An interesting and potentially significant debate about Muslim women and clothing is reverberating throughout the world, with heads of state and devout Muslims all at odds with each other.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has declared the burka unwelcome, saying France "cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic's idea of women's dignity." Contrast that with President Obama's Cairo speech, where he drew applause when he boasted that the Justice Department "has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it."
The emerging debate among Muslims may be the more significant argument to watch.
In Canada, a Muslim organization is advocating a ban on hijabs (which cover the head) and niqabs (which cover the head and most of the face) in public. The Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC) argues the clothes aren't about modesty but "are political symbols of Saudi inspired Islamic extremism."
The MCC cites a recent announcement by Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of Egypt's al-Azhar university, saying that he plans to issue a fatwa against the niqab. Tantawi's plans have drawn sharp criticism from Hizb-ut Tahrir, which casts Tantawi as a pawn of the West in its "desperate underhand attempts to push them towards secular values and away from Islam."
Canadian feminist and Muslim reformist Irshad Manji asked her readers what they thought of the MCC idea. Interestingly, more men who responded seemed to support it than women.
One woman favoring a ban is American journalist Asra Nomani. Writing last week in the Daily Beast, Nomani challenged the religious significance of the face and body covers, saying "it's an edict of only the most hardcore of Muslims, typically those adhering to the rigid schools of interpretation called Wahhabism and Salafism ... [which] essentially represent the KKK wing of Islam."
Nomani compares the Quranic text most commonly cited on the issue and finds the more recent, Saudi-financed Noble Qu'ran adds interpretations – "(..i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way)" – that aren't in other translations, including this one by Lebanese scholar Tarif Khalidi.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), on the other hand, has made the defense of hijab wearing a staple in its civil rights portfolio. It has sued and lobbied courts where head coverings were barred and fought state efforts to require people to remove head coverings for driver's license pictures.
Nomani offers a pointed rebuttal to the argument that the state is curtailing religious freedom. The veil may be seen as an expression of faith for some, but it's something else to the rest of society:
"It's a security risk. Indeed, from Islamabad to Baghdad, the face veil has been used by militants to escape police action, stage attacks, and feign identities. Most importantly, the face veil represents a frightening brand of Islam that is taking hold even among young girls. It preaches a literal translation of the Koran that becomes troublesome when applied to problematic verses—which are used by militants to sanction domestic violence, intolerance, and even suicide bombings."
This debate offers a number of lessons. Muslims, like any else, are not a monolithic people. Dissident voices may be growing, however, both in number and in stature. And that can only help seize the mantle from self-appointed voices of Muslims from apologists for radicalism and its enablers.