The question of the Muslim headscarf is not pivotal for the development of the Islamic community. This is why it should not be treated as a priority issue, writes the Bahrain-based publicist Muhammad Djabir al-Ansari.
The veil debate is raging among Arabs and Muslims at a time when some Arab countries are occupied, the legal situation in these countries is precarious, their continued existence is under threat, and they should be concerned about their culture and independence.
Can this debate bring these countries closer to the true heart of Islam? Can it be understood as a message of liberation, of restoration? Can it bring them out of the strategically and civilisationally weak situation in which they find themselves and to which they must admit to the world powers that are calling the shots at the moment?
The veil as a symbol of protest
In order to change the Muslims’ situation, we must be quite clear about one thing: in view of the dilemma we face, a matter of outward appearances - i.e. whether the veil should be approved or rejected - is not a priority issue when it comes to the implementation of Islamic values. The veil was and is a political symbol. It has always served the opposition as a means of protest; whether it be against the French colonial powers in Algeria or the Shah in Iran.
Apart from its role as a symbol of protest, the veil will not play a role in the reform process of any Islamic society. According to the system of Islamic justice, the veil is about the principle of chastity, not about dress codes; this is why there will be no clear decision either for or against it.
What is astonishing - if not reprehensible - is that while we keep emphasising the indisputable fact that Islam has raised the standing of women and has ensured that their rights are protected, modern Muslim women suffer in two respects. Firstly, women who file for divorce in Islamic courts face enormous difficulties, and secondly, they often fall victim to prejudiced judges when it comes to decisions regarding maintenance and custody […].
How can we explain this glaring contradiction in Muslim life? And why do we fly into a rage about women’s headscarves and not about the real misery they suffer as a result of their human, legal, and spiritual isolation? […]
Convincing people is decisive
It is not a question of being for or against the veil. Nevertheless, more than anyone else, intellectuals in Arab societies have ceaselessly debated this issue since the start of the "nahda", the reawakening of Arab-Islamic self-confidence in the nineteenth century. This is nothing more than a virtuous to-do; the only benefit of this so-called virtuousness is that the protection offered by the veil allows women in Islamic societies to go places it would not be seemly for a respectable woman to visit.
So was the veil a hindrance to these women or did it open a door for them? If, however, women did away with their headscarves and continued to behave in a seemly manner, they could actually appear in public as personalities in their own right and be recognised as such. At the end of the day, it is a person’s personal and religious convictions that count – regardless of whether that person is a man or a woman. Everything else is just window-dressing. […]
If the message of Islam was solely based on outward appearances and if it did not penetrate the very depths of our souls, how would it ever have succeeded in spreading beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula? […] The Koran and the prophet Muhammad repeatedly call on us to overcome superficialities and get to the heart of the matter, both in terms of religious obligations and in questions of morality and general behaviour. […]
Backwardness poses a threat to continued existence
In these difficult times, we Muslims must weigh up oftentimes opposing claims at two different levels of discussion. On the one hand we have religious sanctions, and on the other, progress or backwardness. How often in the past have we said – and how often do we still say – that our cultural backwardness clearly contradicts Islamic perceptions of a suitable way of life because it clearly threatens our continued existence.
As soon as Muslims have liberated themselves from this existential threat, they will be able to regulate the various aspects of their lives in accordance with their Islamic convictions. However, if they stop existing as Muslims, what is the point of clinging to outward appearances?
The dilemma faced by Arab universities
In some societies in the Islamic world, people argue about whether male and female students should be taught separately at university. In doing so, they are completely losing sight of the scientific and educational quality of tuition, for which the universities were once founded.
No-one is concerned about the scientific level of tuition at the universities in question; instead they call for "co-education!" or "segregation of the sexes!" according to their respective stance on the matter.
And if it ever comes to pass that coeducation or the segregation of the sexes is enforced at a university that ekes out a miserable existence for itself as a machine that churns out certificates, what then? Segregation of the sexes or not, what use to Islam is a scientifically decadent university that offers a low level of scientific training?! […]
Democracies are not value-neutral
There can be no doubt that a ban on veils for Muslim women in a liberal democratic state is in sharp contrast to the principle of an individual’s personal freedom. Humans must be allowed to live their lives in accordance with their personal convictions. It would, however, be wrong to consider liberal democratic systems to be value-neutral per se. Like all politically and socially relevant systems in this world, the interests and convictions of the forces they embody are reflected in their make-up.
This applies in particular to the type of secular doctrine for which they stand. If one considers freedom to be one of the fundamental principles of a democracy, it is important to acknowledge that democracy attaches at least the same importance to state sovereignty. We too insist on this sovereignty so why can we not recognise it in others?
Democracies can only tolerate those who accept the rules of a secular democratic system. The reason for this is that democracies have learned from past disputes with feudal lords, clerics, fascists, and communists, that no-one must be allowed to disregard these rules.
Freedom is relative
Recently, most countries with a liberal democracy have started viewing Islam as something dissimilar in nature to themselves and have reacted to it with an instinctive fear. While in the past, Islamic preachers who rashly and naively proclaimed the Islamic caliphate were tolerated in London or Paris, today no naturalised female students wearing Islamic headscarves are allowed into state institutions.
At the same time, we should not be astonished by this restriction in personal freedom; after all, in the philosophy of liberalism, everything is "relative"; freedom included. We must acknowledge that this value- and interest-related relativity has long been – and still is – the basis on which all states in this world associate with each other, regardless of the ideology to which they subscribe.
Those of us who want to cooperate with liberal democracies must accept their "rules of relativity" while at the same time protecting our own absolute principles.
Muhammad Djabir al-Ansari
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan
This article was originally published in the Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat on 7 January 2004. It is published by kind permission of the author. Muhammad Djabir al-Ansari is a publicist from Bahrain and cultural advisor to the King of Bahrain.