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7 October 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 2:28am

Veils of ignorance and fear

What does loathing of the hijab really mean?

By Sholto Byrnes

Peoples of all faiths and of none should cheer news that Egypt’s religious authorities are expected to issue a ban on the wearing of the niqab, or face veil. During a visit to a girls’ school in Cairo, says the BBC, “Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar University, called full-face veiling a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith.” He instructed a pupil to take off her niqab, a move that has provoked predictable opposition from other clerics.

According to al-Jazeera: “Sheikh Safwat Hijazi, a scholar and preacher, said he would personally sue anyone who prevented his daughter or wife wearing full niqab from going about her daily life, including entering government offices. “Preventing a woman from wearing what she wants is a crime,” Hijazi said. “Whoever says the niqab is a custom is not respectable.”

That there can be a debate about this, however, is an advance in itself, especially when the Islamic credentials of the al-Azhar dean are so strong. (I was going to say “not open to question”, but a) people are already questioning them and b) debate has to involve questioning, so it is another advance that no one’s authority should be considered so absolute that it cannot be challenged.)

It is hard to argue that covering a woman’s face does much to benefit her in any way at all. But what about the hijab? More specifically, what about western attitudes towards women wearing the headscarf here in Europe? Reading one passage in Brian Whitaker’s new book, What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East (which I will be reviewing for the NS), made me think about this.

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When armies move on the ground to conquer and subjugate, they need moral and ideological cover. It is this that gives the dominant narrative of the “Muslim woman” its raison d’être. No wonder that the “Muslim woman” liberation warriors, the likes of Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens and Pascal Bruckner, were the same people who cheered American/British troops as they blasted their way through Kabul and Baghdad, and who will no doubt cheer and dance once more should Iran or Syria be bombed next. Soldiers shoot with their guns; they with their pens. They are hegemony’s apologists.

Whitaker was quoting an article by Soumaya Ghannoushi, which you can find here. She was dealing with the situation in the Middle East, but it seems to me that those who are most vociferous in their opposition to the wearing of the hijab in Europe are taking, whether they realise it or not, an equally hegemonistic approach. For the underlying assumption is that no woman could ever freely choose to wear such an oppressive item of clothing, and that any who claim to have made such a choice of their own volition are suffering from some sort of false consciousness.

This very clearly represents a particular western, liberal vision of what freedom for women is, and as such is a perfectly valid view. What is not valid, however, is for this view to become so set that it is no longer open to argument; for the hijab to become an object of fear and hatred, utterly alien and “other”, and subject to legal restriction. Last month the Flemish authorities banned the wearing of the hijab in schools, producing this reaction from the Antwerp imam Nordine Taouil: “We are getting the signal of ‘you are not welcome’.”

It doesn’t help that those who view the headscarf in this way seem to listen only to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has said that she sees no difference between Islam and Islamism. (For good measure, her view of the Prophet Muhammad is that: “By our standards, he was a pervert. He ordered the killing of Jews and homosexuals and apostates, and the beating of women.”) She doesn’t call for the hijab to be banned, but she obviously doesn’t see it as a choice anyone should make. “You can wear whatever it is that you want, you can give out whatever message that you want to give out — but you have to understand that if that message is rejected, then you can’t call people Islamophobic and expect to be taken seriously. If you choose to wear a veil, people might ridicule and oppose you,” she said in an interview with the Independent‘s Johann Hari.

That, frankly, sounds to me exactly like an encouragement to ridicule and opposition, and to Islamophobia. And all of this is loaded into the wearing of the hijab — when one doesn’t have to look very far back in European history to find plenty of Christian women whose heads were covered by scarves, too (you could find many in villages in the Balkans and eastern Europe today where that is still the case).

Now it would be fair to admit that I would be surprised if my wife, my sisters-in-law, or any of my bare-headed, female Muslim friends, chose to start wearing the hijab. I would certainly ask them why they had chosen to do so. I hope, though, that I wouldn’t be horrified. Why should I be, if I feel no such thing when I see the hijab-wearing girls walking to school near me in north London, or the similarly clad woman who looks after the crèche at my gym?

Some women who wear the hijab may be oppressed, but others are not. For many it may be no more arduous a convention or choice than the expectation that men working in the City of London should possess a pinstriped suit and a pair of smart shoes. Western liberals are right to argue for women’s rights, but there are far more worthy battles than this. Equally, it would be a useful step for them to consider that, for some women, wearing the hijab is perfectly normal.

Should this be a battle they engage in at all? They may conclude that it is. It would be better, however, if they stopped to ask this of themselves occasionally, rather than contenting themselves with demonising a piece of cloth.

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