Barnett v. Meer: The Laws Against Veiling Go Beyond France


In an earlier PolicyMic post, Naeem Meer provided a useful introduction to the issue of the ‘burqa ban’ in France. Attitudes toward the hijab (veil/headscarf/écharpe) and the niqab (the correct term for the garment referred to as a burqa in the French debate) are far from clear-cut, even where Muslims are a majority rather than an immigrant minority.

But the debate over the hijab and the niqab should not be simply one between those promoting religious tolerance and those pushing Western secularism – we should also examine the socio-political debates on the issue within Muslim nations.

For example, amid its current political tensions, Syria recently lifted its ban on teachers wearing the niqab in schools as a way to appease conservative religious scholars. Human rights activists and others within Syria have opposed the controversial move and accused the government of selling out women’s rights to maintain its shaky control.

In Turkey, which banned the headscarf in the 1920s during Ataturk’s aggressive moves to modernize and secularize the country, opposition members have cited the AK Party’s position in favour of allowing headscarves in public institutions (including universities) as a sign of its secret desire to overturn Turkey’s civil laws and re-impose an Islamic legal system. Secularists in Turkey are fiercely defensive of the laws which they believe protect the country from sliding into religious fanaticism. But the European Court of Human Rights — part of the international organization Turkey so wishes to join — ruled that the expulsion of Merve Kavakç? from Turkey’s parliament in 1999 due to her refusal to remove her headscarf was a violation of human rights. Since 2007, the ban on headscarves in universities was lifted, then the lifting of the ban was annulled; currently headscarves are unofficially tolerated.

Ongoing appeals in Egypt have extended the controversy that began in 2009 when young women wearing niqabs were prevented from sitting in their examinations at Al-Azhar University, the country’s largest religious institution. In 2007, the American University in Cairo had lost a battle over its ban of the niqab on its campus (for security reasons, it argued), which was struck down by an Egyptian court as infringing on religious freedom. While the majority of Egyptian women wear the hijab, the niqab in Egypt engenders strong emotions, with some arguing that its increasing visibility represents an invasion of Salafi (early Islamic) morals and values from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. On the other hand, opponents of Al Azhar’s policy argued that its leader, Sheikh Mohamed al-Tantawi, was pushing an anti-Salafi line at the behest of the government, which wanted to promote a more ‘moderate’ version of Islam. Conversations about the niqab have occurred within a context of religious resurgence, the corrupt and controlling policies of the Mubarak regime, and decades of Egyptian workers seeking opportunity in the Gulf.

These examples demonstrate how unique circumstances prevail everywhere that controversies occur around the hijab and niqab and the government’s role in regulating them. The debate cannot be reduced to a question about individual expression versus a ‘defense’ of secularism in the public sphere; it is too wrapped up in intra-Muslim disputes about interpretation of the Qur’an, the relationship of the state to religious institutions in individual countries, and the ongoing use of women’s bodies as a site for expressing political views or demonstrating state power.

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