Al-Azhar’s Intolerance: Some Thoughts on The Niqab Ban
Early this morning I received a link in my email to an article whose title implies that an Egyptian cleric is “banning niqaab”. The article goes on to state that the cleric will issue an edict regarding niqaab. A few issues presented themselves in this article. Is niqaab being banned in Egypt? What is meant by “edict”? Whether or not the niqaab has been banned in Egypt, a struggle between conservatives and moderates is manifesting itself through the trampling of Muslim women’s rights.
After seeking out answers, it is my understanding from several articles, here, here, here and here, that Egyptian cleric Sheikh Tantawi has issued a fatwa stating that the niqaab is un-Islamic. I admit my understanding of Egyptian law is limited (so please feel free to address this in the comments section), but a fatwa is generally only supposed to be an opinion. There can be several different and conflicting fatwas regarding an issue within the different schools of thought, within institutions (ie. Al-Azhar), within communities and countries. Most often, a fatwa can be respected and followed by community members or it can be discarded. Fatwas form the basis for discourse on any given topic.
While other predominantly Muslim countries have also banned the wearing of niqaab, burqa or any form of head covering, this has always been done in the name of secular democracy. Sheikh Tantawi’s fatwa, on the other hand, is historically, religiously and politically important because as I write this it is reported that he is taking steps to implement a ban that would prevent women from wearing the veils in Al-Azhar institutions. In this particular case, a woman’s Islamic right to gain knowledge is being discarded at an Islamic university, unless she complies to policies that circumvent traditional Islamic jurisprudence that Al-Azhar has once prided itself on. In this manner, this is not just a step backward for Muslim women’s rights, it seriously questions the credibility of the institute which already faces criticism for getting into bed with state politicians.
It is discouraging enough to watch countries impose laws that promote “secular democracy” while flippantly grinding out religious freedom with a steel boot as though it were only a cigarette, but to now witness Islamic religious intolerance within an acclaimed Islamic university is frightening. For years now, all discourse about what is and what is not considered hijab has been overcast by freedom of religion infringements. We’ve watched France, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Turkey, Tunisia etc. all take on the issue of hijab through religious symbol laws. While it can be argued that these laws apply to all citizens, these laws have discriminatorilly placed the heaviest burden on Muslim women. A woman should be allowed to choose her form of dress in a public setting; she should not be chided for the moral value judgements that help her make that decision.
The fact is, it’s our hair, it’s our face and we should have the right to make our own decision on whether we would like to show it to people or not. We should neither be forced to cover them, forced to uncover them, or forced to make a decision between an education or our perceived duty to our religion.
This forced covering and uncovering doesn’t make us Muslim or not-Muslim – we are who we are. However, this whole pursuit to force us to submit to governmental and institutional standards of conformity are dehumanizing by forcing submission to an abusive authority.
Sadly, until these forced uncoverings stop taking place, we will be slaves to the debate of religious freedom and tolerance. For Muslim women, contemporary thought regarding the hijab, niqaab, and burqa expressed through texts with formal logical expression of these opinions will be on the back-burner. As long as this contemporary thought is left there, we’ll remain subjects of outdated rulings, peer-pressure, and forced coverings in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps the sheiks could offer us the varying opinions (through translations) about head covering being sunnah or fard. Perhaps they could explain the basis for their opinion that covering the face is not Islamic. Perhaps they could educate us rather than contribute in oppressing us. As for the “secular and democracy” loving authorities, perhaps they could learn to stay out of our hair and contribute to freedom and tolerance.