategy.

Remember, she boldly claims to represent entire groups of people. Her strategy is noticeably opportunistic. She used her “Egyptianness” to elevate her agenda during the revolution and to push her ideas through mainstream media searching for that supremely rare “liberated Muslim woman”. Naturally, she insists that she’s right and that everyone else is more than just wrong – they’re radicals. Her work instigates the divisions within our communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in a blind attempt to rectify the wrongs of society. She says she stands for the Egyptian people who, by the way, support an end to the siege on Gaza, but soon after gives the opening speech for the J Street conference which doesn’t necessarily advocate for an end to the military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Her overall arguments are laced with apologeticism. She uses the most informal social media outlets like Twitter to debase and discredit other academics who don’t align with her ideologies. And she retweets anything that promotes her name. All of this and more indicates a lack of professionalism that I just can’t ignore.

On the blog Musings of a Muslim Mouse, there is an open letter to Eltahawy, meant to “represent real niqaabis around the world.” The blogger writes:

You imply that it is only “extremist Salafis and Wahhabis” who wear niqaab or demand it of their women. That’s kinda funny, because I have a Sufi aunt who wears niqaab; and the nice Indian aunty at the mosque is a Deobandi, and she wears it too. The Nigerian convert who campaigns for women’s space at the mosque and demands that Muslim men stop acting like caveman and behave like gentlemen has been wearing niqaab for several years.

I’m sorry that you have had bad experiences with the niqaab. I’m sorry that you’ve had bad experiences with Muslims who call you a she-devil, a whore, and a scourge against Islam.

Sister Heba Ahmad – the one you debated on CNN – said something really beautiful that I agree with completely: “Mona is my sister in Islam and even though I must disagree when she misrepresents Islam and Muslims, she still should be protected from the tongue of her fellow Muslims.”

That’s how I feel about you. I strongly disagree with what you say about the niqaab and much about what you say about Islam and Muslims in general. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to threaten to kill you, or swear at you, or condemn you to Hell. What I will do is invite you over for coffee at my place, with open arms and a warm smile that you can detect even beneath my niqaab.

Your sister in Islam,

A Muslim Woman Who Wears Niqaab

Photo by Flickr user ashi made available under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0 license

Show Comments: OR


  1. It's an interesting debate, and one that someone like me, who talks about diversity, struggles with in a way.

    My overall opinion is that people should be allowed to do whatever they want to do "on their own time". I highlight that because I also believe that it's the "states" right to try to protect the majority of its citizenry as best it can.

    Whereas I disagree with France on saying women can't wear these headdresses, I agree with the Florida law that bans women from having their pictures taken while wearing these things. That's because I believe freedom of religion and freedom of association are rights, but driving isn't a right, it's a privilege. Some rules have to apply to everyone for the protection of the rest.

    At least that's how I see things.

  2. @Mitch: There's no question society becomes more complex as the world becomes more "modern." It's how we are able to adapt to perceptions of others that defines us as a civilized society. The headscarf issue will likely BE an issue for some time to come!


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