Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Where Can A Muslim Woman Show Her Face?

A veiled woman is a familiar sight in many countries, especially Islamic ones. In many places like Afghanistan under the Taliban, a woman wanting to remain alive had to stay totally veiled.

But how is the situation elsewhere? 
Has it always been this tough for women?

History of Women Wearing Veils
Women wearing veils has a long history, going back to 13th century B.C. Assyria. The ancient Greek women sometimes used veils. Statues of Persian elite women from Persepolis show examples of some women wearing veils and some without.

Photo source:

The Western world is also full of examples of women wearing veils.

The veil for women was rather common in the Byzantine Empire. Judith Herrin, in her book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, claims that Arab tribes did not use the veil before the spread of Islam. Anglo-Saxon and even Anglo-Norman women wore a veil like headdress called the Wimple.

Logic for Using the Veil in Islam

Awrah or Aurat (Arabic: عورة) is a term used in Islam, for parts of the body, which men and women must keep covered. Exposing the Awrah is considered a sin. Different schools of Islamic thought have different ideas about which particular body parts are exposable in which context.

In Middle Eastern Muslim societies (usually patriarchal) Namus is a concept of virtue. It relates to honour, respect and modesty. The Namus of a man, usually the breadwinner of the family, is violated if any woman in the household does not dress according the codes of chastity. People are often killed for violating Namus as has happened in Bangladesh, UK, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, and Uganda.

Is there another even older logic for women using the veil?

Something, which is veiled, becomes more mysterious and alluring. Was the idea of a woman veiling herself, her way of keeping men enthralled? If you see everything easily, you soon lose interest; the logic goes.

The famous Dance of the Seven Veils, where veil after veil is tantalisingly removed as the dance progresses, definitely reveals such logic. This concept is thousands of years older than Islam, probably having originated with the myth of the goddess Ishtar and the god Tammuz in Babylonian and Assyrian mythology.

Different Kinds of Veils Used by Muslim Women

The chadri or Burqa is the total cover version of the veil. The Taliban in Afghanistan insisted that all women use it, but nowadays you see it only in the tribal areas. In Pakistan it is called the "Shuttlecock Burqa".

The Khimar is slightly more revealing as the eyes can be seen even by men on the street.

The Niqab shows the eyebrows and forehead and sometimes even the nose.

The Hijab is basically a headscarf as worn by women (e.g. Nuns) in many Western countries.

An even more permissive version is the loose headscarf as used by this Turkish Muslim woman.

Countries Banning the Hijab

12 European countries have (or are planning) various forms of bans for using veils:

  • Albania (draft resolution)
  • France (since 2004)
  • Belgium (since 2011) 
  • Germany (banned in 8 states) 
  • Spain (no national ban, but the city of Barcelona has banned full face veils in Barcelona city) 
  • Britain has no national, regional or city bans but schools are allowed their own dress codes since 2007) 
  • The Netherlands has yet to pass legislation but is planning bans, Italy has a draft law wearing face covering veils (the town of Novara in the north-west is an example of a local ban) 
  • Denmark has banned judges from wearing headscarves, crucifixes or other religious symbols 
  • Russia tried to impose ban on women wearing headscarves in passport photos
  • Kosovo has banned headscarves in schools in 2009 
  • Austria as well as Switzerland are considering a ban in public places 
Of all the EU and European states, only Norway and Sweden have officially announced an anti-ban stand. The European ban situation update in 2011 can be found here.

Some countries outside Europe also have bans:

  • Tunisia (since 1981) 
  • Turkey (since 1997) ban the Hijab or head covering of women in public schools, universities and government buildings. 
  • In Islamic Bangladesh, the state airline Bangladesh Biman forbids the use of the Hijab
The learned Egyptian, Mohammad Tantawi, the head of the oldest university in the world, Al-Azhar University in Cairo spotted only one 11 year old schoolgirl and ordered her to take off her Niqab and promptly issued a Fatwa in October 2009 that veiling the face is not required in Islam.

Several Belgian municipalities ban public wearing of the Niqab and Burqa. The Dutch cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht plan to cut social security benefits to unemployed women wearing a Burqa, on the grounds that it makes them unemployable in a predominantly non-Muslim country.

After the Shabina Begum case in the UK, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ruled that freedom to manifest religious beliefs is not absolute and can be restricted by the Government.

Finland has not officially discussed the issue yet, though many Muslims allege that wearing a veil or scarf seriously impairs their job prospects. A Finnish (non-Muslim) journalist put this allegations of discrimination to test wearing a full body and face covering veil walking around the city. Read the article here.

Men Wear Veils Where Women Do Not Use Veils

Among the Berbers in North Africa and the Tuareq in West Africa, the women do not wear veils but the men do. The Tuareq men wear veils to protect from evil spirits (or desert sand in reality) and start to wear them at the age of 25.

Maybe the evil spirits are only attracted to men there or the women have discovered women only secret methods of warding evil spirits off.

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