The European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg upheld the French government's ban on wearing burqa or niqab in its ruling on 1 July 2014. A French Law on religious headgear banned wearing the burqa or niqab in public in 2010. The European Court ruling states that the law does not breach Muslim women’s human rights and consequently there is no reason why the ban should not be upheld. This is a landmark ruling and it could prompt other European and Western countries to consider banning such attires without the risk of legal challenges.
Before considering the issue of religious obligation on wearing the burqa or niqab, as claimed by some devout followers of Islam, let us look at different dresses that are stated to be specified in the Quran and Hadith. The 'burqa' is a garment for women to envelope the whole of the woman’s body, from head to toe, with a mesh cloth over the part of the eyes to see. A burqa is normally made of black cloth, though recently other colours are also used. A 'niqab' is similar to a burqa but with a thin slit, instead of mesh cloth, for the eyes. A niqab is also predominantly black in colour. The 'hijab' is, on the other hand, a headgear that is wrapped around the head covering head, neck and shoulder with only face exposed.
There is controversy as to what Islam directs women to wear. Some religious scholars argue that hijab is obligatory, whereas others disagree and assert that niqab is. But the fact is that women in the Arab Peninsula used to wear niqab and burqa well before Islam came into being. Islam adopted that practice as a continuation of prevailing customs. There is no unambiguous statement directing Muslim women to wear niqab or burqa. With regard to hijab, Prophet Mohammad wanted only his wives to wear hijab to distinguish them from other women and to indicate to other people to show respect to them. There was no obligation in the religious edicts to copy Mohammad’s wives’ attire.
So why do some Muslim women (and men) living in the West (as well as in the East) now feel and claim that it is a religious obligation for women to wear niqab or burqa or some other similar attire? How did these religious obligations come about now, which were not there even 20 years ago? Does this claim of infringement of human rights stack up against the perceived demands to conceal women in public by covering them from head to toe? Isn’t this concealment itself an infringement of human rights, as it arguably epitomises the servitude of women to men and thereby breaches sexual equality?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was framed by the Human Rights Commission at the end of World War II and that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. In the Preamble of the declaration, it stated that ‘in recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’, this declaration had been adopted. It covered various aspects of human rights such as rights to education, health, liberty, security, nationality and above all human dignity. This convention was signed by 48 states at that time, but Saudi Arabia and some other orthodox Muslim states refused to sign it as they disagreed with Article 16 (which dealt with ‘equal rights to men and women in marriage’) on grounds of religion. In Islam, women are subservient to men in marriage – both in status and family hierarchy. However, in 2008 the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) accepted the convention and so these more fundamentalist countries, being members of the OIC, have adopted de facto the provisions of the UDHR.
But in reality most of these Muslim countries had been flouting, to varying degrees, the human rights of women to better adhere to religious edicts. In Islam, women are required to be confined within the homes of their parents and then of their husbands. Women are not allowed to go out in public without being accompanied by their fathers or brothers and after marriages by husbands. Women are not allowed to be educated beyond the basic levels to read, write and keep accounts of family expenses. Women are not allowed to drive (modern interpretation by Saudi Wahhabism). Men and women are not treated as equal in Islam – women inherit half of what a man can inherit; women are subservient to men (husbands) in the family; husbands can divorce wives at will (without showing any cause) but women cannot. Men can marry four times and keep four wives concurrently. Women are kept indoors and when they go out with their husbands, they are to be fully veiled. And so giving ‘equal rights to men and women in marriage’ arguably goes against a basic foundation of Sharia law.
So with a background situation like this, when devout Muslims assert that denying untrammelled rights to wear niqab or burqa is unacceptable, as it is an infringement of their human rights, one finds it rather bizarre; particularly when so many other human rights are denied in religion. There are a number of issues which need to be considered when addressing the pros and cons of allowing burqa and niqab to be worn by Muslim women and these are:
- If Muslim women are religiously so orthodox to feel obligated to wear these attires, or else, as is often the case, their husbands insist on it, they should not defy other obligations in Islam such as not going out of their homes without being accompanied by their fathers or husbands. It should be noted, however, that the religion did not prescribe wearing burqa or niqab as obligatory. Even if such attires are perceived to be obligatory, it is notable that many such adherents selectively decide which obligation they would follow and which ones they would ignore, as mentioned above.
- Wearing such attires by Muslim women is an assertion of their religious identity, which they carry forward from their ancestral homeland to the host society. Such assertion arises partly as a result of invasive Wahhabism which is propagated by Saudi Arabia with financial support and religious sponsorship. In the Western liberal and secular societies, such religious imposition is deemed offensive by many and should be curtailed.
- A political religious culture of Islam does not always gel harmoniously with the liberal democratic systems of the West. Rights to perform religious rites are enshrined in the law of the land, but that does not mean that all rights arising from Sharia laws, in contravention of democratic laws of the land, should be adhered to. If religious laws encourage abrogation of the laws of the land, and no sensible compromise is possible, then those religious laws may need to be rejected by the State.
- Some women wearing niqab or burqa, and their husbands, are now passing on such practices to their daughters – even to school age girls. It is a common sight now-a-days that Muslim girls of the age of ten or eleven wear these attires. By encouraging and enforcing such dresses on school going daughters, they segregate these girls from the wider community. It is a sort of voluntary acceptance of apartheid logic. If cohesion is to be improved, some religious practices based on scriptures may need to be rejected in favour of more inclusive and cohesive liberal culture.
- Wearing niqab and burqa is an abrogation of the spirit of multiculturalism. In Britain multiculturalism is encouraged as it is viewed as an all-embracing social practice. But multiculturalism does not mean, or at least should not mean, a multitude of segregated cultures and the unintentional denigration of host culture. The continuance and perpetuation of cultural practices with strict religious underpinning, where they conflict strongly with host custom, will continue to exacerbate social discontent and segregation.
In view of all these points, the British government should consider following the French precedence - which enforced the ban more than three years ago. Western liberal democracy allowing individual freedom of speech, freedom of expression and so forth is fine, but there must be limits to such freedom, particularly when there is an tendency to take undue advantage of it. If attempts are made to introduce elements of Sharia law surreptitiously under the guise of religious freedom, then such attempts should be opposed. Secularism is an unfinished project in Britain, and now, with the rise in faith schools and religious tensions and expressions, we sadly seem to be travelling in the opposite direction.