While on sabbatical as a family in Egypt a couple of years ago, we quickly became accustomed to seeing women wearing head coverings on the street. Nearly every single Muslim woman over the age of 12 wore one. The general word for these is hijab, which is a quranic term meaning “barrier” or “screen.” In a famous verse (33:53) it refers to a partition in the home of the prophet Muhammad to separate the women of his family from the eyes of the many people who would come to Muhammad’s home seeking an audience with him. Its meaning is basically the same as the Hebrew word mechitzah, the barrier that separates the women’s section from the men’s section in traditional synagogues.
The intent of the quranic verse was to protect the women of Muhammad’s family from the intrusion of strangers and the possible embarrassment that could result. Because of the egalitarian nature of Arabian society in general, religious interpreters applied the notion not only to the family of the prophet, but to all Muslim families, and soon the term was applied to a common form of modesty practiced also among Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian women at the time — covering the hair. The purpose was to encourage modest dress and protect women from the prying eyes of men.
We found the issue of modest dress curious in Egypt. Modesty in Cairo today means covering every inch of skin aside from the face, hands and feet, and that includes covering the hair. But at the same time, teenage girls and young women often wear tight tops and jeans that reveal every bump and wrinkle of their bodies. It is rare to see a niqab in Egypt, the full-face covering or veil.
Burqa is an Arabic term that refers to any face covering with eye openings. It is common today to use burqa to refer to the Afghan garment that envelops a woman’s entire face and body except for a small square area around the eyes that is covered by a concealing net or grille. The more accurate term for that is actually chadri.
In any case, niqab or burqa refers to a piece of clothing that covers the entire face, or all the face except the eyes. The issue of covering has been a point of contention for Muslim religious scholars for many centuries. While all consider modest dress required, some scholars also consider covering the face obligatory. Others consider it highly recommended but not required. Still others actually consider it forbidden, and the issue continues to arouse debate in the Muslim world.
Surprising as it may seem, France has decided to weigh in on the issue and has begun the process to issue its own version of a fatwa on the matter. Already in 2004, Parliament passed a law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French government-operated schools. This outlawed not only the Muslim headscarf, but also kippot and outward wearing of the crucifix.
Last July, President Nicolas Sarkozy targeted the burqa as an affront to human and civil rights. “The burqa is not a religious problem,” he told the French Parliament. “It’s a problem of freedom and the dignity of women.” Later that same day, while visiting Muslim graves at a WWI cemetery, he said, “Islam is today the religion of many French people…. France can’t allow French Muslims to be stigmatized.”
Those are astonishing words. I don’t understand how banning religious expression is not a religious problem, and I cannot for the life of me understand how banning a garment indicative of Muslim modesty is not an act of stigmatization.
I do understand, however, why people might consider banning the burqa to be supportive of Muslim women’s dignity. We naturally want to help people who we imagine are being persecuted. But condemning the burqa is imposing one set of culturally and religiously defined values or an aesthetic standard onto people who may not agree. How do we know that wearing a burqa is a humiliation? How is it shameful? How do you or I know how a woman wearing a full-face veil feels about it? Personally, I find many outfits that are worn in Beverly Hills among a variety of men and women to be humiliating. Why not pass a law banning the wearing of miniskirts and low-cut tops among sagging, aging women? Or black toupees on graying old men?
Here’s an example closer to home. I personally find the practice of shaving a beautiful young woman’s head, even if intended for modesty, to be an act of chillul haShem. We were created in God’s image. We desecrate God’s image whenever we purposefully disfigure our bodies. And halachah does not require shaving married Jewish women’s heads. It is only custom, and only within some communities, yet it would be a terrible and unethical act of interference on the religious and cultural rights of Jews for any government to ban the practice.
Two weeks ago, a government commission in France recommended banning the burqa in public buildings such as schools and hospitals, but not on the streets. Jean-Francois Copé, leader of Sarkozy’s majority party in Parliament (the UMP) explained, “The two reasons why we have to implement legislation is to respect the rights of women and, second, it’s a question of security. Who can imagine that in a country like ours, people can walk everywhere in the country and also in our cities with a burqa, without the possibility to recognize their face?”
Banning someone from wearing a veil is not respecting a woman’s rights. It is exactly the opposite: It is a blatant act of disrespecting her right to choose what to wear. Security may be another matter, but if wearing a full-body burqa is forbidden in public buildings but allowed in the streets, how is that increasing security when a terrorist could walk anywhere on the streets of Paris wearing a burqa packed with explosives? I admit that I would make a terrible suicide bomber, but it seems to me that if I wanted to smuggle body explosives into a public place, I would wear a trench coat rather than traditional Islamic or Arab dress. Why invite scrutiny in the current climate?
These new developments in France remind me of a similar move almost exactly two centuries ago when Napoleon called a Grand Sanhedrin in 1807. That was when an assemblage of Jewish notables was put under intense government pressure to change thousands of years of Jewish tradition in order to conform to French sensibilities. The Jewish leaders were asked 12 questions that were intended to determine whether Jews were worthy of French citizenship. They included such questions as whether it was acceptable in Jewish law for Jews to marry Christians or whether Jews were allowed to be usurious toward non-Jews. The Jewish leaders fudged their answers, wrote in vague language and were not entirely forthcoming (to say the least). Their answers nevertheless passed muster, but “passing” required, among other stipulations, that the Jewish leaders condemn all “false interpretations of their religious laws.” How would that be determined? Who would rule on the so-called “false interpretations?” The trade-off for citizenship was the denial of the unique value of our religious culture and the vibrant nature of Jewish religious discourse. The result was, among other things, a huge wave of assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.
No, banning the burqa is not an attempt to protect the dignity of women or to increase security. It is an attempt to make “ethnics” conform to a flat and unimaginative sense of what it means to be French. It is legal enforcement of an outdated and oppressive ideology that does not respect the fundamental freedom to express one’s religious identity in public.
Reuven Firestone is a professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.