As Muslims, we are asked about the details of our personal lives, and our relationship to what happens on the global stage. Because Islam does not have an official spokesperson, there is a relentless curiosity about our voices. Almost like a horrible reality show, many scramble for the role of spokesperson. Therefore, when a prominent Muslim scholar or figure makes a statement, it is not only interesting for non-Muslims to watch, but also for Muslims themselves. Imam Tantawi, a prominent scholar within Egypt, has a track record for making incredibly polarizing religious rulings. His position is not only religious, but also a political one.
In a recent visit to a girl’s school, Tantawi met with a young woman who had covered her face with a niqab (face veil) in honor of his visit. Tantawi scolded her, and spoke of issuing a fatwa against the niqab, calling it a cultural invention rather than a religious one. The media coverage, including the response by bloggers, has created an interesting conversation. Accompanied by photographs of women swathed in black, the primary focuses of debate has been upon the religious legitimacy of Tantawi’s argument or the issue of choice.
There are two main interpretations of the incident. There is the story of a brave young girl who stood up to a treacherous religious fraud, or that of a pious religious scholar standing up to an ominous and expanding population of blood-thirsty extremists. In the BBC’s coverage of the story, it claims the niqab has become “increasingly popular with Egypt’s Muslim radicals.” Egyptian officials are concerned with the rise in niqab because it is seen as a mark of ignorance. Thus, the debate becomes about extremism, symbolism, and identity. In oversimplifying the phenomenon of niqab, the real issue at hand is marginalized. It is also interesting to look at these two perspectives while considering the hypocritical tendencies of Egypt’s government, and ultimately, a contradictory attitude toward the way in which women dress.
What is most intriguing is an obsession with not only physical appearance, but a distortion of the purpose of covering. If the purpose is to protect women, women should ultimately make the decision of how they feel safest. The idea of sexual harassment is also completely ignored within this debate. According to a study conducted by Egypt’s Centre for Women’s Rights, in 2005, 82% of women interviewed said that they had experienced sexual harassment. Despite being conservatively dressed, women are still harassed, and the increased observances of niqab do not necessarily coincide with a heightened sense of religious extremism, but rather a growing feeling of discomfort for women. Recently, the government passed out pamphlets at mosques to deter sexual harassment, attributing it to revealing clothing worn by women and unemployment. Focusing the solution (not to mention the blame) on women dodges the real issue.
The real question is, what does the niqab symbolize that the hijab does not? If both aim to protect women within the realm of public spaces, what makes the niqab a more “extreme” expression of devotion?
While the idea of niqab may be off-putting, the concept of hijab flourishes within Egypt. In fact, recently there was a design competition held for hijabs. In a report about the contest, one of the competition’s panelists stated that she wanted to show that women could be “beautiful” while being pious. Interesting that one still has to be “beautiful” to show that Islam is a modern religion. A woman must balance not only piety, but also the burden of beauty and the appearance of chastity.
However, there seems to be a fine line between what is acceptably pious and what is considered “too extreme.” Niqab and hijab come from some of the same cultural traditions, so why is Egypt willing to challenge the niqab, but not the hijab? Add to this the fact that a woman who is not veiled at all is thought to have been swept up in a tide of western decadence, and hijab becomes the middle-ground-mascot of Islam.
The problem at hand is not one of extremism, but actually one of Muslim women’s representation. While there may not be a correlation between the number of women wearing niqab and a rise in extremism, there is a correlation in the amount of pressure placed on women in the Islamic world to portray a certain image. Why is it that piety can only be expressed through a specific clothing code? Who decides what piety looks like?
Whether or not there is legitimacy in the niqab or hijab, women should be able to make these choices for themselves. Enough orders and edicts from men, and enough hyper-focusing Muslim women’s issues around a piece of fabric! Why is this the determinant of the religious climate of a nation? Ultimately, all this push-and-shove about the niqab amounts to a mythical theological battle, and takes away from discussing women’s place and their representation within the public sphere in Egypt.