Outbreak of media splaining over niqaab

A page from the Sun, showing a picture of a woman in niqaab along with blurbs on how veiling is practised (if at all) in France, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Canada.The recent wave of media interest in niqaab that resulted from the Birmingham College and niqaab-in-court affairs has, as previously noted, featured a lot of opinionising from almost everyone except for wearers — plenty of white men, a smattering of women and even a few Muslim women, but hardly any of them wear niqaab. Finally, Kira Cochrane in the Guardian and the UK Huffington Post got round to interviewing some, but the chorus of know-it-alls expounding on what the niqaab symbolises (to them) continues apace, along with tabloid demands to do things that are already being done anyway (for example, it’s already up to employers to decide what employees can wear when facing the public, never mind letting them wear the niqaab (not that I’ve ever been served by a woman in niqaab, even in a Muslim bookshop). Yesterday (Monday), Jeremy Vine yet again featured Taj Hargey explaining how the niqaab is supposedly not of Islamic origin, while the Sun lectured us about what really goes on in Muslim countries, where other than in Saudi Arabia, it’s either rare or banned. There’s a term used on some social justice blogs — “splaining” — meaning patronisingly or presumptuously “explaining” things from a privileged outsider’s perspective that they know very well from an insider’s one, and this behaviour is commonly found any time there is a “debate” to be had about this issue.

Taj Hargey is regularly brought in to give a media-friendly point of view whenever there is a controversy about something to do with Islam or Muslims, as with the grooming trial in May. This time, he claimed that the face-covering originated in Persia and was spread to the Muslim world via Byzantium and was later adopted by “misogynistic Muslim societies”, and is not mentioned in the Qur’an. The last point is irrelevant, as the sources of Islamic law are the Qur’an, the Sunnah and, where there is no specific guidance from either, consensus, the practice of early generations of Muslims and reasoning from the two primary sources. There is plenty of evidence from the hadeeth that women covered their faces in the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and that the women who did this were those closest to the Prophet, even though some others did not cover their faces. The point is that face-covering was normal Islamic practice almost from the beginning and was the norm in many parts of the Muslim world until the 19th century. The particular type of veil does change, of course, but the principle of covering the face other than the eyes is a perfectly sound one in Islam, and one that in and of itself is unanimously considered praiseworthy by scholars, with many considering it compulsory, particularly if that is the normal Muslim practice and there is no practical need not to.

The Sun dedicated pages to this “issue” today, much of it dedicated to “informing” the public that niqaab isn’t worn in much of the Muslim world — the only places where it’s common are Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. There’s also a picture of unveiled women at a party, labelled “Islamabad”, next to that one of the veiled women giving the V-sign, labelled “Birmingham”. The clear message: these British niqaabis are doing it wrong, and are out of step with the rest of the Muslim world. However, there are many parts of Pakistan where the niqaab and even the Afghan-style burqa is common, and most women do not dress the same as those in their picture; they wear shalwar-kameez with a headscarf, sometimes a loosely-draped one called a dupatta. Their blurbs about how or if niqaab is practised in various Muslim countries also contain a number of misleading and irrelevant claims: notably, the bans on face-veiling in some countries was imposed by a secular dictatorship, and the ruling against niqaab from al-Azhar was widely condemned, and ignored by people who interpreted it as a clerical rubber stamp on something the Mubarak régime was already imposing. As for Indonesia, although it is rare in most places, even Aceh, it is common in other parts, such as Sumbawa in the east (the usual way of covering the face there is to pull the head-wrap across the face).

The women in this country who wear niqaab are not ignorant peasants, or girls blindly following their fathers’ or brothers’ demands without a second thought. They are women with a modicum of religious education; not scholars but certainly religiously literate, and have read a lot of the scholarly and hadeeth literature on the subject. How they do things in India or Indonesia or Tunisia, or even (nay especially) in the village back home in Pakistan, is not what is important; rather, what was normal among the early Muslims and what the norm in the pre-colonial Muslim world is. Isolated rulings by politically compromised scholars do not count either, so you cannot tell Muslims “well, your mufti says …” because he’s not “our mufti” or the Muslim version of the Pope or whatever people call him, he’s just one mufti among thousands. It is presumptuous to think you know better about someone’s religion than someone who believes in it and has read up on it in their own time out of a sincere desire to practise it to its fullest when you do not believe and have only minimal knowledge and a great deal of prejudice (hence all the talk of what the niqaab “symbolises”, mostly the worst stereotypes of a society the people speaking do not know much about). We know our own religion. We do not need outsiders telling us we should be doing it their way.

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