Banning the Burka: A Defense

Should the West ban clothing which obliterates a woman's identity--or is it religiously intolerant and anti-woman to do so? Phyllis Chesler exposes the truth in a two part, thoroughly researched article.

Prof. Phyllis Chesler

OpEds Prof. Phyllis Chesler
Prof. Phyllis Chesler
Joan Roth

Should other Western states follow the Belgian and French examples and ban the full Islamic body and face-covering veil—or
It is instructive to see what political and religious leaders in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim women, have to say about the issue.
more specifically, the burqa and the niqab? In other words, should the West ban any and all clothing which obliterates one's identity? Most Europeans, according to recent surveys, seem to think so.[1] Still, significant numbers, especially in the United States,[2] and including quite a few feminists,[3] have viewed such a ban as religiously intolerant, anti-woman, and anti-Western. They maintain that the state has no place in deciding what a woman can and cannot wear—it is her body, not public property; [4] that given the worldwide exploitation of women as pornographic sex objects, wearing loose, comfortable, modest clothing, or actually covering up, might be both convenient and more dignified;[5] that because of the West's tolerance toward religions, the state cannot come between a woman and her conscience for that would betray Western values;[6] and that women are freely choosing to wear the burqa.[7] Some Western intellectuals oppose banning the burqa although they understand the harm it may do and the way in which it may "mutilate personhood."[8] Algerian-American academic Marnia Lazreg, for example, implores Muslim women to voluntarily, freely refuse to cover their faces fully—to spurn even the headscarf; however, she does not want the state involved.[9]

It is arguable that the full body and face cover is not a religious requirement in Islam but represents a minority tradition among a small Islamist minority; that it is not a matter of free choice but a highly forced choice and a visual Islamist symbol—one that is ostentatiously anti-secularist and misogynist;[10] that the Western state does have an interest in public appearances and, therefore, does not permit public nudity or masked people in public buildings; and that it is strange that the very feminists (or their descendents) who once objected to the sexual commoditification of women "can explain to you with the most exquisitely twisted logic why miniskirts and lip gloss make women into sexual objects, but when it comes to a cultural practice, enforced by terror, that makes women into social nonentities, [they] feel that it is beneath [their] liberal dignity to support a ban on the practice."[11] To this may be added that face-veil wearers ("good" girls) endanger all those who do not wear a face veil ("bad" girls). But before addressing these arguments at greater length, it is instructive to see what political and religious leaders in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim women, have to say about the issue.

The House of Islam Unveils Its Women

The forced veiling and unveiling of Muslim women, both in terms of the headscarf and the face veil, ebbed and flowed for about a century as Muslim elites strove to come to terms with the demise of the Islamic political order that had dominated the Middle East (and substantial parts of Asia and Europe) for over a millennium. Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for example, generated a new and vibrant brand of nationalism that sought to extricate Turkey from its imperial past—and its Islamic legacy—and to reconstitute it as a modern nation state. Iran's Reza Shah distanced his country from Islam for the opposite reason, namely, as a means to link his family to Persia's pre-Islamic imperial legacy, which is vividly illustrated by his adoption of the surname Pahlavi, of ancient Persian origins,[12] and the name Iran, or "[the land] of the Aryans," as the country's official title in all formal correspondence.[13]

During the 1920s and 1930s, in this new international environment, kings, shahs, and presidents unveiled their female citizens, and Muslim feminists campaigned hard for open faces in public. They were successful in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran, to name but a few countries.

As early as 1899, the Egyptian intellectual Qasim Amin published his landmark book The Liberation of Women, which argued that the face veil was not commensurate with the tenets of Islam and called for its removal.[14] According to photographs taken by Annie Lady Brassey in Egypt in the 1870s, Egyptian women wore heavy, dark coverings with full niqab (face covering) or partial niqab when possible.[15] In 1923, the feminist Hoda Hanim Shaarawi, who established the first feminist association that called for uncovering the face and hair, became the first Egyptian woman to remove her face veil or niqab.[16] In the following decades, the veil gradually disappeared in Egypt, so much so that in 1958, a foreign journalist wrote that "the veil is unknown here."[17]

In Afghanistan, Shah Amanullah Khan (r. 1919-29) "scandalized the Persians by permitting his wife to go unveiled." In 1928, he urged Afghan women to uncover their faces and advocated the shooting of interfering husbands. He said that he "would himself supply the weapons" for this and that "no inquiries would be instituted against the women." Once, when he saw a woman wearing a burqa in a Kabul garden, he tore it off and burned it.[18] However, Amanullah was exiled, and the country plunged back into the past.[19] Turkey banned the Islamic face veil and turban in 1934, and this prohibition has been maintained ever since by a long succession of governments that adhered to Atatürk's secularist and modernist revolution. Moreover, from the 1980s onward, Turkish women have been prohibited from wearing headscarves in parliament and in public buildings, and this law was even more strictly enforced after a 1997 coup by the secular military. In recent years, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), which has ruled Turkey since 2002, has tried to relax this restriction, only to be dealt a humiliating blow on June 15, 2008, when the country's Constitutional Court annulled a government reform allowing students to wear Muslim headscarves at university on the grounds that it contravened Turkey's secular system.[20] In recent years, women wearing both hijabs and burqas have been seen on the streets of Istanbul.

As early as 1926 in Iran, Reza Shah provided police protection for Iranian women who chose to dispense with the traditional scarf.[21] Ten years later, on January 7, 1936, the shah ordered all female teachers and the wives of ministers, high military officers, and government officials "to appear in European clothes and hats, rather than chadors"; and by way of "serving as an example for other Persian women," the shah asked his wife and daughters to appear without face veils in public. Ranking male officials were dismissed from their jobs if their wives appeared with face veils in public, and the police began breaking into private homes to arrest women wearing chadors there. A report from the city of Tabriz stated that only unveiled girls could receive diplomas.[22] These and other secularizing reforms were sustained by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who in September 1941 succeeded his father on the throne and instituted a ban on veiled women in public.

Lebanon has always been the most Westernized Arab society, owing to its substantial Christian population with its close affinity to Europe, France in particular. A Palestinian-Lebanese-Syrian woman visiting the United States said, "In the 1920s, my mother, a university professor, was the first woman to take off her veil in Beirut. She had to remain at home under house arrest for one year due to the violence threatened by street mobs. Then, things changed for the better."[23]

Since 1981, women in Tunisia have been prohibited from wearing Islamic dress, including headscarves, in schools or government offices. In 2006, since this ban was increasingly ignored, the Tunisian government launched a sustained campaign against the hijab. The police stopped women in the streets and asked them to remove their headscarves; the president described the headscarf as a "sectarian form of dress which had come into Tunisia uninvited." Other officials explained that Islamic dress was being promoted by extremists who exploited religion for political aims.[24]

In 2006, in neighboring Morocco, a picture of a mother and daughter wearing headscarves was removed from a textbook. The education minister explained, "This issue isn't really about religion, it's about politics … the headscarf for women is a political symbol in the same way as the beard is for men."[25] However, the government could only go so far in its ability to restrict the face veil or headscarf. In 1975, Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi described the lives of Moroccan women as circumscribed by Ghazali's view of women, including women's eyes, as erotically irresistible, and as such, dangerous to men.[26] In 1987, Mernissi analyzed the Islamic veil in both theological and historical terms.[27] Clearly, as fundamentalism or political Islam returned to the historical stage, "roots" or Islamic identity, both in Morocco and elsewhere, was increasingly equated with seventh century customs that were specific to women and to the Prophet Muhammad's own life.

Public servants in Malaysia are prohibited from wearing the niqab. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that the niqab "has nothing to do with [a woman's] constitutional rights to profess and practice her Muslim religion" because it is not required by Islamic law.[28] On July 18, 2010, Syria became the latest Muslim state to ban full face veils in some public places, barring female students from wearing the full face cover on Syrian university campuses. The Syrian minister of higher education indicated that the face veil ran counter to Syrian academic values and traditions.[29]

In October 2009, Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, perhaps the foremost, formal spiritual authority in Sunni Islam and grand sheikh of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest institution of religious learning, was reportedly "angered" when he toured a school in Cairo and saw a teenage girl wearing niqab. Asking the girl to remove her face veil, he said, "The niqab is a tradition; it has no connection with religion." He then instructed the girl never to wear the niqab again and issued a fatwa (religious edict) against its use in schools.[30]

In 2010, at a time when Britain's department of health relaxed the strict National Health Service dress code by allowing Muslim nurses and doctors to wear long sleeves for religious reasons—despite the high risk of spreading deadly superbugs—the Egyptian ministry of health outlawed the niqab (which often included glove-wearing) for hospital nurses, threatening those who failed to comply with dismissal or legal prosecution. The Iraqi religious authority, Sheikh Ahmad al-Qubaisi, supported this Egyptian decision and issued a fatwa which stated, "People have the right to know the identity of the person they are in front of in order not to feel deceived. The obligation of niqab was only for the Prophet's wives as they were the mothers of all believers."[31]

(Part I of a 2 part article)


[1] "Widespread Support for Banning Full Islamic Veil in Western Europe," Pew Global Attitudes Project, Washington, D.C., July 8, 2010; United Press International, July 17, 2010; The Toronto Sun, July 28, 2010.
[2] New Atlanticist (Washington, D.C.), Mar. 1, 2010; Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2010.
[3] Martha Nussbaum, "Veiled Threats?" The New York Times, July 11, 2010; Naomi Wolf, "Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality," The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), Aug. 30, 2008; Joan Wallach, "France Has the Burqa All Wrong," Salon, Apr. 12, 2010; Joan Wallach, "Don't Ban Burqas—Or Censor South Park,", May 21, 2010; Yvonne Ridley, "How I Came to Love the Veil," The Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2006.
[4] Marnia Lazreg, Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 62.
[5] Wolf, "Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality."
[6] Nussbaum, "Veiled Threats?"; Leon Wieseltier, "Faces and Faiths," The New Republic, July 27, 2010.
[7] Nussbaum, "Veiled Threats?"; Wolf, "Behind the Veil Lives a Thriving Muslim Sexuality."
[8] Wieseltier, "Faces and Faiths."
[9] Lazreg, Questioning the Veil, pp. 62-3.
[10] Bernard-Henri Levy, "Why I Support a Ban on Burqas," The Huffington Post, Feb. 15, 2010; Samia Labidi, "Faces of Janus: The Arab-Muslim Community in France and the Battle for Its Future," in Zeyno Baran, ed., The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 116-9; Melanie Philips, in "Should France Ban the Burqa?" National Review Online, July 23, 2010; Elham Manea, in Valentina Colombo, "Europe: Behind the Burqa Debate," Hudson Institute, New York, Mar. 12, 2010.
[11] Stuart Schneiderman blog, "Burqaphilia," July 17, 2010.
[12] Farvardyn Project, "Pahlavi Literature," accessed Aug. 25, 2010.
[13] M. Sadeq Nazmi-Afshar, "The People of Iran, The Origins of Aryan_People," Iran Chamber Society, accessed Aug. 25, 2010.
[14] Amin Qasim, The Liberation of Women and The New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism, trans. Samiha Sidhom Peterson (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2000).
[15] Reina Lewis and Nancy Micklenwright, eds., Gender, Modernity and Liberty: Middle Eastern and Western Women's Writings: A Critical Sourcebook (New York: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2006), pp. 36-7; Afaf Lufti al-Sayyid Marsot, "The Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt," in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 261-76.
[16] Colombo, "Europe: Behind the Burqa Debate."
[17] Sarasota Herald Tribune, Jan. 26, 1958.
[18] Rhea Talley Stewart, Fire in Afghanistan 1914-1929: Faith, Hope, and the British Empire (New York: Doubleday, 1973), pp. 127, 376-8.
[19] Rosanne Klass, Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited (New York: Freedom House, 1987), p. 39; idem, Land of the High Flags (New York: Odyssey Books, 1964), pp. 202-3.
[20] The Muslim Observer (Farmington, Mich.), Jan. 31, June 19, 2008.
[21] Hamideh Sedghi, Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling, and Reveiling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 85.
[22] Ibid., pp. 85-7.
[23] Author interview with the wife of an Arab ambassador to the United Nations, New York, 1980.
[24] BBC News, Sept. 26, 2006.
[25] Ibid., Oct. 6, 2006.
[26] Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1975).
[27] Ibid.
[28] Nurjaanah Abdullah and Chew Li Hua, "Legislating Faith in Malaysia," Singapore Journal of Legal Studies, 2007, pp. 264-89.
[29] BBC News, July 19, 2010.
[30] The Daily Telegraph (London), Oct. 5, 2009.
[31] Colombo, "Europe: Behind the Burqa Debate."
[32] Phyllis Chesler, "Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings," Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2010, pp. 3-11.%ad%