As a Muslim, I strongly support the right to ban the veil

Published: March 19, 2017

Anne, an assumed name, a 31-year old French woman who has been fined for wearing a niqab while driving, speaks during a news conference in Nantes, western France, April 23, 2010. PHOTO: REUTERS

I was raised as an observant Muslim in a British family. Women, I was taught, determine their own conduct — including their ‘veiling’. We’d cover our hair only if we freely chose to do so. That’s why I’m baffled by the notion that all good Muslim women should cover their hair or face. My entire family is puzzled by it too, as are millions like us. Not until recent years has the idea taken root that Muslim women are obliged by their faith to wear a veil.

It’s a sign, I think, not of assertive Islam, but of what happens when Islamists are tolerated by a western culture that’s absurdly anxious to avoid offence. This strange, unwitting collaboration between liberals and extremists has been going on for years. But at last there are signs that it is ending.

In response to cases brought by two veiled Muslim women from Belgium and France, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that employers have the right to stop employees wearing visible religious symbols, including headscarves worn in the name of Islam. This ruling includes not only the burqa and the niqab (already entirely banned from the public space by a number of European countries) but also the face-revealing hijab. The ruling goes two ways: if the company does tolerate religious symbols, then no employee can be asked to take them off.

In its ruling, the ECJ has taken a secularist stand against Islamists who seek to dominate the public space. A secular public space allows me to practice my faith, as it allows others to observe theirs. As the Quran says (109:1-6): ‘To you your religion and to me, mine.’ Giving an employer the right to restrict the use of headscarves, in Britain or elsewhere, is good for every believer.

I’ve seen what happens when the public space is infringed upon by the religious. My medical career took me to Saudi Arabia, aged 31, where I was mandated by law to wear the hijab, covering all of my hair and neck. And with it the abbayah, a cloak covering my entire body from my neck to my ankles. For those two years, I became intimately acquainted with the cumbersome nature of forced veiling and its impracticality — even seeing it imposed upon my unconscious female patients. Where the veil is mandatory, a kind of oppression is implemented: an oppression that has absolutely no basis in Islam.

There’s nothing from the early Islamic period about what the khimar — or veil — should cover, whether face, body or hair. The Quran, in Sura 24:31, reminds Muslim women simply of the need to ‘draw…[it] over their bosoms’. One of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) wives is commanded to speak from behind a ‘hijab’ (Arabic for ‘curtain’) as a mark of high distinction (Quran Sura 33:53). But even though Hazrat Aisha (RA) — one of the most eminent of the Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) wives and a great scholar of Islam — provided many details about the khimars, no record exists as to exactly how they were worn.

Rigid interpretations of the veil are a recent invention. They’re derived not from the Quran or early Islamic tradition but from a misogyny which claims a false basis in the divine. So when the ECJ supports employers who ban the hijab, it is categorically not impinging on anyone’s religious freedom. The veil has more to do with a set of quite new cultural mores. The Islamists wish to say: we Muslims are different from the West. Increasingly, we don’t look like you, or act like you. For Muslim families who have lived in Europe for generations, this is a strange and ugly trend. The men and women agitating for the right to wear headscarves in Europe would do well to remember our own history in the Muslim world. In the 1920s, with the rise of secular states in Egypt and Iran, Muslim women began to organise in pursuit of their rights. In 1922, these activists, led by Huda Shaarawi, founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, and discarded their veils. Within a decade, countless women followed suit, and slowly, they forced their way into the Egyptian academe. Eventually Iran and Turkey forced women to de-veil as official policy.

But the tide turned with the growth of fundamentalist Islam, and the 1979 Iranian revolution. The revivalist fervour spread quickly from the Shia to the Sunni world as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan started to impose Islamisation programmes. A prominent Shia fundamentalist spokesman, Iranian Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, said the desire to be unveiled was ‘an epidemic’ and ‘the disease of our era’. The real epidemic, I’d argue, was a sort of totalitarian Islamism that wanted not just to run the government but to police what women chose to wear.

Only now does the West seem to have worked out what has been going on. Rules about dress can, and indeed must, be imposed when any nation’s social cohesion is threatened. Europe is increasingly reaping the harvest of multicultural policies that have served to divide rather than unite. Not just with the growth of Islamism, either, but by engendering hostility to immigration and refugees — often towards my fellow Muslims. The Islamists thrive on this, the idea of Muslims being a society-within-a-society. If they invent religious grounds to persuade them to dress differently, so much the better. It suits their sectarian agenda.

At long last, the European Court of Justice has moved to restore the bedrock of European identity: secular liberal democracy, where the public space is shared by all, and dominated by no one. It’s just a shame it could not have done so sooner, before so much damage was done.

This post originally appeared here

Qanta Ahmed

Qanta Ahmed

A British Muslim who is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom' and a physician. She tweets @MissDiagnosis (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ahmad


    Do you support the right to wear whatever the person wants?

    Isn’t that part of a progressive worldview?

    The veil can be taken off when there are security issues and for identification reasons.

    Other than that a woman can decide whether I have a right to look at her face or not. That’s her “right”.Recommend

  • Mamu

    Sadly the writer does not know much about Niqab. Thanks to ET they chose people who are liberals.Recommend

  • BlackHat

    A mother is the most important figure in a child’s life. A religion/society that suppresses half of its population is destined to remain backward.Recommend

  • Salma Ansari

    There are plenty of hadiths, historical eye witness accounts that prove that the head scarf was definitely a pillar of the hijab attire. Pls. visit any genuine Islamic Centre in the UK and ask any scholar and they will clarify for you. Also, its ironic that you spent so much time in Saudi Arabia and couldn’t understand that covering of the hair is a basic ingredient of hijab? There were plenty of English sources there who could have explained this to you. Finally, any Muslim woman who drops the hijab on her volition,is free to do so – but I am sure you have full clarity of the concept of accountability of each MAN AND WOMAN as individuals on the Day of Judgement right? or while growing up in the UK, have you heard otherwise about the Day of Ressurection??Recommend

  • mohammad

    you have every right to decided, what you want to wear, what you want to do, what you want to become in your life. The religion is your personal matter between you and your God. No one has the right to impose his thoughts on anyone in any society.Recommend

  • Rahul Patil

    Throw your veils and be free, oh women of islam.. You’ve endeared much, for nothing. Recommend

  • Majid Ur Rehman

    Great Article! We need more voices from within the Muslims to voice against oppression!Recommend

  • Fudayl

    Excellently informative piece. Much appreciated.Recommend

  • Tulla

    The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is dealing with thee issue of business space and balancing rights of employee and the employer and not have a debate about practicing rights in public space.

    The ECHR decision is weak in the sense that debate is farmed in terms of rights of a business enterprise to be neutral on religious grounds. This is very narrow framing. Generally, the courts and especially a human rights court will define rights broadly and expansively rather than narrowing it down.

    If the debate is correctly framed in terms of identity rights and religion is considered a part of identity, then it will be challenging for ECHR to reach this weak conclusion. No business will be allowed to be neutral in terms of gender identity issues. Can a business in Europe impose a dress code only catering for male and female and not any other gender? This will not be possible. Framing the debate in terms of Identity rights allow more room to victim to practice her rights.

    The ECHR deploy a construct called ‘Margin of Appreciation’ which allowing states and authorities to exercise some room to adjust and accommodate human rights according to their local contexts. The current decision now allows the private business to have a “Margin of Appreciation.’ Will the private business be allowed this margin in terms of all rights with which they are dealing? I think not. The exception will be only in term of Islam.

    Unfortunately, ECHR is currently accumulating a poor record in terms of the rights of Muslims in Europe. The strong anti-Muslim feelings in Europe has impacted ECHR excellent history and record in terms of protecting rights of vulnerable and minorities. This has led to victims in Europe appealing to the even bigger human rights body; the Human Rights Committee of United Nation. That body seems to be often correcting the failures of ECHR. Maybe the victims in this case can refer their cases to that body.

    The Author uses the example of Saudi Arabia to extol the decision of ECHR. Robbing women to have control over their bodies whether by mullahs on the basis of so called Islamic tenants or by secular liberals in the name of democracy and public space tend to have the same oppressive consequences for the victims.Recommend

  • Everlast

    So the writer was forced to cover herself in Arabia and that is why she wants to force people not to cover themselves in Europe? Alternatively if you have the right to rebel against the “culture of Arab covering” then someone else has the right to rebel against the European cultureRecommend

  • Shafiq Buttar

    Miss you have a carrier in medical sciences and yet you are preaching the space of veil in Islam as if you r Professor in Islamic studies and stop hiding behind the cover of people your opinion is only yours. I am sure 98% Muslim women observe veil willingly with their choice and not by force .Recommend

  • Striver

    “secular, liberal, democracy” as an idea is fine. But its supposed practitioners tend to divert from its basic principles. In extolling its virtues, all writers inadvertently or deliberately neglect to address this gap between theory and practice. The author falls into that trap too, unfortunately.
    Don’t incoming US presidents take oath on the bible, raising the right hand and holding the Bible in the left? Some US presidents even use “so help me God” in the oath.
    Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Norway ……etc, also invoke the help of God is their oaths

    Secularism’s fundamental proposition is to protect the rights of the believers (read Muslims) and non-believers. Is it not?
    I have yet to come across a writing that attempts to preserve this balance.
    Secular writers and practitioners trespass against the believers.
    Hijaab is a choice; Islam allows choice
    Beard is choice; Islam allows choice
    A woman can choose and divorce her husband; Islam allows choice.

    I wish pro-secularists would read the Qur’an before passing judgments. They might find Qur’an to be “secular” and “liberal”.
    The Qur’an says do not follow ANYTHING blindly (not even the Qur’an). I urge the pro-secularists and “extremist” believers follow this basic direction of the Qur’an.Recommend

  • Zulfiqar Cheema

    A comparison with Saudi is misguided. Personally, (if I have not missed it) I have not heard the Saudis claiming to be champions of human rights and personal freedom unlike the Europeans.Recommend

  • Zubia Mumtaz

    Thank you so much for saying, loudly and clearly, what we Muslim women have been trying to say for a long time. Recommend

  • Disqussed

    Basically, all “religious symbols” from all walks of faith must be banned immediately – from crosses, to sikh’s turbans/kurras, nun’s habits/rosary beads to , Buddhist prayer bracelets to even Jewish kippot and Hindu Om Shanti pendants. So, any country banning religious symbols in pursuit of a secular state should provide a comprehensive listing. Essentially a hijab or a niqab are ‘pieces of cloths’ worn in a way that seems offensive to some. Likewise, the dress code of some coworkers are highly offensive but tolerated – including men wearing skinny pants that are just too tight and women with short skirts hiked so high there is no imagination left.

    So decide, a work uniform or an all out ban.Recommend

  • Saima Jabeen

    This is quite incorrect. If you study Islamic History, you will come across numerous instances which point to how the “Khimar” was worn. Firstly, the khimar was a cloth that was placed on the head, and the rest was swept back. Hence, the Quran then instructed them to place the hanging cloth in the front. Khimar was already on the head; there was no debate about whether the head should be covered or not. There are several other instances as well, one of which was when Ayesha (RA) was slandered. When she was found in the desert, her Niqab was lifted from her face, which is why it is recorded that she quickly fixed it when she saw a man approaching. There ARE instances in Islamic texts indicating that women after the Jahiliyah period used to at least cover their heads.Recommend

  • uzair khalidi

    The main problem I see is that women particularly from the Eastern countries are not really aware of the Islamic rulings regarding Hijab as they carry it as an inherited tradition . When these women move to west in order to accommodate in western societies which would not accept them as they are they start to show themselves as modern liberal feminist muslims who are fighting to liberate the oppressed muslim women from their clothing.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    At long last, the European Court of Justice has moved to restore the
    bedrock of European identity: secular liberal democracy, where the
    public space is shared by all, and dominated by no one. It’s just a
    shame it could not have done so sooner, before so much damage was done.

    The author has a biased conclusion.The European court has very little to do with the European identity, but simply to deal with the rights of the Employer and the Employe. Those who complained to the court were women not Islamist women but straight women who felt that their dismissal was unlawful. This was not the case, the court has asserted.
    The author was not forced to work in the conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia which provides taxation benefits to foreign Nationals but also restricted living environment which even free thinking men would avoid to live there.

    Rex MinoRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    I guess that you would prefer to live in the communist environment.
    This can not be practiced in multicultred democracies where the author lives today?

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    You have a point.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Ahmar

    I am amazed how the irony of banning a dress code is lost on people claiming to be liberal, secular and democratic.

    Since they don’t want women to be forced to wear the veil, they are going to ban it and remove it by force.Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    as a muslim u should be ashamed of your self for this apologetic attitude and anti Islam rhetoricRecommend

  • rationalist

    “I am sure 98% Muslim women observe veil willingly with their choice and not by force .”

    Well, have you heard of Stockholm syndrome? Muslim women have been brainwashed and driven into total submission for centuries that they think wearing burkha, veil etc. are normal. Culture, religion and extremist ideologies tend to make people “submit” to practices they wouldn’t otherwise to if they are freshly exposed to them for the first time. Logically and rartionally abnormal thus becomes normal.Recommend

  • Despicable Dude

    “I wish pro-secularists would read the Qur’an before passing judgments. They might find Qur’an to be “secular” and “liberal”.”

    Exactly, and I wish conservative people would read the Quran too before passing judgement on Secularism, because Quran and teachings of Islam is more cooherent with liberal principals than the thought of school of our right wing.Recommend

  • Despicable Dude

    hiding face is a matter of concern and security. It has nothing to with religion.
    THEre are a lot of cases of guys such as our “beloved” Maulana Aziz, putting on Bura and Niqab and mingling among the women. This is not safe for women.
    I support the right for Women or even men (if they want) to wear headscarves, but viel is a completely different ball game.Recommend

  • Kanwal Syed

    If 98% of Muslim women wear veil willingly, why do muslim countries like saudi Arabia and Iran impose this on women?Recommend

  • Oats

    I don’t see what this has to do with the majority of UK Muslims who are only marginally better off than the Muslim asylum seekers, refugees and guest workers living across European countries from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran or Arabs states. For the most part, UK Muslims live in ghettos where the dress code (includng hijab) has evolved by consensus since most Muslims live among themselves cut off from mainstream British society. From Pakistan we have been to places in Birmingham, Leeds, Southall which look worse than the Defense Housing Areas in Pakistani cities. Most Pakistanis have relatives in Britain and we know the difficulties they have there. I am not talking about British extremists who are sick of foreigners living there or racism but the social problems of the foreigners living there themselves – a good number of whom do not work but exist on state khayrat or the “dole” as it is called in UK. The real challenge for British immigrants in UK and other European countries is integration, how to get out of ghettos, get off social assistance, getting jobs stopping women abuse or forced marriages, grooming teenagers for sex, insurance fraud or simply learning to speak the local languages. Wearing hijabs, prayer halls and things like that should be secondary to fixing the deep social problems.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    She has liberated her mind and i salute her,as rationalist has commented above.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    Rationalist is 100% correct. Women have been brainwashed like that.In all religions,the incentives in the next life are for men.I am not saying anything about Islam.These are general comments about variousreligions.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    Properly misguided personality can only repeat these thoughts.Recommend

  • only truth is nature

    Many women enjoy being veil.Recommend

  • Striver

    The conservatives have a function in society and that is to stop the liberals and secularists going too far. Likewise, liberals and secularists prevent extreme views on religion. The universe is balanced and not lopsided. Cut too many trees and what happens?
    And so each school of thought has a balancing role to play in society.
    PK is going through a foundational upheaval. Give it 20 years before the extremes (religious, secular and liberal) will find a way to coexist. There is a natural process. After this storm there is calm.Recommend

  • Ummer Ali

    At one point author is stating that a secular public space allows everyone to practice their faith and on the contrary she is terming ECJ ruling as secular. ECJ ruling is as extremist as are the saudi & irani laws mandating to wear hijab. Whether hijab is a religious thing or cultural, being secular & champions of human rights you can’t dictate anyone what to wear and what no to wear.Recommend

  • Shaukatali Chughtai

    you r right. Evolutionary process is continuous. Things ought to change. \\and we have to be compatible in world. Freewillshaukat Ali ChughtaiRecommend

  • Shaukatali Chughtai

    I salute the author.Recommend

  • Shaukatali Chughtai

    Those who are not comfortable with western culture, they shd go back to their origins. No. fuss no mss.Recommend

  • Shaukatali Chughtai

    Freewill….U r right.Recommend

  • Shaukatali Chughtai

    Right…Thin balck veil ws used by Queen Zubaid wife of Haroon Rashid just to show that is queen. Veil is a different ball game.Recommend

  • Shaukatali Chughtai

    Concur….Need more voices to curb extremists.Recommend

  • Ali S

    They can wear portable tents in Saudi Arabia for all I care – their country, their rules. The problem is they specifically move to secular European countries and then seek to impose their own incompatible cultures there at the expense of locals. No Westerner moves to Saudi Arabia or any Muslim country and starts demanding the right to walk around in shorts and bikinis.

    This projects a negative image of Islam and is fundamentally disrespectful to a society that grants you several basic rights that are unthinkable (just compare the situation of Pakistani laborers in Gulf countries to asylum-seekers in European countries, there’s a world of difference in how the two are treated by their host societies). It’s really not that hard to comprehend.Recommend

  • Ahmed Abdul Ghani

    Well said. It is indeed ironic that people seek to liberate women by forcing them to dress in a way that they do not wish to.Recommend

  • Mohsin Armaan

    I am not good in reading news and collecting updates but what I heard “European countries banned ‘HIJAB’, then women claimed it is not right and they fought for it, they paid fine but they wanted to wear HIJAB.
    Then how come a question or debate came that “Women need freedom, they must choose what to wear what not to wear”, Extremist wants to make them wear Hijab.
    Women in Europe fighting to wear Hijab and Liberals are raising issues of women freedom by pinpointing HIJAB. What’s the Logic ??
    You want to debate about Saudi Arabia – Do debate on it Only
    Whats the point to bring HIJAB and Women Freedom in between.
    I know people living in USA, UK or other countries, they are happily wearing or not wearing Hijab – In Saudi Arabia they are either forced to wear or wearing by their own will (but this is their choice to live there – SIMPLE)Recommend