Egypt: Niqab ban in France stirs controversy

In October 2009, the Niqab (or face cover) stirred a lot of controversy when the late Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi – head of Al Azhar and Egypt's Imam – asked a 13-year-old girl to uncover her face while he was inspecting an Azhar school in Cairo. He told her that the niqab is a tradition that has nothing to do with religion. Currently the lower house of the Spanish Parliament is debating a proposal to prohibit the wearing of body-covering burqas and face-covering niqabs in all public spaces in Spain, and the French parliament approved a ban on face veils.

According to AP:

France has Europe's largest Muslim population, estimated to be about 5 million of the country's 64 million people. While ordinary headscarves are common, only about 1,900 women in France are believed to wear face-covering veils. Champions of the bill say they oppress women.

In her interview with Broadsheet, the women’s issues blog on Salon, Mona ElTahawy explained why she supports the ban on niqab:

I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you — and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman's right to choose to wear a burqa because it's her natural right.

On her blog, Mona ElTahawy linked to her appearance on BBC TV's Newsnight where she engaged in a heated argument with Syrian Professor and author of “The Quest for Meaning” Tariq Ramadan, and Nigel Farrage Member of Parliament representing the UK Independence Party.

Meanwhile, on his blog, Hassan El Helali hails the ban saying:

النقاب جريمة حضارية
الإنتقاب جريمة
ثاني دولة أوروبية تجرم ارتداءه
Niqab is a crime against civilization.
It is literally a crime.
This is the second European country the prohibits wearing it.

He elaborated saying:

مما يضع فرنسا على طريق أن تصير ثاني دولة أوروبية بعد بلجيكا تجعل ارتداء النقاب جريمة
This makes France the second country after Belgium that considers a face veil an offense.

He concluded his post saying:

أخيراً تعود أوروبا إلى رشدها وتعمل على إزالة القبح والدمامة والتخلف عن وجهها المشرق بالعلم والنور والحرية… يوما ما ستطبق هذه القوانين في بلادنا وتعود لنا الحضارة التي يحاول العراعير وأتباعهم المتعرعرين محوها وفرض عاداتهم وتقاليدهم الفاسدة البائدة علينا وإقناع أهلنا بأن حضارتنا هي حضارة الكفر والأوثان وإحلال “لاحضارة” الصحراء محلها باسم الدين… شراءً حيناً وإرهاباً أحياناً.
Finally Europe is coming back to its senses and it is cleaning its enlightened free face from the ugliness and backwardness that smeared it. One day those laws will be applied in our country [Egypt] and we will rescue our civilization from the fangs of the desert tribes who have imposed – by intimidation or by the power of their money -their obsolete customs and traditions on our people in the name of religion.

Joseph Mayton of Bikya Masr describes the ban as stupid:

There was a debate not too long ago in the southern part of the United States over whether a Muslim woman wearing the full-face covering, or Niqab, would be forced to remove the veil for a police officer. The case went to court and was eventually decided that if a male police officer needed to check the person’s identity they would call in a female officer to do the checking. Makes sense. It is one of the few times that the US has done something “tolerant” when it comes to Islam in the country.

So, when the French government banned the niqab, burka or whatever one wants to call the full-face covering that a tiny fraction of Muslim women across the world adorn themselves in, it is shocking that they would continue to argue it is a security risk. It simply is not. Whether we want to see women cover themselves in what liberal Islamic scholar Gamal al-Banna told me recently is an “archaic representation of a time before Islam” is another question, but when France argues the security card, they should be called out for their stupidity.

In his article, Joseph Mayton quoted Islamic scholar Gamal al-Banna who disagrees with Mona ElTahawy‘s stance:

Sure, there was a lot of support for the ban, from as strange of places as Muslim feminists, who argued that the ban would give women more freedom in their daily lives. It is almost hypocritical that anyone who professes to support human rights and the right to choose one’s own lifestyle to argue this, but it happened and continues today. Someone who upholds human rights and people’s right to choose, must accept that not everyone will choose “their way.” We must continue to argue against the niqab – as al-Banna says, “it is not an Islamic idea and has been incorporated by those who bastardize the faith” – but without being preachy. This is where the so-called feminists failed.

Mona ElTahawy argued her point further on the Tuesday’s edition of the Dave Ross Show and again on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze

According to BBC's Radio 4‘s introduction:

France is the latest European country to talk of banning the burqa – the full Islamic face veil for women. Belgium has already voted for a ban and there's also been talk of similar laws in Holland and Spain. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe and polls there show overwhelming support for the proposal. It's estimated that around 1900 women in France wear the burqa and most do so because they want to …. For many this is also an issue of protecting women's rights; the burqa they argue, is a symbol of male oppression and as one French law maker is reported to have said, women who wear them must be liberated, even against their will.

Ahmed Zidan of Middle East Youth agrees with Mona ElTahawy and dismisses freedom of choice as grounds for wearing the niqab:

الحرية الفردية مكفولة طالما اقتصرت عادة أو سلوك على فرد أو مجموعة أفراد، ولكن إن خرجت هذه العادة من حيّز الفرد لتصبح ظاهرة عامة، كالنقاب، فيجدر بنا رصد هذه الظاهرة، وتعيين مداها، وتحجيمها وسنّ القوانين التي تحمي حرية الأفراد الآخرين، إن لزم الأمر، وهو الطريق التي سلكته آروپا مؤخرًا.

النقاب يساوي، من وجهة نظرنا الخاصة، حرية امرأة اختارت، بمحض إرادتها، أن تتّشح بالسّواد لأي سبب كان. أمّا التجرّد الكامل من الملابس، على النقيض، فهو قرار خاص بامرأة أخرى اختارت العُري.

الآن، ووفقًا لمبدأ الحرية الفردية، فمن الطبيعي أن يُكفل حرية الُعريّ إذا كُفلت حرية النقاب في المقابل. ولكن، إن كان الأول محظورًا حفاظًا على الآداب العامة، فمن الأولى حظر الآخر أيضًا حفاظًا على السلامة العامة.

Individual freedom is a given as long as it is a habit or a behavior adopted by an individual or a group of individuals; once it become a phenomenon like the niqab, lawmakers have to study it and assess its impact on the freedom of others. This is exactly what Europe is doing lately.
In our opinion niqab is a woman who freely chose to cover up in black for whatever reason. Nudity is the opposite extreme and that is also a choice of a woman who took her clothes off.

According to the above stated principle of individual freedom, if we approve of the freedom to cover up we also have to approve the freedom to undress, and if the later has been banned to preserve public morality then the former should be banned to ensure public security.

Elder of Zion raises another point when he quotes Ibrahim Hooper – a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations:

He says that the French vote is a thinly-disguised attempt to discriminate against all Muslims, not just those who wear the burqa.

“It's really a new type of law targeting a particular minority faith based on the prejudices of the majority. And my religious rights should not be dependent on a majority vote,” said Hooper.

Then he refutes Hooper's argument saying

Syria has banned the face-covering Islamic veil from the country's universities … Last January, an Egyptian court upheld a ban of the veil during university exams. And last year Al Azhar University's religious head banned the veil at all Al Azhar schools altogether.

It seems that Syria and Egypt are nervous about growing Islamic fundamentalism, as shown by a custom that is not legally sanctioned in Islam. In the words of another Al Azhar scholar, “”We all agree that niqab is not a religious requirement. Taliban forces women to wear the niqab. … The phenomena is spreading and it has to be confronted. The time has come.”

So France does not seem to be exhibiting any Islamophobia. French politicians are merely following in the footsteps of two nations whose very constitutions invoke Islam as the major source for their laws!


Cultural integration has failed, or not taken place, in many European countries, but women shouldn’t pay the price for it.

Still, she urges Europe's liberals and Muslims to justify their silence:

Europe’s liberals must ask themselves why they have been silent. It is clear that Europe’s political right — other countries have similar bans in the works — does not care about Muslim women or their rights.

But Muslims must ask themselves the same question: Why the silence as some of our women fade into black, either as a form of identity politics or out of acquiescence to Salafism?

Once again, Zidan of Middle East Youth lists eightreasons why the niqab should be banned. They are as follows:

أولًا، إن المنتقبة هي كيان بلا هوية من الأساس. وإذا كان الوجه هو الوسيط الأول الذي يمنح الغرباء، الذين نقابلهم بالمئات كل يوم في الشارع والعمل والكلية، بعض من الراحة النفسية والطمأنينة، فإن المنتقبة، على النقيض، تبعث على الهلع والريبة، كون المنتقبة لا تختلف كثيرًا عن خيمة سوداء كبيرة متحركة بلا معالم. إن كافة مهارات الاتصال تشوّه تمامًا عن المنقبات، والتي تأتي تعبيرات الوجه، “Facial Expressions”، واتصال العيون، “Eye Contact”، على رأس قائمتها. هل فكرت مرة في مدى بشاعة أن ترى الناس من خلف ستار أسود بينما لا أحد يراك؟
First of all, a woman covering her face is a woman denying her identity; a face is the first thing that inspires comfort and confidence when meeting strangers and by hiding its expressions and withholding from eye contact, a woman wearing the niqab inspires nothing but fear and distrust.


ثانيًا، من حق الفرد العادي في الشارع أن يتعرّف على هيئة الماشية بجانبه، ومن حق الممتحن أن يتأكد من هوية الطالبة، وشرطي المرور من هوية السائقة، والمريض من هوية الممرّضة.
Every individual has the right to identify whoever he gets in contact with; an examiner, a police officer, a patient – they all have the rights to know your identity.


ثالثًا، إن النقاب من شأنه أن يخلق تمييزًا واضحًا بين المسلمة وغير المسلمة، وهو زي يحضّ على الطائفية والمذهبية، وهو ما لا نتمناه على الإطلاق، خاصةً في ظل ما نسعى إليه من معالجة هذا العصب المتطرّف الذي يميّز على أساس الدين في منطقتنا ذات الأغلبية المسلمة.
Wearing the niqab will only fuel the sectarian fire; it is a form of discrimination between a Muslim and a non-Muslim woman.


رابعًا، إن المواطن الذي يتعامل مع دواوين الحكومة الرسمية له الحق الكامل في التعرّف على هوية الشخص المفوّض من قبل الحكومة للتعامل معه. إذن، فمن غير المنطقيّ أن تُعيّن موظفة منتقبة في جهة حكومية، فهذا بالإضافة لكونه اعتداءًا صارخًا على حق المواطن في التعرّف على من يتعامل معه باسم الحكومة، فهو ينقض دور الدولة الذي يجب أن تلعبه في عدم التمييز، بل وحظر عدم التمييز في الدواوين الحكوميّة، والحفاظ على مبادئ المواطنة. كي يكتسب هذا الفرد ثقة تسمح بالسير قدمًا في بداية التعامل مع الحكومة، سواء كان محليًا أو أجنبيًا.
Any citizen dealing with a government employee in any of the governmental offices has the right to see the face of the official serving him. It is against common sense to hire a woman wearing a niqab in a governmental position where she has to interact with the public.


خامسًا، إن النقاب وسيلة لقهر المرأة، وكثير من المتشددين الإسلاميين يفرضوه قهرًا على زوجاتهم وأقرابائهم. وهو ما يضع المرأة الشرقية بين ناريّ ما هي مُجبرة عليه وبين ما تريده حقًا. أو الأوقع، بين عروض أزياء جوتشي الذي تشاهده، وتتطلّع إليه، على موقع يوتيوب، وبين واقعها المضني. وهذا تمامًا ما جعل آروپا تفكر في فرض عقوبات رادعة على الرجال الذين تسول لهم أنفسهم في فرض النقاب على زوجاتهم.
Niqab is against women's rights; many fundamentalists and extremists coerce their wives and female kins to wear it as a form of oppression. This places our women between a rock and a hard place – what she is forced to do and what she really desires.


سادسًا، إن الفكرة الدينية البائدة القائلة بتغطية المرأة لأنها عورة وفتنة، إلى آخر هذه الأساطير، هي غير مقبولة بالمرة، بل ويجدر بالمثقفين والمتنورين، بمساعدة المنابر الإعلامية التقليدية أو مواقع الإعلام الجديد، أن يحاولوا محي هذه الخرافات من عقول الأغلبية المغلوبة على أمرها التي تسيطر عليها فضائيات عذاب القبر. وقد نُشر في الشهر قبل الماضي تقريرًا مثيرًا حول صحافية فرنسية ارتدت النقاب لمدة خمسة أيام في شوارع پاريس، حيث نقلت تجربتها بالكامل للموقع الإخباري. تقول إليزابيث ألكسندر، وهي صحافية تعمل لصالح جريدة ماري كلير الفرنسية، “شعرت أني قنبلة جنسية.” وقد دوّنت ملاحظاتها حول النقاب في التقرير، ومنها، كون النقاب رداءًا غير عمليّ، وهو يدفع للانغلاق والاكتئاب، ويجعل المرأة أكثر حساسية تجاه جسدها، بل يفصلها عنه تمامًا، ويُفقدها الثقة في نفسها أو قدراتها، ويعزلها تمامًا عن العالم بالخارج.
The archaic religious notion that claims that a woman's body is the root of all evil and seduction, and that it should be covered up is totally unacceptable. Enlightened cultured individuals should utilize mainstream media and new media tools to erase such urban legends from the minds of those who are currently hypnotized by the words of the doom and gloom preachers.


سابعًا، لا حرية لأعداء الحرية، هذه مقولة كلاسيكية تنطبق تمامًا على قضية النقاب، أي أن الحرية مكفولة للجميع، إلا الذين قد يستخدمون هذه الحرية للانقلاب عليها في أقرب فرصة، كالإسلاميين، كونهم المثال الأشهر عالميًا. بالإضافة إلى أن تطبيق مبادئ الحريات الفرديّة، والمشار لها في الفقرة الثانية من هذا المقال، علي أرض الواقع مسألة مختلفة تمامًا، وتتضمن حسابات لا علاقة لها بالحرية من قريب أو بعيد. وما أقصده إنه لحظة ما ترتبط قضية حقوق الإنسان بالنسبية الأخلاقيّة والثقافيّة داخل مجتمع ما، تعاني فيه فئة من ازدواجيّة ما، تتحول حقوق الإنسان لباب خلفيّ يسمح بمرور أفكار وممارسات مناهضة تمامًا للمبدأ الذي سمح بإحتوائها بداية.”
No freedom for the enemy of freedom – this is a classic saying that applies to the case of the niqab. We are all entitled to freedom of choice except those who use it to control the free choices of others; Islamists are the most famous example. They turn individual freedom into a double edged weapon and use it to fight the basic principles of human rights.


ثامنًا، نحن نرفض النقاب لأنه يشوّه الكيان الإنساني.
We totally reject the niqab because it disfigures humanity and the dignity of the human being.

Though supporting the ban, ElTahawy shouts foul play:

But what really disturbs me about the European context is that the ban is driven almost solely by xenophobic right wingers who I know very well don't give a toss about women's rights. What they're doing is they're hijacking an issue that they know is very emotive and very easy to sell to Europeans who are scared about immigration, Europeans who are scared about the economy, Europeans who don't understand people who look and sound different than them. They've taken advantage of this and done it very well. I'm very disappointed with the left wing and liberals in Europe for not speaking up and saying, the burqa ban has everything to do with women's rights. We are fighting against an ideology that does not believe in women's rights, and we will not allow the right wing to hijack this issue for their own purposes.


  • moulana saleem ebrahim

    Greetings , Hijaab and niqaab is a choice and if an Islaamic women chooses then thats her choice .Some governments will passed laws ,reasons they know best , without realizing that they tamper with democracy and freedom of individual choice . It is important to know the History of France and the role of her women during the time of the French Revolution and after . The Church had monopoly over many issues during and before this period did not allow poor women and women in general freedoms , are the French,democratic government, today exercise such predijice ? We must speak from an informed position and we all know the French attitude in North Africa during the colonialist periods , is this a revival of that attitude ? Thank you

  • Sandra

    The Church is our Church and we are at home in Europe. Do you realise that?

    I do not live in France, but I am tired of the behavior of Arabic tourists. Last week-end I went shopping at the mall and there were two Arab men in djellabas looking women up and down. I was dressed very decently. I did not like that and looked at them sternly to make them look away. You know what they told me? “European women deserve that we look at them – if you don’t like that just stay home like decent women do”.

    I am tired to be told what to wear in my own country. Such people should stay at home not travel to other countries inflict their tastes on foreign women in their own homes.

  • dca

    i live (very happily) in a very multi-ethnic area of London. The worst behaviour (at least in public) toward women comes from Arab men in my area. The other day two Iraqi guys were sitting outside a cafe, a woman walks past and one of them looks her up and down and says, “Hello my beauty”. Go to any Islamic singles website, and its full of pictures of women, women, women. If this is not an unhealthy attitude, I don’t know what is.

    I remonstrated with the guy involved, and he just told me to piss off. Banning the Burqa is not really the issue, though I suspect there are women that are simply not given the choice as to whether to wear it or not. A bit of old-fashioned 1970s European feminism is what we want.

  • If a liberal went against freedom of choice, calling for “freedom of women “Against their will””, then really you are not a liberal. “Against Their Will” is a genuine neo-conservative expression, used excellently by the US administration “liberation war”. So please don’t stain liberals by your claims.

    I wonder who Zidan is talking about when he kept repeating “we we we”? Atheists/Islamophobics (not really different anymore recently in Egypt) or are you talking about Liberals? Every Man should talk themselves.

    If you against a Man’s will for something, you will surely have two possible “un”liberal paths. Either you face a situation where your basic liberty is at stack, or you find yourself supporting having the rest of the basic liberties of others at stack, leading to, fundamentally, a more conservative/fascist, society/government. “Playing it is my way or the high way principle”

    Freedom of choice must be the very basic right everyone should support, liberals or no liberals. If it is lost, then there is no meaning for advocating any other right.

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