The niqab represents a pernicious ideology and its spread should worry us all

By Mohamed El-Doufani*

On 2 November “The Social”, a trendy BBC service available on Twitter, posted a video claiming to debunk what it describes as “common misconceptions about women and Islam”. It featured a fully veiled woman giving a selective view of the rights of women in Islam.

Woman wearing the niqab, or full-face veil

Full-face veiled woman featured on the BBC’s “The Social”

The BBC’s choice of a masked woman as a supposed symbol of Muslim women is grossly misleading. As one commenter asked:

Why choose a woman wearing niqab to represent Muslim women? Would it be OK to get a naked woman to represent liberals? Niqabi women are a minority in the Muslim community. It’s their choice but I wouldn’t use a single woman wearing niqab to represent Muslim women.

It is also seemingly ignorant of the fact that the niqab and its equally primitive variants, the burqa, the khimar, the chador and their aquatic version, the burkini, are increasingly the focus of a battle that is raging across the Arab world. It is non-violent and it hits the news headlines only occasionally, and to many it may seem banal, given the savagery blighting the Arab world. But its consequences are far-reaching and, in the long term, maybe even deadly.


Different types of Muslim dress

The so-called “Muslim dress” ranges from the hijab to more primitive, all-embracing shrouds

The burkini Muslim swimwear

The “burkini”, or Muslim-style swimwear, has stirred controversy, especially in France

So far, at least 14 countries have banned the niqab, including Morocco and Algeria. In Egypt, one female member of parliament, Ghadah Ajami, has declared her intention to submit draft legislation banning the niqab in public places.

Feminist, liberal and leftist defenders of the veil, whatever form it takes, argue that women should have the right to choose what to wear, and/or that these forms of dress are an expression of cultural or religious identity and should be respected. Opponents, on the other hand, cite the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression by patriarchal societies and misogynist cultures. Few, however, view the veil in terms of its potentially harmful impact on society, especially in the Arab world.

Self-regarding and other-regarding actions

In 1859, in the essay On Liberty, the philosopher John Stuart Mills, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of liberalism, made the distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. Self-regarding actions are those which do not affect the interests of others, while other-regarding actions are those that do.

Mills argued that the actions of individuals should be limited only to prevent harm to other individuals:

[…] the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. […] The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. […] Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Earlier, in 1789, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizendeclared that

Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.

Those limits fall under what Mills described as other-regarding actions, or actions that rightfully concern others whose right and even duty it is to intervene. In these instances, compulsion, or making someone do something that he or she otherwise would not do if the decision were his or her own, is legitimate and justifiable.

An Islamist project

The decision to wear the veilin particular its most extreme forms, the niqab, the burqa, the khimar and the chador, does not take place in a vacuum. Far from being an exercise in freedom of choice or a cultural symbol that must be respected in a plural society, it is in fact an other-regarding action that contributes towards shaping the culture in which people live and the expectations that society has of the individual. It therefore justifies the intervention of everyone who values freedom, gender equality and the right to live in a civil society devoid of prejudice and bigotry.

The veil is not simply a piece of ethnic attire. It is an integral part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s project to mould Muslim-majority countries, and immigrant Muslim communities, according to its interpretation of Islam. This is a supremacist, misogynist interpretation which views Muslims as morally superior to non-Muslims and women as a “problem” that has to be contained and prevented from corrupting the morals of men.

To appreciate how reactionary, oppressive and primitive this worldview is, one only has to read this excerpt from the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, whose writings still serve as the group’s manifesto:

Following are the principal goals of reform grounded on the spirit of genuine Islam…Treatment of the problem of women in a way which combines the progressive and the protective, in accordance with Islamic teaching, so that this problem – one of the most important social problems – will not be abandoned to the biased pens and deviant notions of those who err in the directions of deficiency and excess… a campaign against ostentation in dress and loose behaviour; the instruction of women in what is proper, with particular strictness as regards female instructors, pupils, physicians and students, and all those in similar categories… a review of the curricula offered to girls and the necessity of making them distinct from the boys’ curricula in many stages of education… segregation of male and female students; private meetings between men and women, unless within the permitted degrees of relationship, to be counted as a crime for which both will be censured… the encouragement of marriage and procreation, by all possible means; promulgation of legislation to protect and give moral support to the family, and to solve the problems of marriage… the closure of morally undesirable ballrooms and dance-halls, and the prohibition of dancing and other such pastimes…1

In Islam, which forms the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, a woman’s body is seen as awrah, a concept that appears in the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and is Arabic for “defectiveness”, “imperfection”, “blemish” or “weakness”.

The notion of awrah is Jewish in origin and is derived from the Hebrew word ervah, which first appears in the Hebrew bible in Leviticus 18:6 and is used in the Talmud to describe parts of the female considered to be immodest and sexually provocative, including her hair, thighs and voice.

Thus, in Islam, as in the Jewish religion, women are required to cover themselves with loose-fitting clothes that completely obscure the outline of their bodies, and are enjoined to be careful with their tone when they speak to men, lest they arouse them sexually.

The desired outcome, from an Islamist point of view, was captured succinctly in this billboard by the Islamic State group – an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, which emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood – seen in the Libyan coastal town of Sirte in 2015:

The ideal Islamist dress code for women

The ideal Islamist dress code for women

It says to wear the hijab according to Islamic Sharia,

1. It must be thick and not revealing
2. It must be loose (not tight)
3. It must cover all the body
4. It must not be attractive
5. It must not resemble the clothes of unbelievers or men
6. It must not be decorative and eye-catching
7. It must not be perfumed.

Modesty and morality

For the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, female modesty equates to wearing their form of the veil, and doing otherwise is deemed loose, decadent and attention seeking. As Maajid Nawaz has noted, this is a subtle form of bigotry against the female form and in too many instances across Muslim-majority countries and communities it has led to the “slut-shaming” of women who do not cover up. In the worst cases, violating Muslim cultural “honour codes” (‘irdh) and modesty theology (hayaa’) can lead to heinous legal and societal reprimand and the gross fetishisation of a woman’s body.

A generation of bigots is being brought up. People who grow up in this environment understand no “live and let live”. It is a zero-sum game of believers and unbelievers, a house of peace and a house of war. In the mindset of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, the Muslim women who fully abide by their codes and wear the veil are viewed as proper, modest and moral Muslims, while other Muslim women who choose to live their lives as they see fit and wear modern clothes are considered as lesser Muslims, immodest and even of loose morals. As for women of other faiths and none, they would fall in the “lesser being” category by definition and would be considered by the vast majority of Islamists, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, as immodest and potentially depraved.

This kind of bigotry was put on public display during the recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. In one instance, when a Libyan TV channel posted on Twitter a video report on 17-year-old Daniah Hagul, it was met with a string of abusive comments. In another instance, despite worldwide sympathy for Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, she became the target of insults. One particularly nasty insult, by Dalaa al-Moufti, said: “Yusra who pushed a refugee dinghy wins her heat in Rio. I wish she had drowned rather than appearing naked like this.”

Great leap backwards

In the Arab countries this is the new zeitgeist. However, it has not always been like that. In the Middle East and North Africa, and in Arab immigrant communities, up until the 1970s the female body was not shamed out of public view. This was a time when pan-Arabism, in its Nasserist or Baathist forms and with its progressive and socialist slogans and antipathy towards Islamism, was the dominant ideology. It was a time of emancipation for women, at least as far as dress codes are concerned.

But then came the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and the rapid demise of pan-Arabism The ideological vacuum was filled by the Muslim Brotherhood and its prodigies, and with these came the proliferation of the hijab and its variants. As one writer put it, “the hijab to the Muslim Brotherhood is like the ‘red flag’ to communists”.

The outcome is plain to see to anyone familiar with the Arab world. As is clearly evident from the photographs in the slideshow below, which show Cairo University graduates between 1959 and 2004 and are typical of how Arab societies have regressed, the Arab world has moved from a situation in which urban women appeared not very different to women in any other modern city in the world, to one where they would not have been out of place in an Ottoman vilayet.

This should be of utmost concern to Arabs and Muslims as well as to Western governments and publics. What is at stake here is not just aesthetics, though these are important in facilitating social inclusion and social mobility, especially as regards the large and growing Muslim immigrant communities in the West.

What is at stake is in fact the very foundation of a liberal and plural society. While defenders of the Muslim veil and its variants argue that women should choose whether or not to wear it, the very proliferation of the veil is a solid indicator of the spread of a totalitarian ideology, Islamism, and its principal vehicle, the Muslim Brotherhood, which are completely opposed to personal freedom, gender equality, tolerance, democracy and coexistence with other faiths and none at the individual and societal levels.

As one political commentator points out, the broader context in which the observance of the so-called Islamic dress code is taking place is “the growth of a political and highly ideologised version of the faith (backed up with petrodollars from Qatar and Saudi Arabia)” that is “often associated with belligerence at best and barbaric violence at worst”. This, he argues, “renders the notion of choice quite meaningless”.

And it firmly places the question of the niqab, the burqa, the khimar, the chador and the burkini in the league of other-regarding actions that require our urgent intervention.

*Dr Mohamed El-Doufani is an editor, writer, analyst and commentator specialising in the Middle East and North Africa, and Russian and US foreign policies.