The Magazine

The Veil Controversy

Islamism and liberalism face off.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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IN 1989, the first hijab incident in Europe took place in Creil, a suburb of Paris, when three high school girls tried to go to class wearing the Islamic headscarf. The students were expelled. Fifteen years later, with the hijab spreading fast among Muslims in France, the government formally banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools. At the time, most European countries criticized French "intolerance" and deemed the issue a uniquely Gallic problem. But it wasn't. Today most European countries--and a number of Muslim countries--are debating what to do about this increasingly problematic sign of Islamization.

The British were among the most vocal critics of the French ban--back when they were still quite pleased with their own multicultural model. But on October 5, ex-foreign minister Jack Straw revealed that he regularly asked women who came to see him wearing face veils to take them off. Straw pointed out that veils are bad for community relations, and Prime Minister Blair added that the veil is a "mark of separation." This debate coincided with the decision of a British principal to fire an assistant teacher who refused to remove her full-face veil, or niqab, while teaching. Joining the fray was author Salman Rushdie, whose elegant contribution was the statement, "Veils suck." Tensions are rising, fueled by accusations of Islamophobia from some Muslim officials. There is fear that race riots could break out in some British suburbs.

Then there is Germany, where four states have barred public school teachers from wearing the hijab. Some brave female politicians born in Turkey spoke out on the issue in an October 15 interview with Bild am Sonntag. One of them, Ekin Deligoz, a Green party member of parliament, advised fellow Muslim women: "You live here, so take off the headscarf." She added that the headscarf is a symbol of female oppression. Because of her comments, Deligoz has received death threats and is now under police protection.

Finally, in Italy, where the niqab is banned, the controversy has reached new heights since the broadcast of a heated exchange on a television talk show. Right-wing member of parliament Daniela Santanche clashed with the imam of a mosque near Milan, Ali Abu Shwaima. Said Santanche: "The veil isn't a religious symbol and it isn't prescribed by the Koran." Retorted Shwaima: "The veil is an obligation required by God. Those who do not believe that are not Muslims. You're ignorant, you're false. You sow hatred, you're an infidel."

Coming from an imam, this rant carried almost the weight of a fatwa, or religious edict, in certain quarters, where it could be seen as a death sentence. Santanche has been given 24-hour police protection. She says she is speaking out because Muslim women forced to wear the veil have asked her to. She told the Sunday Times, "It's time to turn our backs on the politically correct. It's a question not of religion but of human rights."

And not only in Europe. Muslim countries are not immune to the controversy over the veil. In Egypt--where some 80 percent of women are now veiled, according to sociologist Mona Abaza--the dean of Helwan University has recently expelled female students for wearing the niqab. Interestingly, Soad Saleh, a former dean of the female faculty and Islamic law professor at the most prestigious Islamic university in the world, Cairo's Al-Azhar, confirmed that the niqab is not an obligation. Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, goes further: "Neither the Koran, nor the hadith require women to wear a headscarf."

But the country whose government is currently going after the hijab most vigorously is Tunisia. The wearing of the hijab has been spreading rapidly in Tunisian towns, prompting President Ben Ali recently to reactivate a 1981 decree banning the wearing of the hijab in government offices, schools, universities, and public places in general. His government views the hijab as one more sign of the unwelcome but growing influence of Islamists in Tunisian society. This past Ramadan, in a reversal of the standard pattern for Muslim religious police, Tunisian police were seen tearing headscarves off women in the streets.

The authorities consider the hijab unacceptable in a country that enshrined women's rights as long ago as 1956, with the banning of repudiation (male-initiated casual divorce), polygamy, forced marriage, and the granting of women's rights to vote and sue for divorce. Ben Ali sees women "as a solid defense against the regressive forces of fanaticism and extremism."