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."

Interestingly, the Tunisian author and feminist Samia Labidi, president of A.I.M.E., an organization fighting the Islamists, recounts that she personally started wearing the veil before puberty, after Islamists told her the hijab would be a passport to a new life, to emancipation. After a few years, she realized she had been fooled and that the veil made her feel like she was "living in a prison." At first, she could not bring herself to stop wearing it because of the constant psychological pressure. But the 1981 ban on the hijab in public places forced her to remove it, and she did so for good.

Labidi's experience suggests that in both Tunisia and France the recent banning of the hijab has actually helped Muslim women who are subject to Islamist indoctrination.

For Islamists, the imperative to veil women justifies almost any means. Sometimes they try to buy off resistance. Some French Muslim families, for instance, are paid 500 euros (around $600) per quarter by extremist Muslim organizations just to have their daughters wear the hijab. This has also happened in the United States. Indeed, the famous and brave Syrian-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan recently told the Jerusalem Post that after she moved to the United States in 1991, Saudis offered her $1,500 a month to cover her head and attend a mosque.

But what Islamists use most is intimidation. A survey conducted in France in May 2003 found that 77 percent of girls wearing the hijab said they did so because of physical threats from Islamist groups. A series in the newspaper Libération in 2003 documented how Muslim women and girls in France who refuse to wear the hijab are insulted, rejected, and often physically threatened by Muslim males. One of the teenage girls interviewed said, "Every day, bearded men come to me and advise me strongly on wearing the veil. It is a war. For now, there are no dead, but there are looks and words that do kill."

Muslim women who try to rebel are considered "whores" and treated as outcasts. Some of them want to move to areas "with no Muslims" to escape. However, that might not be a solution, as Islamists are at work all over France. The Communist newspaper L'Humanité in 2003 interviewed two Catholic-born French women who said they had converted to Islam and started wearing the niqab after systematic indoctrination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In light of this, wearing the hijab may or may not be a manifestation of the free exercise of religion. For any individual, it may reflect the very opposite--religious coercion. In fact, millions of women are forced to wear the veil for fear of physical retribution. And the fear is well founded. According to Cheryl Benard of RAND, every year hundreds of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan alone are killed, have acid thrown in their faces, or are otherwise maimed by male fanatics.

Given the Islamists' ferocious determination on this point, it is worth asking: Why exactly is covering the female so important to them? The obvious answer is that it is a means of social control. Not coincidentally, it is one of the only issues on which Sunni and Shia extremists agree. It's not by chance that use of the hijab really took off after Iran's Islamic regime came to power in 1979. Some Shiite militias in Iraq have actually started forcing women--Muslim or not--to wear the veil or face the consequences.

If this issue were not vital for Islamists, how can one explain their reaction when France banned the hijab in public schools? Al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, "strongly condemned" President Chirac's decision and threatened actions against France. Likewise, Sheikh Fadlallah, founder and spiritual leader of Hezbollah, wrote to Chirac threatening "likely complications" for France. Mohammad Khatami, former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, called on the French government to "cancel this unjust law."

Commenting recently on the veil and the Islamists' strategy, Professor Iqbal Al-Gharbi, from the famous Islamic Zaytouna University in Tunis, explained: "The veil is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the veil, there is the regressive interpretation of the sharia [Koranic law]. There are the three essential inequalities which define this interpretation: inequality between man and woman, between Muslim and non-Muslim, between free man and slave."

"Islam is the solution" is the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, the real solution to the veil problem in Europe and in modern countries elsewhere is the defeat of radical Islam, making possible the peaceful integration of normal Muslims into Western societies on Western terms.

Olivier Guitta is a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant in Washington.