Posted by Joshua on Friday, July 16th, 2010
Can banning the Niqab really work?
There is something ironic in Syria banning the niqab, or full head cover. When I first arrived in Damascus in 1981 to go to the University of Damascus and live in wahda al-uwla in the University City, the hijab, or scarf used by women to cover their hair, was banned. Many women defied the ban and wore it on campus anyway, but it was perhaps only 30% of all women. Today the percent of students that wear it is much higher, perhaps 70%. I am only guessing as it has been two years since I was on campus. In the 1960s, the headscarf was even rarer than it had become in the 1980s. In 1979, Rifaat al-Assad’s troops, saraya al-difaa, had stopped cars in downtown Damascus and forced women wearing the hijab to remove it, causing an public uproar and much resentment.
The spread of Islamic clothing and outward expressions of piety has been steady and uninterrupted over the last four decades. It is not clear how the government can stop or reverse this trend. It is not restricted to Syria of course, but a phenomenon common to much of the Islamic world.
Many theories have been offered for why Islamic clothing has spread. Some of these theories are: it is due to the failure of secularism and materialist ideologies, such as communism and socialism; a protest against corrupt and authoritarian rule; in Syria, it has been argued that it is a “Sunni” protest against the dominance of Alawis, who are viewed to be lax Muslims (Alawi women do not wear the headscarf as a rule). I have heard other explanations, as well: fashion, western clothing is too expensive, the growth in women’s literacy has led to greater piety and familiarity with religion.
I would be interested in hearing the explanations of SC readers.
School ban on all-covering veil raises nary a peep among activists in the Middle East
2010-07-15 – LA Times
Who knew right-wing Western politicians and the Syrian government had something in common?
The niqab, a face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women that has been maligned by many in Europe and the United States as a symbol of oppression and religious extremism, has been quietly outlawed in public schools by Syrian authorities in an effort to protect the nation’s nominal secularism.
Syria has a long and fraught history with Islamic opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But despite possibly forcing 1,200 women out of their jobs, no one is headed to the streets or has even launched a Facebook campaign yet. ….
Bassam Kadi, director of the Syrian Women Observatory, who explained his reasons for declining to take up the cause of the niqab after several of the affected women approached his organization for help.
“The niqab is not a Syrian tradition,” Kadi told the National. “It’s an imported symbol of religious extremism and contradicts the moderate Islam we know here. If [a woman] wears niqab, she is forcing an attitude on society. She is making a statement. That is not acceptable in a school.”
Although no formal announcement was made, local media began reporting the ban in June after women who wore the niqab began coming forward and complaining that they had been fired or reassigned to government offices where they would not come into contact with students.
“Education in Syrian schools follows an objective, secular methodology and this is undermined by wearing the face veil,” Education Minister Ali Saad reportedly said during a teachers’ syndicate meeting last month…..
….According to a survey conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in April and May this year, support for banning the burka is especially high in France, where a whopping 82% are in favor of outlawing it in public places such as schools, hospitals and government offices, while just 17% are opposed to such measures.
But the study also indicates that the garment, which has been the subject of much heated debate and controversy in Europe, is becoming increasingly unpopular in Germany, Britain, and Spain, where 71%, 62% and 59%, respectively, of those surveyed endorsed burka bans similar to the proposed French law in their own countries.
Americans, on the other hand, remain strongly opposed to such a law. Only 28% of those surveyed in the U.S. were in support of a burka ban while 65% disapproved. ….In Paris, one communist lawmaker reportedly compared the cloak to “walking coffins” while another from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party stressed that women who wear the burka must be liberated — even if it’s against their will….
Off the Wall writes:
One of our most miserable failures, as secular Arabs, was not to focus on a large marginalized segment of our society in the deep rural areas. So long as our cities looked more like western cities, with a tolerable amount of head-scarves, and so long as the rural only showed up in the commercial sector of our cities, or during their visits to city doctors, we thought that progress was happening as we had no idea, or we did not want to realize the extent of our failures in bringing true development, education, modernization, and progress into these rural areas. We may have brought electricity, built a few schools, facilitated rapid and excessive and unsustainable exploitation of land and water resources, but true enlightenment, i guess, we did not bring. The story is the same in most Arab “secular” republics.
With this failure, and as a significant segment of rural Arabs left their forgotten villages and came to the cities in search of better economic life, and in many cases, were even forced to do so through the extreme centralization prevalent in our societies, the cities started to reflect more of the true societal differences, and the more conservative leaning of the country, than they did when they only held about 15% of our “more affluent” westernized population. No secular Arab thinker dares to bring this issue, for it highlights our 70 year failure in affecting real, non-cosmetic progress. Tribal mentality remained the same, and it has by now spread into the cities where the narrow circles of old-urbanites , that used to be able to pretend that they represent the entire society, can no longer do so. Hence their nostalgia to the old days.
A population that remained more susceptible to wahabi ideas now constitutes a significant segment of Arab City dwellers, especially in Megacities, where traditionally, more cosmopolitan, enlightened strands of Islam was previously practiced. Ignoring the migrants after they migrated to the cities and leaving them to fend for themselves without real help exacerbated the problem and made more of the city now even more susceptible to Wahabi ideas. The same story can be told in countless Arab countries. It is not the Wahabi idea that is gaining, it is our failure to bring a large segment of our society into a level of development that can confront these ideas is the cause of what we now see.
Note: Mr. N3eyseh should try to explain the fact that the little desert principalities he so harshly criticizes have three (Qatar, Oman, and UAE) among the 32 least corrupt countries on earth, with two other monarchies (Jordan and Morocco) steadily moving up into the rank of 40s while the entirety of Arab “secular” republics are among the worst in corruption perception index with few of them going worst by the year. We failed, and we should face up. We need to re-invent Arab secularism and progressive thought to be more inclusive, less elitist, and truly committed to the human development of the Arab world.
By RONALD P. SOKOL, July 14, 2010, International Herald Tribune
Two years ago, France’s highest court denied citizenship to a Muslim woman on the grounds that she had not assimilated into French society. I agreed to defend her before the European Court of Human Rights. I could have emphasized religious freedom; I raised the argument, but there was an easier way to show that the court had gone astray.
French law gives two tests of assimilation: knowledge of the language and absence of a criminal record. My client spoke fluent French and had no criminal record. But reports of interviews by social workers said that she had showed up wearing a niqab. On that basis, the court concluded that she practiced a form of religion incompatible with equal rights of men and women.
I argued that to allow an official to judge a failure to assimilate without providing criteria was to invite arbitrary decisions. The Human Rights Convention prohibits governments from acting arbitrarily. The case is currently pending before the European Court. ….
On Tuesday, the National Assembly passed the draft law by a vote of 335 to 1. It declares that “no one can, in the public space, wear clothing intended to hide the face.” The Senate is expected to pass the bill in September, when it will become law.
While the extreme marginality of the practice renders discussion somewhat ridiculous, the government’s insistence that the issue is vital makes it incumbent to show that its reasons do not resist analysis. Jean-François Copé, the majority leader in the French National Assembly and a small town mayor, argued in an opinion article on these pages (May 6) that “face covering poses a serious safety problem” and that “visibility of the face in the public sphere” is a fundamental principle.
The first argument is easily disposed of. There exists no evidence that women wearing the veil pose a security problem. Copé provides no evidence. The government’s own reports fail to show a public safety issue. In the total absence of any evidence, passing a law to provide protection where no protection is needed is either an exercise in absurdity or conceals a different agenda.
Copé’s second reason is more interesting. He asks, “How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance … refuses to exist in the eyes of others?” For the majority leader, “the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others.” In this he may be correct. But if a woman has a duty to show her face in public it must be because someone else has the right to see her face. That is the pretended “right” that Copé asserts.
I know of no such right. Copé will not find it in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, nor in the European Convention of Human Rights. When walking down the Champs Elysées, I have no right to see the face of passersby. Nor do I want such a right. While Copé may want a passer-by to give him a glance or a smile, he has no right to demand it.
Yes, the veil may be antisocial, but, fortunately, in a democratic, pluralistic society there is no legal duty to be social…..
Ronald P. Sokol is a lawyer in Aix-en-Provence, France.