Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Liberal Hijab | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Whilst people across the world were observing the British Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the attention of many was focused on the bride’s dress, its style and designer. When the beautiful princess appeared in an elegant dress and a veil covering her face, one could only observe admiration on people’s face. Yet this “veil” was worn in the same continent that recently enforced a law to prohibit the use of other types of face-coverings known as the “niqab” or “burqa”. The point of contention seems to be the occasion for which this piece of cloth is utilized. So would this marriage ceremony, with its same dress and protocol, have been acceptable in France for instance, after its new law was passed [prohibiting the veil]? Or would the bride have to pay a fine for example? The question is hypothetical but is also quite reasonable. Although some countries regard the veil as a return to backwardness, Britain and the US (two countries adopting the Anglo-Saxon culture of individual rights and freedoms) regard it as personal freedom. Therefore, maintaining the right to wear the hijab or veil is of the utmost importance. This was best expressed by a veiled woman in the US, who said “I feel a great deal of freedom when using my right to wear the hijab, without any objection or harassment.” This is completely to the contrary to what is happening today in, for example but not exclusively, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.

The veil or the hijab has become a weak spot in the dialogue of civilizations, between Muslims and adherers of other faiths. In the West, this “garment” is regarded as a sign of “backwardness and ignorance”, yet [by prohibiting it] the West is enacting, legislating and justifying racist and exclusionary practices (as happened recently in one Western country when a catholic nun felt great embarrassment when asked to leave somewhere on the pretext that her garment represented extremist Islam)! Even within the Muslim world, there is a doctrinal struggle that cannot be overlooked, with regards to the definition of niqab in the Islamic Shariaa. There is a majority that regards it as something normal, and a minority that considers it to be a form of worship. Thus there is a heated debate in both the East and the West. In some Muslim countries, the debate has focused on the right to worship, whilst permitting only partial facial coverings, and in some Western countries, the debate has focused on the right to enjoy absolute personal freedoms. This matter goes beyond a simple piece of cloth, and its connotations with security, politics and culture in a certain country or society, to the conviction and the practice of the principles of justice and equality without prejudgment. This is the fundamental basis that the legislator must adhere to, whether in the West or the East, with regards to applying the concept of personal freedoms, as long they do not contravene public discipline, law or public trends. Otherwise, he is using extremist personal judgment, or despotic logic, to deal with a simple issue.

The controversy of the niqab or hijab, and rights and freedoms, is a clear “impasse” in the dialogue of civilizations and faiths. Yet the debate will not be fair unless it touches upon the issues of freedom and individual dignity, as ensured by faiths and as endorsed by laws, without distinction or discrimination.