To veil or not to veil

Published: August 5, 2010

Wherever you go, there will be Muslims who believes in hijab, burqa or niqab and there will be others who do not

First it was Egypt to take action against the veil, after a top cleric announced that the face veil was to be banned in certain educational institutions in Egypt; then France followed suit, down-right banning the face veil for security reasons; and then Syria in toe, banned the face veil in universities and educational facilities because parents of university students do not want their children to be educated in an ‘environment of extremism’. And to add to the list, certain European countries are now debating whether they should give in to the face veil ban, or allow citizen’s their democratic rights to practice their faith (however they want), but at the expense of national security.

Apparently, the face veil is becoming more and more threatening to the global community, and has raised quite a debate.

In my opinion, as a Muslim woman, I do not think we should let a veil define us.

Whether an individual be Muslim or non-Muslim, no piece of cloth, or lack there of, should define him or her.

The sensitivity lies in the semantics of modesty in Islam.

As a Muslim woman who has grown up in both the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world, I’ve had a chance to experience all kinds of Muslims, and it is not the clothing that has defined anyone (although culturally, it does in some cases), it is the individual’s mentality and/or actions.

Wherever you go, there will be Muslims who believe in hijab, burqa or niqab and there will be others who do not, just like in every religion, there are certain issues which will always be debated.

In my opinion, in religion there are a few definitive ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ because of interpretation, modernisation, etc, and those ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ are different for everyone. Some people look at their religion and change their lifestyle to fit their religion. Others maintain the life they want to live, and change their religion to fit their lifestyle.

If politicians in France (with the largest Muslim population in Europe) or Syria want to ban the face veil, then unfortunately or fortunately, it will be done, because being a citizen of that country, one has to obey the law. Just as in Saudi Arabia, there are rules and regulations one must follow, and whether you agree with it or not, is of no consequence. A woman in Saudi Arabia cannot fly anywhere without the consent of her mehram. A woman in Saudi Arabia cannot drive. Unfair? Maybe, however, these rules and actions are justified by the ruling elite; therefore it is a law that has to be followed, and unless and until someone raises the issue with their own governments, nothing can be done.

I don’t believe I can stand on one side or the other of the veil debate, because as someone who does not wear a veil, the law has no impact on me personally, but I would like to know how women in France or Syria feel about the decision. Maybe a veil is their way of expressing themselves, or maybe they are forced to wear it, I don’t know, but while it could be a number of reasons, I think if there is a big enough fuss about it in these respective countries, the French Muslim population and Syrian Muslim population can deal with it through their political process.

I don’t believe this debate should be taken out of context, I believe people need to keep things in perspective. A veil is a piece of cloth, just like a beard is only facial hair. It does not say Muslim or non-Muslim. It is a physical symbol which portrays what an individual may feel on the inside, and as long as no one is forcing you to change what you believe, a piece of cloth should remain what it is, an inanimate object.


Manal Shakir

A freelance journalist in Chicago, IL who tweets @ManalShakir1

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

  • Ghausia

    But that piece of cloth is for some women, a symbol of modesty, that is what God said in ayat 59 of Surah Ahzab, that hanging a chadar over their face would be a symbol of their modesty and many women do feel safer knowing that ewveryone knows what type of woman they are. BUT there are also those that wear a veil or hijab because kissing a boy etc is fine if done under a veil; I loathe such girls, for making a mockery of something that represents their modesty. At the same time, I support the veil ban in the sense that I understand why they’re doing it, remember the Lal Masjid fiasco when a certain terrorist tried to sneak out under a veil? But on the other hand, banning headscarves doesn’t make sense. A solution to that would be for girls to wear a bandanna which comes under fashion I suppose, but instead of complaining, they should just migrate to Muslim countries. Not all of those are badly off like Pakistan, once the West starts losing their tax-payers as well as their workforce, they would understand that they need to adapt to all cultures and religions. Simple.Recommend

  • Munir Munshey

    Hijab is merely a yard or so of ordinary cloth. Most Muslim women do not wear it, and some say it is not even enjoined by Islam.
    So why are people, particularly the French, so concerned? They act as if the hijab, if worn by the majority of Muslim women, would turn their computers into abacuses. A yard of cloth packs that much power? A nuclear power has to legislate against its use, as if it was a weapon threatening their state? There seems more to it than meets the eye. Recommend

  • Shahana H.

    With all due respect to the writer and all those who consider the veil just a pice of cloth. Its a label for muslims. Those who simply understand Islam be it muslims or non-muslims…know the importance & value of veil/hijab in Islam. Its just a propaganda to insult muslims.why is the veil considered extremism and the cartoons of our Prophet freedom of speech/expression??Recommend

  • Hunain Ali

    A woman in Saudi Arabia cannot fly anywhere without the consent of her mehram. A woman in Saudi Arabia cannot drive. Unfair? Maybe, however, these rules and actions are justified by the ruling elite; therefore it is a law that has to be followed, and unless and until someone raises the issue with their own governments, nothing can be done.

    Well said !Recommend

  • Usman

    It is happening because we are far from our religion for woman in our religion its defined that she should wear clothes like this in which her body wont revile but women wont take care of it and talk about hijab..i guess we as a muslim nation declining and ZAWAL is near to us we cant be change and that’s y ppl ruling on us ….if we got unite community and then we talk about our religion then it would be better for us first we need to be unite internally and then we have to go outside and talk to the world as a nation as a Muslim Nation not as a Pakistani or French Syria etc etc… plz miss Manal Shakir dnt create Mess among Islam and modernism. Recommend

  • Aleem sulehri

    its useless to comment on your have mentioned many times in your piece of writting that its your opinion so we also believe its just your opinion and there is nothing that cover the realities.bibi your opinion cant over rule principles of QURAN.can they do so?yes you cant.Dont try to betray those who are following essence of time come up with a strong opinion.certainly that opion will also be yours.Recommend

  • Shumaila

    I read this yesterday and knew there would be a lot of comments on this soon.

    The thing is, hijab, merely because it is linked to the muslim image and Islamic modesty, is a very sensitive issue. Anyone with a less than open mind is going to view your article as an attempt to demean it/increase ‘modernism’.

    I am against the burqa ban in these countries, because it does represent a complete violation of basic human rights. But, especially in light of your point about saudi arabia, I realise that there is little we can do about it. Protest, accept or move out seem the only options.

    I think you’ve written a good article that puts across the need to take things like the burqa ban in context, without losing one’s own sense of identity. Recommend

  • Fariha

    For a muslim woman who observes the face veil or hijab it becomes their identity and right.By banning them in public they are forcing women to lose their identity and their Right not just as a muslim but as an individual.Sure everyone has their own beliefs about hijab and veil but we muslims all agree upon the purpose it serves us..Its the one thing that differentiates a muslim women from a non muslim in Public places.Recommend

  • MB

    Veil Niqab and all that . . . its all the MULLAH’s crap created out of necessity to thrown women behind doors in the name of “sharam o haya” and “rivayaat” and “akhlaq” etc.
    Nothing as such in the holy book. The holy books simply orders modesty and mid-way. The WEST is facing the dilemma of allowing its freedom-notion to the outsiders (mainly the MUSLIMS) who are misusing its freedom theory to spread their own extremist version of faith, which the same freedom disappear when it is related to allowing non-muslims the right to freely practice in MULIMS countries, PAK being one such example.
    On other hand The MUSLIM ummah is playing the price for being hostage to a group of CLOSED-MINDs. Stop cursing WEST for your own sins. They are living in 2010 and the Ummah probably few hundred or in case of few others, even a 1000 year back like the African Al-shahab type groups.Recommend

  • Muhammad Toori

    Freedom an Illusion

    They say freedom is the key to reach the world, full of bounties and comfort. That is why freedom should be achieved at any cost, to make this planet a heavenly place. The modern globe, we see today, emerged with slogans of freedom, which according to some schools, lead to prosperity and equality. But what this freedom is? In this piece, I will try to answer this question and after a bit of freedom’s philosophy, I will share with readers, some living examples, showing how this freedom is just an illusion, giving an artificial meaning to a dieing life.

    There are two main ways; freedom can be characterized, through its nature of existence and its use as a tool to measure everything. Each way directs us to a new understanding of freedom. Moreover freedom can also be understood as positive/negative and formal and substantive freedom, but for the sack of simplicity, I will focus on main categorization.

    Let’s start with first category, the nature of its existence where we further classify freedom as Relative and Absolute. Relative freedom is something which allows individuals to select among given choices. For example, one can marry a girl from any clan, given that; this new relationship does not break any established social good, like laws of religion, society or state. Or one can exercise his relative freedom at market place where he keeps on baying, as long as his pocket permits him, or one may choose his subjects at university according to given criteria, examples goes on and on. Since the beginning of life man practiced relative freedom in one way or another, it is the only form of freedom which exists.

    On the other hand, the absolute freedom, which can only imagine, in a domain of no limits, is simply not possible. One is free to do every thing he wants, yes everything, because nothing stops him. Taking history and logic as tools (since I cannot test it empirically) to understand it and to verify its existence’s possibility, leads us to the conclusion of Heidegger, who says “we are thrown to this world”. Creator did not ask us at the beginning of our life that whether we agree or disagree to come and spend sixty years of our life on this strange planet. So one cannot say that we are born free, indeed we are born slave. In our social circles we find many limits for our wishes, our means always fall short of our wants. Global requirement of economic growth, for example, is constrained by recourses or questioning holocaust in Germany is banned by their law. You will always find some natural or manmade boundaries to this kind of freedom. So, without any doubt, freedom in its absolute form can not exist.

    The second way of categorization examines the freedom’s role as a yardstick or a scrutinizer for everything. Here we come across with some serious trouble, where people accept or reject acts and concepts using freedom as a yardstick. This differs from school to school. It can further be characterized as, taking freedom as value and ability.

    Freedom as an ability can not be taken-away, its there and can not be controlled. For example your freethinking ability can be influenced but can’t be stopped by any authority. Many other activities of your conscious, subconscious and super-subconscious come in this paradigm. Taking freedom as ability is largely accepted and there isn’t any intellectual fight for this, between left and right blocks. Everything I discussed, in the relative freedom above, is the ability of human being to practice freedom and that is naturally understandable.

    Taking freedom as a value means accepting it principally to measure the legitimacy of almost everything, regardless of any social religious or cultural aspects. When we say principally it means value is bigger than ability, for the sack of understanding, one may say, ability is the subset of value and of every value. Freedom as ability, which is accepted by all societies, having different values, is scrutinized by all values, accordingly. Value describes the limits of ability and if this value is freedom itself, then freedom will tell you to continue any ability, so freedom could be flourished further.

    This indeed was the very unfortunate and dangerous tern in the human history when metaphysical questions were abandoned, and Kantanian approach was taken. Freedom from, a vertical conception of good (accepting almighty God, as a supreme authority) and freedom for, oneself (replacing God with man) ended up with a society of many gods. Well! The idea of a society, full of gods, was not workable, and could not fulfill the wishes of each god. It was in that moment, when they turn towards another god, the god features required, one and only “The Capital”. Since it fulfils all the wishes, they had, society, first time in history became slave “of the capital, for the capital and by the capital”. There should be no doubt about market position, and It is market where one practice freedom, depending upon how hard he tried, to make his lord happy, and got his bounties in pocket. This was the first time in history of civilizations that economics became the centre of life and an end, which once was, a mean to an end.

    Did you get it now, why Hijab was banned in some countries of Europe, although it was a private affair? Since that ability was limiting freedom, as a value, or could create danger for this value in future, that is why it was banned despite individual’s ability. So it should be obvious now, that every time any clergy and especially Islamic society criticize freedom, they attack its position as a yardstick or as a value to measure other abilities and values. Discouragingly, it seems that all, Immanuel Kant’s free man expected did not materialize thus far and he is still struggling under his lord, Capital, this school is continuously pushing people towards these falls and vague hopes, but then, for how long? So the answer is, as long as you and I agree to fuel their factories with our blood and bones.

    Those who still have doubts, that all of us work for, lord Capital, can see straggling society, by reading this, the word of freedom fathers but remember this all happened after metaphysical questions were abandoned.

    Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of US (1743 – 1826) “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs”.

    Sir Josiah Stamp 1880-1941, said “If you want to remain slaves of the bankers and pay for the costs of your own slavery, let them continue to create money and control the nations credit.”

    Mr. Woodrow Wilson 1919 said “I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is now controlled by its system of credit. We are no longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.”

    Not just banking but indeed the fundamental thought, this institution is standing on, is dangerous. Then why these gurus, big guns, address side issues, tertiary issues and not talking about freedom itself? In my opinion they purposely engage people, so these gurus can have more time for their fruitless social experiments. Therefore, the kind of society we live in will create new questions and answers, like water flows in artificial fountain and we will keep on doing this. Sub prime mortgage crisis, financial crisis, confidence deficit, trade deficit, so on and so forth, the story of problems and solution will never end. We will keep on striving for freedom and it will never come in our hands, because it is nothing but a deliberately created illusion.Recommend

  • saima

    now this veil ban is a perfect example of intolerance shown by these countries.I as a muslim woman,started to cover my head few years ago.And I cannot describe how secure,respected,protected and complete i felt!Every woman who doesn’t covee her head must give it a try.Recommend

  • Not inspired by West

    @Muhammad Toori
    You did the “IF YOU CAN NOT CONVINCE THEN CONFUSE” thing in a very very expert manner…..!!!!!!
    The blog and the comments are aimlessly drifting away…
    Let any country ban whatever they want beacuse that is their right as per sovereignty…..
    But it does not mean that if in future west bans nimaz then muslim countries should also follow suit….
    Wearing burqa or not wearing it, is a person’s basic right…
    If law stop her from doing it…only two things can be done then…either leave that country or live with the ban……!!!! Simple….
    and for us “the so called highly inspired by nudist western culture, highly impressed, very low in self esteem and self confidence nation” we should try to mend our ways……at least we should call something that is wrong as wrong…at least….I am not saying that we should start breaking ATM machines, breaking windows, breaking shops, burning tires….but at least we should understand that such bans are against personal freedom …no need to refer to a whole lot of western thinkers for their so called “freedom thoughts”….
    I am sure if a foreign women is forced to cover her body if found wearing a bikini on Karachi beach …then whole west will term it as against “personal freedom”….!!!!!!!!!
    Then u will understand what freedom values the west follows…..!!!!
    WAKE UP … your life without being needlessly inspired…..
    Life can be lived quite peacefully by finding an in between way where we find bikinis at one place and shuttle cock burqa on other end….
    at least covering chest,shoulders and parts of face is something that is according to our religion,history,norms and ways….if somene does it…well and good….if someone does not do it and goes for bikini, skirt or sleeveless…then neither become talibanized and start harrassing such women…nor totally ignore it…you can at least stop your own daughters from wearing bikinis…Recommend

  • Noor

    I am going to quote few statements of woman who converted to Islam.

    love to write about the oppression of
    women in Islam … without even
    talking to the females beneath the
    “They simply have no idea how Muslim
    women are protected and respected
    within the Islamic framework which
    was built more than 1400 years ago.”
    “Western women are still treated as
    commodities, where sexual slavery is
    on the rise, disguised under
    marketing euphemisms, where womens’
    bodies are traded throughout the
    advertising world. As mentioned
    before, this is a society where rape,
    sexual assault, and violence on women
    is commonplace, a society where the
    equality between men and women is an
    illusion, a society where a womens’
    power or influence is usually only
    related to the size of her breasts.”
    “I used to look at veiled women as
    quiet, oppressed creatures and now I
    look at them as multi-skilled,
    multi-talented, resilient women whose
    brand of sisterhood makes Western
    feminism pale into insignificance.”

    “Furthermore The Prophet (pbuh) said
    that the most important person in the
    home was The Mother, The Mother, The
    Mother. In fact he also said that
    heaven lies at the feet of the
    mother. How many women make it into
    the top 100 power lists for simply
    being a “great mother”? – Yvonne Ridley

    I would like that all of you should read this article of Yvonne Ridley over the issue of veil. How I Came to Love the Veil Recommend

  • Asad

    @Not inspired by West

    No i think you need further digging-out,,,,In the domain of economics we call it “A negative Externality” Lets take the example of British Petroleum (BP), what did through polluting Mexican Gulf is that they imposed a negative externality over society, because society was not the direct beneficiary of BP operations but became a direct victim,,,,,,,In the case of pure public good like any public place say a library you have to shut your mouth because your voice can impact a collective freedom,,,so in the exact same way if someone’s immodest apparel is creating tension in a collective-public scene, which is a collective vision field, a pure public good then indeed she is imposing a negative externality over society,,,,,,,,,,,,so please stop seducing rich eastern values by failed western thought,,,,because we have seen a melting west. Recommend

  • Tehzeeb

    The author’s argument is not well-equipped and very fragile, it will be better for her to take a look at anti-prone literature and “why feminists are not anti prone?” you will then realize what veil is? Recommend

  • Rohit Sharma

    3 words of wisdom – “Ban the Veil”. Recommend

  • saher

    veil is a cultural symbol not religious… yes hijaab is.. it is part of women’s satar… facial veil just isnt.. it was in their culture.. they used to veil themselves wen going out because of the weather.. even we do it wen the weather is harsh. it is specifically not allowed during hajj.. ?? whyyyyyy??????
    having said this… it should be the right of the person to wear the veil or not.. but please dont make it a symbol of piety of muslims.. arabs yeah, may be. Recommend

  • m.abu bakar siddique shah

    I strngly agree that purdh system should be introduced in all educational institutions. Because educational institutions are the symbols of morality. Girls are wearing tight fitting suit to arise sentiments in opposite sex with using purdh.Recommend