There is no end to the discourse. Europe and the rest of the Western world demonstrates how conflicted it is over the issue of the veil. To veil, or not to veil? This has gone well beyond the particularities of a religion whose conception and rules were written by men and for whom one of the major tenets appears to be beyond the worship of Allah, to subjugate women in perpetuity. That women who have grown into this culture and have accepted it as the burden and blessing of Islam, is one thing.
To have imported it along with all of its political/religious baggage across the borders of Islam into the equality-providing democracies of the West, is quite another. To do so with the pugnacity of entitlement adds yet another dimension, aided and abetted by Western sensibilities which find the practise abhorrent, yet are delicately reluctant to make too great a fuss over it, in the name of political correctness and religious diversity seeking tolerance above all.
When equal-minded, rational politicians, seeking to empower all women in their societies determine to enact laws not permissive of complete body-and-face coverings the public itself is torn between its cherished vision of inclusiveness and that of forcing their values and mores upon adherents of another religion, another culture - without thinking through the obligations of immigrants to absorb those very values and mores which enrich the society, guarantee freedoms unknown in their countries of origin, and the acceptance of the liberation of women to be equal to men under the law.
Muslim women, long subjected to the expectations of the men among whom they live, their fathers, uncles, brothers, Imams, and inured to the rational arguments of the few educated, intellectually liberated and responsible women seeking to bring Islam into the present world, claim to be proud of their perceived need to claim their Muslim heritage by the wearing of the burka and the hijab. One such woman, Canadian Aisha Sherazi, former principal of an Ottawa-based Muslim elementary school writes a regular column for The Ottawa Citizen, as an unabashed apologist for the requirement under Islam to cover women to ensure modesty reigns supreme. In her 4 November 06 column, "Muslim Women Empowered By Niqab) she wrote:
"I always look back at my school tie with a mixture of nostalgia and relief. Nostalgia because I loved my school days and remember them well; my tie reminds me of them. Relief because I do not have to wear the silly thing any more.Obviously, Ms. Sherazi attended a pricy private school, and not an Islamic one, but her heritage speaks louder to her than her exposure to Western-style culture and education and she herself affects a head and body covering and insists on the empowerment of being heard but not seen. Her attempts at puckish humour in her analogies fall rather flat, since there is no comparison between the secular custom of tie-wearing (the separation of those who work with their hands and those who work with their minds) and that of the religious custom of wearing a garment for the specific purpose of hiding women's female characteristics from the eyes of men whose weaker moral underpinnings cannot be relied upon to ensure they respect the presence of women in their midst.
"The necktie. A most strange piece of cloth. Tied in a complicated way, it makes it hard to get air into your lungs, and difficult to turn your neck when you wear it. If you're standing near a fan and you're wearing one, it is a health hazard because you could very well be strangled by it. It has almost become a symbol of corporate slavery, power and aloofness. Even though the tie is not what could be described as decorative, many still wear it. The only real purpose it seems to serve is the sense of relief when you get home and take it off. Indeed, I can recall most students tying it around their heads as soon as they left the school gates.
"In our multicultural society, some Muslim women wear the niqab. But when we live in a multicultural society, where the rights and freedoms of all are protected, why is it such an issue when women wish to wear the niqab? Because they are a minority? Don't we protect our minority communities in the West?
"Although wearing the niqab is far from mandatory, a passage in the Koran directs the wives of the Prophet to speak from behind a barrier. Today, some Muslim women adopt the niqab because they wish to emulate the wives of the Prophet."
Ms. Sherazi is equally guilty of invoking that chronically-abused defence-cum offensive-claim of racism and discrimination. It's a totally disingenuous argument in a society that bends over backwards and turns itself inside out lest it outrage the sensibilities of easily-bruised Muslim egos. All the more so as the West has learned of late, much to its reluctance to believe that religion could be coupled so readily with irrational, hysterical mayhem, to avoid such encounters at all costs.
Herewith my argument, my response to Ms. Sherazi's response, and those of all those other tedious defenders of the niqab as an empowering element of Islam, in respect of women and their rights:
Muslim women empowered by niqab? Really? Interesting that a 92-year-old Turkish academic, Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, an expert on the Sumerians, a Mesopotamian culture dating to 5,000 b.c. wrote that headscarves were worn by women who worked as prostitutes in temples to differentiate them from women who were priests. How empowering is that? For her troubles, Ms. Cig was charged with insulting Muslim women, linking the first use of headscarves to pre-Islamic sexual rites.
Islam insists that women dress modestly to the point of physical non-existence in complete cover-ups as a religious requirement, and although in many Muslim countries the practise has been discontinued or modified, young Muslim women are beginning to take up the veil where their mothers did not. It's become a symbol of a particular type of political activism. And, in many cases, an exercise in deliberate nose-thumbing at the society in which these young women were raised, a critique and rejection of the social mores and culture in which they have been immersed, and just incidentally also a religious statement of adherence to the dictatorial whims of men.
To paraphrase Aisha Sherazi in her Muslim Women Empowered by Niqab:
The niqab. A most conspicuous piece of cloth. Tied in a particular manner, it makes it hard to get air into your lungs, and difficult to breathe, to communicate, to make yourself heard and understood. If you're standing near a stranger there is indeed no opportunity to acquaint oneself with the other, as the niqab serves the function of stepping well back from social intercourse. It has become a symbol of feminine slavery, disempowerment and helplessness. Even though the niqab is not what could be described as decorative, many still wear it. The only real purpose it seems to serve is the sense of relief when you get home and take it off.
Western society at large looks rather askance at the prospect of encountering another human being in the public sphere and being unable to determine by facial expression the veiled one's intent, or lack of same. Yet this wearing of the niqab appears to be dedicated to the custom in respect of their Imams' direction that it be worn in the interests of preserving modesty and discouraging misinterpretations among the genders. The fact that a minority feel justified in bringing some very particular, very exotic, very easily misunderstood customs to a country which they have selected for its guarantees of freedom, yet choose to remain in thrall to symbols which deny freedom and equality is troubling indeed.
That women continue to eagerly acquiesce in their own subjugation as 2nd-class social creatures to be heard albeit dimly, but not seen, is to place oneself in the arena of children whom adults prefer to see but not hear. Women, adhering to these Koranic-inspired and deciphered dictums conspire with their oppressors, agreeing to cover their physical presence lest they unleash lust in the hearts and minds of blameless men.
Conversely, it is an odd corollary that Muslim men also on occasion accept the utility of covering their faces. So are these men worried that under Islam they too have an obligation not to awaken sexual lust in the minds of helpless women, responding to the presence of men in their midst by an urge they can no longer sublimate? Yet, perhaps not. Perhaps the custom of Arab men covering their faces has yet another connotation; their complete embrace of Islam as death cult. They mask their faces to instil fear, to demonstate their own fearlessness, for they love death, they assert; their own and that which they they bring to others.
The difference, of course, being that their death is seen by Allah as the supreme sacrifice in his blessed name, and they will be amply rewarded through the presence in Paradise by their very own allotted 72 virgins guaranteed to fulfil their every whim as powerful, suicidal, murderous males. As for those they murder in the process of achieving martyrdom, they are inconsequential, either as infidels or failed Muslims. And, if we think things through a little further it may just be that masks, while seeming to these jihadists to be very romantic, marking them for the inhumane murderers that they are, reaping the adulation of onlookers in the Arab street, have another function. That of masking their identity, should they be successful in their ongoing pursuit of murderous rampages against innocent people, yet live to act another day. Their ability to escape identification ensures they will not be detained and incarcerated, thus curtailing their date with destiny. Convoluted reasoning is no stranger to the warped mindset of a jihadist.
But for women, for Arab women, is it not time to embrace the 21st century, the concept of freedom and equality as mature, truly empowered women? There are surely other, less demeaningly-stifling ways to honour one's religion and culture, and celebrate multiculturalism. While they're at it, they could take a closer look at the religion and the culture that so disables their ability to rationally and intelligently determine why they are kept in a state of spiritual, mental and gender bondage.
And that might conceivably lead them to the conclusion that their male jihadist counterparts are doing great harm to their religion, to the potential for a world which can begin to think of living in a state of patient inclusiveness.