Chesler Chronicles

Is Covering the Face A Religious Duty in Islam?

Earlier this week, I published an article at FOX News about the recent French law to ban “face coverings.” The law does not refer to “Islam” or the “Islamic Veil,” nor does it specifically mention the “burqa” or “niqab.” The law is crafted in the kind of religion- and ethnicity-neutral way that Christopher Caldwell, the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe has suggested might work across Europe.

I wrote:

“This ban is expected to pass in the French senate. However, it may be found ‘unconstitutional’ by the French Council of State or by the European Court of Human Rights. Nevertheless, in my opinion, once again, France is leading the way in the battle for women’s freedom and human rights.”

Mainly, I argued that there is absolutely no religious basis or religious duty to cover one’s face in Islam. It has been customary to do so—but it has been equally customary not to do so.

Of course, I was immediately challenged on this very point. Obviously, I am neither a mullah nor an imam—but then, they come from four different schools of religious thought and have been disagreeing with each other for many centuries. Shariah law (Muslim religious law) has been interpreted in many different ways down the centuries and often differently in different countries.

Equally obvious: I am not a Muslim. (Ah, but prick me, will I not bleed?) Identity politics long ago ceased to be my favorite cup of tea and thus, I believe that men can comment on the lives of women and vice versa; that Westerners can certainly cover the Islamic waterfront and vice versa. Objective knowledge does not require that one has direct, personal experiential knowledge of the phenomenon being studied. A woman can study religious texts whether or not she herself is ordained as a religious authority. A non-believer can study religious texts of all the world’s religions and still come up with some rather dazzling interpretations and insights. Believers have made amazing scientific discoveries.

Thus, while I am not a Muslim, I have not only read a great deal but lately, I have also been talking and listening to many Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents, some of whom are religious, many of whom are ardent secularists.

Here is some of what I said to the fellow who asked that I “prove” that face-coverings are not a religious commandment in Islam. You might find this useful and may even have other examples to share.

Islamic law is drawn from the Qu’ran but is also ruled by the hadiths (sayings, examples) and by the fatwas (laws) given by four different schools of Islam. They often disagree and contradict each other. The Qu’ran itself contradicts itself and/or says opposite things at different points. The rule of thumb is that later verses “abrogate” or nullify earlier verses. Thus, when Muhammed was vulnerable and weak, he counseled “peaceful” ways; when he was strong, he counseled war without mercy.

The forced veiling and unveiling of Muslim women has ebbed and flowed for more than a century. Many Islamic countries have had long histories of Muslim women who unveiled themselves and who were also unveiled by the King, the Shah, the law, or by both. For example, King Amanullah unveiled the women of Afghanistan in the early 1920s, as did Turkey’s Kemal Attaturk a few years later. Feminists campaigned for naked faces and modern, western dress in public and were successful in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan and Iran, to name only a few Muslim countries. The women of Afghanistan were forced back into the chaudry or burqa once Amanullah was forced into exile but were again unveiled in the late 1950s by King Zahir Shah, then re-veiled again by the Taliban—and unveiled by American military power for a brief while. Backsliding on this issue in an Islamist era is currently going on in all these countries.

Many Muslim scholars as well as activists have argued that there is absolutely no Islamic religious mandate to veil one’s face or body. Some believe that “modesty,” however, demands covering one’s hair. Some Muslim religious feminists cover their hair—but not their faces; others cover nothing but pray regularly. I have recently worked with religious Muslim feminists who are bare-headed (Turkish-German Seyran Ates, Egyptian-Yemeni-Swiss Elham Manea, and Turkish-Greek-American Zeyno Baran), and with religious Muslim feminists who wear the headscarf (Zeinab Al-Suweij).

I have read a number of Muslim academics and memoirists who have viewed the veil as primarily “political” not as “religious.”

Tunisian-French feminist, Samia Labidi, writes about this in an excellent and powerful new collection edited by Zeyno Baran titled The Other Muslims. Moderate and Secular.

Algerian-American feminist academic, Professor Marnia Lazreg, wrote an entire book on this subject: Questioning the Veil. Open Letters to Muslim Women. Lazreg does not believe in bans, in the state telling Muslim women what to do but she does implore Muslim women to go about unveiled, if for no other reason than to honor all the brave, hard labor of their foremothers who risked death for this right.

Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, tackled the essentially misogynistic nature of the Islamic Veil in The Veil and the Male Elite. A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. I met Fatima long ago, in 1980 and her ideas impressed me at once.

Asra Nomani, a Muslim born in India, the author of Standing Alone in Mecca. An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, a former Wall Street Journal reporter (Daniel Pearl was her friend and had been staying in her home in Pakistan when he was kidnapped and be-headed), and the Director the Daniel Pearl Project at Georgetown University, stopped covering her hair—although she claimed that she was still a religious Muslim. I have read her work, talked to her, reviewed her film about her attempts to modernize her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia—to make it more woman-friendly, and about her utter failure in this regard due to the influx of hardline Muslim Brotherhood and Wahabi type Arab misogynists to America. Her father founded the mosque.

Nomani was involved in the first-ever woman led Islamic prayer service which was led by Dr. Amina Wadud. Of course, these two women are also viewed as rebels—but they believe they are, indeed, struggling for the soul of Islam.

Dr. Amina Wadud, an African-American convert to Islam (formerly she had been a Methodist), and an associate professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has actively wrestled with the Qu’ran and has changed her interpretations over time. She came to believe that Muslim women were being needlessly persecuted and confined by human, misogynistic, not divine law. Her 2006 book, Inside the Gender Jihad. Womens’ Reform in Islam, has redefined many presumed “givens” for Muslim women.

Non-scholars, activists, polemicists, and charismatic speakers such as Irshad Manjie, author of the groundbreaking (The Trouble With Islam) Nonie Darwish, (Cruel and Usual Punishment) and Dr. Wafa Sultan (A God Who Hates) , not to mention all of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s fine works, have rejected, re-interpreted, and changed their own minds about the religious basis for the Islamic Veil. Darwish eventually converted to Christianity. Manjie, to the best of my knowledge has certainly not done so. The last time I saw her, she was surrounded by a retinue of young female assistants in hijab.

However, all four women: Manjie, Darwish, Sultan and Hirsi Ali, have appeared in public without head or face coverings and have spoken as Muslim women, as former Muslim women, and on behalf of Muslim women and Islam. Sultan and Hirsi Ali do so as secularists, Manjie and Darwish wrestle with religion as believers.

Of course, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will not agree with any of them. Nor would the dangerously deranged members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The ever-glamorized charlatan,Tariq Ramadan, will probably not say, flat out, that women do not even have to cover their hair, no less their faces. But he’s the guy who also says that stoning women is an issue that we must first think about long and hard.

Which views seem most credible, whose guidance shall we trust?

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