October 14, 2006
Muslims are at risk of ghettoizing ourselves
By Raheel Raza
Britain’s Cabinet Minister Jack Straw took a risk with his political future (his riding is predominantly Muslim) by his suggestion that Muslim women should consider removing the veil from their face.
Instead of a knee jerk reaction, Muslims should accept Mr. Straw’s comments at face value, take our heads out of the sand and pull the veils off our minds. His intention was to invoke a debate, not start fireworks!
This dialogue is long overdue and it comes at a critical time for Muslims in the West. Unfortunately some ignorant and bigoted people have misused this situation to vent their angst at Muslims (e.g. the person who pulled the veil off a woman’s face in England ) and others will use it as a political tool and this has to be addressed.
For better understanding of the issues at stake, let me start the discussion.
Contrary to some peoples view, covering the face is not a religious requirement for Muslim women. The injunction in the Quran is for modesty (for both men and women). Some Muslim women interpret this as covering their head with a scarf or chador,
My understanding of this stems from the fact that Islam is a religion of balance and reason. Our face is our identity and common sense requires for it to be uncovered. Furthermore, Muslim women are not supposed to cover their face when they go for Haj (pilgrimage) or when they perform the obligatory prayer.
Of the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world spread over the globe from Malaysia to Mozambique, approximately half are women who are extremely diverse in their mode of dress. A very small percentage chooses to cover their face.
In parts of the Middle East and the subcontinent, a face covering or niqab, is prevalent as a cultural or tribal norm. Some women have exported this practice to the Western world.
If this is cultural, then there is dire need for discussion about adapting to new cultures. Cultures evolve and change with time and place. When non Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia for example, they’re not allowed to expose skin by wearing shorts or skirts. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) will arrest them. Many Westerners work and reside in Saudi, so they adapt to the new culture to make life easier for themselves.
Similarly when we come to West by choice, we adapt to many changing factors without compromising our religious beliefs. In Canada the Charter gives us religious freedom to practice our faith in any way we choose. However, we need to let go of excess cultural baggage.
Mr. Straw suggested that a covered face makes communication difficult. He’s right. I just saw a video interview of a woman in England on this issue, and her voice was muffled from behind the veil. Furthermore, in Canada there is current discussion in the judicial system about the safety risk of a woman who wants to drive in a burqa because peripheral vision becomes impaired. A covered face is also an identity issue while traveling.
Of course it’s a given that women in the West have the right to wear as little or as much as they want. But let’s talk about the larger issue.
It’s a common perception that people who wear masks have something to hide. Muslim women on the other hand, have a lot to show for the strides they’ve made in the modern world. They were given freedom and rights 1400 years ago. Today Muslim women are traveling into space and winning nobel peace prizes. So why the need to hide?
Perhaps this is symptomatic of a larger issue. For the sake of future generations in the West, we must understand that we are at risk of ghettoizing ourselves and being labeled “the other” if we don’t get with the plan and work towards being the mainstream. If we insist that we can’t change, then we’re entirely to blame when we remain on the fringes of society.
Islam encourages us to progress with time, to reason and adapt to current situations without compromising our faith. By showing our face, the faith is not compromised.
This is my perspective. Let’s begin the debate.