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Global: Bloggers Take Issue with Anti-Niqaab Punditry

On April 16, 2011, France's ban on the niqaab and burqa went into effect, re-stirring emotions on the subject and sparking protests in the European country and beyond.

United States-based Egyptian journalist and media pundit Mona Eltahawy has been outspoken in favor of France's ban, stating in a recent video, “I oppose Sarkozy, but I oppose this on women, because what choice do women have besides covering their face? This ideology doesn't recognize Muslim women's rights.”

In the video, hosted by Eliot Spitzer on CNN, Eltahawy debated Heba Ahmed, who wears a niqaab covering; in counterpart, Ahmed stated that “if [Eltahawy] wants diversity in Islamic belief, then she has to accept my version, just like I have to accept hers.”

This debate, along with other recent debates in which Eltahawy appeared, has engendered debate in the blogosphere, much of which focuses directly on Eltahawy's standpoint.

Shanfaraa, an Egyptian-American blogger who is also a professor of law, agrees with Eltahawy that the niqaab is not a religious requirement, and states that, like her, he rejects the theology that forces women to wear it, but nevertheless disagrees with her stance, explaining:

Mona seems to believe that once a person falls into the grasp of Wahhabi-Salafi theology, they can never escape, but in fact, Mona herself is the best evidence repudiating that view. After all, she grew up in Saudi Arabia and managed to resist that kind of religious indoctrination. Might it not be the case that individuals in liberal cultures are at least as capable of changing their religious commitments as Mona was? The most dangerous aspect of the niqab ban, and the one that I believe Mona radically underestimates, is that the state is giving itself the right to define what a particular symbol, in this case, the face veil, means to those who adhere to it. I doubt any Muslim woman wearing a face veil would agree with the French State’s characterization of it as a form of slavery. I doubt even Mona would agree with that. Yet, by agreeing with the French law, she is acquiescing to giving the state this power of interpretation backed by coercive force over people’s inner thoughts, a very dangerous power indeed.

The Cynical Arab, a Lebanese-American blogger, takes issue with the rhetoric used by Eltahawy in a piece called “On Caged Birds and Liberators”. In it, she criticizes:

Mona Eltahawy, often heralded as a go-to feminist icon for the “liberation” of women, refuses to acknowledge that a number of those who wear the face veil do so out of their own personal discretion. Yet the argument is that they simply do not know any better, they have been indoctrinated to wear the face veil, they have no apparent mind of their own as it has been seemingly been overwhelmed with extremism forced upon them by the male figures in their lives.

A woman wearing a niqaab covering. Image by Flickr user ashi (CC BY 2.0).

A woman wearing a niqaab covering. Image by Flickr user ashi (CC BY 2.0).

Blogger Sami Kishawi, in a piece entitled “Why Mona Eltahawy is fundamentally wrong“, prefaces his piece by explaining that, “This article does not serve to debase Mona Eltahawy as an individual nor should it be read as an attack against the fundamental human rights she claims to defend.” Kishawi then takes to task Eltahawy's debate strategy, explaining:

“Everyone has a right to an opinion” is an old adage we hear almost every time we engage in dialogue, discussion, and debate. Keeping this in mind, I see nothing wrong with Eltahawy promoting her opinions. Whether or not I agree with them is a tale for another day, but the true problem arises in her strategy.

Remember, she boldly claims to represent entire groups of people. Her strategy is noticeably opportunistic. She used her “Egyptianness” to elevate her agenda during the revolution and to push her ideas through mainstream media searching for that supremely rare “liberated Muslim woman”. Naturally, she insists that she’s right and that everyone else is more than just wrong – they’re radicals. Her work instigates the divisions within our communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in a blind attempt to rectify the wrongs of society. She says she stands for the Egyptian people who, by the way, support an end to the siege on Gaza, but soon after gives the opening speech for the J Street conference which doesn’t necessarily advocate for an end to the military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Her overall arguments are laced with apologeticism. She uses the most informal social media outlets like Twitter to debase and discredit other academics who don’t align with her ideologies. And she retweets anything that promotes her name. All of this and more indicates a lack of professionalism that I just can’t ignore.

On the blog Musings of a Muslim Mouse, there is an open letter to Eltahawy, meant to “represent real niqaabis around the world.” The blogger writes:

You imply that it is only “extremist Salafis and Wahhabis” who wear niqaab or demand it of their women. That’s kinda funny, because I have a Sufi aunt who wears niqaab; and the nice Indian aunty at the mosque is a Deobandi, and she wears it too. The Nigerian convert who campaigns for women’s space at the mosque and demands that Muslim men stop acting like caveman and behave like gentlemen has been wearing niqaab for several years.

I’m sorry that you have had bad experiences with the niqaab. I’m sorry that you’ve had bad experiences with Muslims who call you a she-devil, a whore, and a scourge against Islam.

Sister Heba Ahmad – the one you debated on CNN – said something really beautiful that I agree with completely: “Mona is my sister in Islam and even though I must disagree when she misrepresents Islam and Muslims, she still should be protected from the tongue of her fellow Muslims.”

That’s how I feel about you. I strongly disagree with what you say about the niqaab and much about what you say about Islam and Muslims in general. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to threaten to kill you, or swear at you, or condemn you to Hell. What I will do is invite you over for coffee at my place, with open arms and a warm smile that you can detect even beneath my niqaab.

Your sister in Islam,

A Muslim Woman Who Wears Niqaab

Photo by Flickr user ashi made available under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0 license

  • Haneefah khan

    A Muslim lady who wears niqaab, she said it best. I also wear it and love wearing it…monaa monaa stop spreading liiiieeees based on a FEW experiences you’ve had… Jeez. Leaders should not interfere when it comes to religion…what does France stand for now?? Less.

  • MK

    People support women’s choice to cover or not cover their face … by banning covering their face. Huh? It never made sense to me.

    To me, it’s not even a matter of religion. If a woman wants to wear a niqab, whether due to her religious beliefs, or due to her not wanting a sunburn, or due to her thinking it looks cool, she should be allowed to wear one unless it somehow causes harm to others. And nobody has convinced me that a woman wearing a niqab while conducting everyday business causes anybody else any harm.

    Yes, it’s wrong for people to force a woman to wear a niqab, but that’s not a reason to take away the choice from the women who genuinely, for any reason, want to wear one.

    • http://jilliancyork.com Jillian C. York

      I agree entirely with what you’ve said here.

    • Marcella Bezembinder

      It is not a matter of banning them from the choice of wearing niqab MK – it is a matter of public safety. An individual is to be identifiable whilst walking on the street, hence why balacavas or any other gear covering the full face is not permitted in any country in Europe.

      I actually live in the UAE and have been for over 12 years and you will not believe the amount of times that a person wearing niqab was actually a man who entered ladies bathrooms, changing rooms, etc. =)

  • http://libalel.wordpress.com/ Suzanne Lehn

    Questions to Muslim Mouse, quoted in this post :
    - Do you also wear the niqab inside your place ?
    - Is drinking coffee behind the niqab as easy as smiling?
    Don’t take me wrong, i’m friendly, just curious.

  • Chris

    This is all so you can’t hide from surveillance I suppose. Which still makes me opposed to the ban for privacy issues.

  • Marcella Bezembinder

    Each and every one of you ladies is beautiful and this beauty is to be seen and shared with all the world. If you have a choice and are not forced by family, then I say spread your wings and embrace the world’s beauty by providing it with yours, as nothing is more beautiful than the aspects of a woman. From the beautiful and unique curves that each of us carry, to feeling the wind brush through your air…

    Nature is beautiful and so are you. We are all one in this Earth and not a single person is different no matter what your culture, origin, colour or religion – we are all one.

    Embrace yourself and share your beauty with mother Earth just as she shares hers with you =)

  • http://www.mysticsaint.info/2011/04/france-ban-face-veil-burka.html Sadiq Alam

    Thanks Jilian for the post, well covered!

    Here is my two cents on the Face Veil and looking at it from Spiritual Perspective.

    http://www.mysticsaint.info/2011/04/france-ban-face-veil-burka.html

    Best wishes,
    Sadiq
    from Technology of the Heart blog

  • http://www.muslimmouse.blogspot.com AnonyMouse

    Hi!
    I just discovered that you mentioned my blog post (which was also cross-posted at http://www.MuslimMatters.org) – thanks!

    To Suzanne:

    No, I only wear my niqaab in the presence of unrelated men – if I’m at home by myself, or with my immediate family and friends, then I definitely take it off!

    Drinking coffee and tea with niqaab is way more simple than it seems =)

    Thanks for this blog post!

    Sincerely,
    Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse)
    Musings of a Muslim Mouse

  • Atiqah Abd Ghani

    There are muslims all over the world-mona just gave examples of women in France or Saudi Arabia..the women muslims in South East Asia or Central Asia, the US, Europe for example, we do not use the FACE covering – hair may be covered, yes but no face covering. Yes, there are the minority who choose to cover their face but again, theyre the MINORITY. There is also the issue of culture as well. Most women in my continent would only ever wear them for formal, weddings or religious functions, the like…even then, some still choose not to cover their hair, nevermind their face.

    I think Mona’s scope on the matter is too small for making a decision which could impact a large population

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