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Published: Monday, 5/2/2011

France draws the line on veils in public

Islamic dress for women has become an issue in France, which passed a law to ban full veils -- called niqab -- in public. Those who support the ban and those who oppose it are placing importance on something that ought to be a nonissue.

At the heart of the controversy, which at times reaches the outer limits of absurdity, is the question: What constitutes proper dress for a Muslim woman? Is it a one-design-fits-all garment, or is there any flexibility in the matter?

Let us clarify certain terms that are in common use. A scarf that covers the head is just that -- a scarf. A hijab covers the head in such a way that not one strand of hair is visible. A niqab covers the whole face. A burqa is a tent-like garment that covers a woman from head to toe with a grill in front of the eyes for visibility.

There is no mention of any particular dress for women in the Qur'an. But three passages lay down guidelines for Muslim women. They are advised to cover themselves appropriately when they are outside the home and not to display their beauty, their embellishment, and their adornments.

The underlying principle is to dress modestly and not be walking sex symbols. To a great majority of Muslim women, modesty in dress is important, whether the styles are Western, African, or from the Indian subcontinent.

Within this framework, opinions abound. Since there is no unifying central religious authority among Sunni Muslims, they interpret the scripture according to their own cultural background. There is a plethora of competing and contrasting opinions.

Even to a casual observer, it becomes apparent that women in different parts of the Muslim world dress differently. Even within one country, women dress differently. To Arabs who are orthodox Muslims, the shalwar kameez -- the dress worn by Muslim women in India and Pakistan -- might appear outrageous. Similarly, most Indian and Pakistani women would consider the obsessive covering of every single strand of hair as overkill.

Should there be a uniform dress code for women throughout the Muslim world? Those on the right of the religious spectrum would like nothing better than to impose their restrictive version of religion on others. Perhaps a peek into history would help.

Imam Malik, the eighth-century founder of one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, wrote Al-Muwatta, which for centuries was considered a perfect book on jurisprudence. He is reputed to have said that his interpretations were valid only where and when he lived.

A century later, Imam Hanbal, founder of another of the four schools of jurisprudence, traveled from Iraq to Egypt. He set aside the rulings and interpretations he had rendered while living in Iraq with the remark that his opinions were only valid there.

These days, anyone with a strong opinion and a megaphone can stand on a soapbox and tell others what is Islamic and what is not.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in popularity of the hijab and niqab among some educated young Muslim women who live in the West. Some of them have chosen to wear a niqab as part of their religious identity. Some of them call it Islamic feminism.

Unfortunately, this so called feminism shouts louder than words ever could: "I am different and I couldn't care less about others around me."

Such pseudo-religious issues add credence to the widely held notion that Muslims are averse to change, and cling to traditions that are archaic and out of step with the world around them.

If some Muslim women are determined to shroud themselves from head to toe, as is their right, then they should give up their right to appear in public spaces, teach in public schools, or drive a car.

A civil society has the obligation to be sensitive to the religious practices of its minorities. But a line has to be drawn where the good of society outweighs the religious whims of a few.

Of the approximately 5 million Muslim men and women who live in France, only about 2,000 women cover their faces in public. In France, the line has been defined and drawn.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net.



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