All eyes are on France this week, as their ban of Islamic veils went into effect last Monday. Extremists on opposite sides of this debate have engaged in a virtual tug-of-war, and Muslim women are the rope. Caught in the middle, they are told what to do, how to act and what to wear. Extremists from both sides claim to know what is best for them, while neither side really listens to what those women want.
On one side you have Muslim men and governments who insist to cover women from head to toe at all cost, creating an image of oppression in people’s minds. On the other side you have European governments and Western groups who insist that Muslim women wear no covering and go to great lengths to remove their headscarves, whether the women like it or not. They forget that Christianity also prescribes the observance of headscarves, which is why First Lady Michelle Obama covered her head when meeting the Pope.
Neither side has the right to force these women on what they can or cannot wear. Yet, both sides have inflicted atrocities against the only victims in this debate — Muslim women.
Religious extremists have victimized Muslim women. Some women in the Middle East have no choice but to cover themselves head-to-toe. There are many sad stories about husbands, fathers or so-called leaders abusing and even murdering women because they were not covered enough. As a student of Islam and practicing Muslim, I know my faith says that such actions are completely wrong. This is oppression. This is un-Islamic. It is absurd that Middle East governments punish such actions. Why don’t they punish men who do not obey God’s commandment to not stare at women? See how ridiculous such “laws” are?
Secular extremists have also victimized Muslim women. Germany forbids Muslim schoolteachers from wearing headscarves because they are not in line with “Western” values. Roman Catholic nuns, however, can wear their head coverings in school. In 2004, France forbade Muslim girls admission into public schools for covering their head (not face, mind you, only the head). Similarly, for decades, Turkey has denied women admission into universities if their heads are covered. President Obama correctly stated that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality,” and for Germany, France and Turkey, their acts are a stain on their so-called democracies. Sadly, even the virgin mother Mary — always portrayed with her head covered — would be denied education in these countries.
So what should Muslim women do? Should they keep Muslim governments happy? Or should they keep western groups and governments happy? The right answer is: neither! Islam tells women that they should only be concerned with keeping God happy, and they do that by voluntarily obeying His commandments.
In Chapter 24 of the Quran, God tells both men and women to restrain their eyes from ogling at members of the opposite sex and to guard their private parts. Specific to women in this chapter is verse 32, which instructs women to “disclose not their beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms.”
The variations, however, of the dress are purely cultural. There is the burqa (or niqab), which is a full length dress or outer clothing that covers the head, face and body. The hijab, on the other hand, covers the head and neck, with a separate piece — like a shawl or long coat — covers the body. The face is not covered with the hijab. The Quranic injunction found in chapter 24 is more closely aligned with the hijab. Which style a Muslim woman chooses to wear depends on tradition and cultural variation.
Ultimately, it is each Muslim woman’s individual responsibility to follow God’s commandments. So I say to my Muslim brothers that you cannot force women to practice Islam of your understanding.
Western secularists also must learn that there is nothing wrong with a woman’s choice to cover herself. It does not represent oppression, nor is it a means to impose one’s religion on others. Extremists, both religious and secular, need to be educated on the true nature and intention of Islam’s guidance of dress — moderation and protection. Nobody can force Muslim women to observe or abandon their religion. If their actions are wrong, they are answerable to God, and God alone.