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The Face Veil and Western European Muslims

The niqab problem.

12:00 AM, Feb 11, 2010 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Writing laws that distinguish between objectionable body coverings and acceptable caftans or long coats will be a challenging task.  In addition, issues of civil liberties and the efficient administration of justice have complicated the discussion in Britain.   Many Britons who oppose radical Islam nonetheless balk at limitations on the personal right to dress as one pleases.  Claims that the face veil is, in Western Muslim communities, forced on women by their families are convincing, but generally difficult to prove.  Hijab, the face veil, and other forms of “Islamic dress” – including short pants on fundamentalist men – are often defended by their wearers as a personal choice.  While some advocates of anti-veil laws base their view on principles of women’s equality, advocates for such ordinances in the UK mainly argue that covering of women is an unacceptable symbol of radicalism and a factor for separation of Western Muslims from their neighbors.  French president Nicolas Sarkozy, like his co-thinkers in Britain, emphasizes that the face veil symbolizes extremism and separatism.

Among these various religious and cultural artifacts, niqab stands out as a public security problem.  Except on snow slopes, ski-masks, which are not, in the end, very different from niqab, are universally associated with crime and terrorism.  The Western and borderland nations have seen crimes committed by people disguised in niqab and body coverings, from Britain to India.

British public opinion is catching up with the French, as UK opinion polls show two thirds of those polled supporting a restriction on niqab in banks and airports, but about the same number expressing themselves against a general ban in all public places.

The niqab question epitomizes the legal entanglements introduced to the West by relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  The most widespread Islamic legal interpretation forbids women from covering their faces and hands in public, since they must deal with merchants and other people.  The problem may be solved by Muslims themselves, especially if the Green movement demanding reform in Iran throws off the strict controls on personal conduct established by the clerical regime of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors in power. 

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