Debating types of ‘Islamic dress’ (Hijab, Niqab, Burqa): Symbols of Freedom or Oppression?

NiqabModern Islamic dress code has become a topic of much controversy and heated debate around the world. A number of countries have banned the wearing of these garments: hijab, which covers the woman’s body, leaving her face and hands visible; niqab, which covers everything except the eyes; and burqa, covering all parts of the face and body.

Many arguments have been made against the wearing of these types of dress, especially the niqab and burqa, claiming they are anti-social, backward, oppressive and not part of Islam. Opposite arguments depict the ‘Islamic dress’ as a symbol of mandatory religious practice prescribed by the Quran (“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, as well as all believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized as decent women and not molested. “Quran 33:59), or of compulsory/optional acts of virtue, or even of freedom.

According to some scholars, the hijab, burqa and niqab have an Islamic basis and they have been commonly practiced and recognized throughout Islamic history. They claim that Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa do so out of their own free will, believing it is an act of worship and a form of liberation from the objectification of women in modern society. For some Western convert women, ‘my body is my business, and I shouldn’t have to defend what I wear to anyone’ or ‘the fact that I choose to wear this dress does not make me any less human’, or ‘Modern societies were founded on the basis of freedom and liberty; this entitles their members to freely practice their own religion and dress code as they wish; thus banning Islamic dresses goes against these very core values and is a form of hypocrisy and double standards’ – referring here to the ban of face veil in many European countries which has been interpreted as an act of discrimination and oppression against Muslim women, especially at a time when extreme right wing parties are gaining popularity.

The practice of veiling the face can be traced back to pre-Islamic civilizations. “The badekin ritual is a Jewish wedding custom apparently rooted in the Old Testament of the Bible (Genesis 29: 19-27), and involves the groom veiling and then unveiling his bride’s face before and after the marriage ceremony respectively. A more idyllic interpretation of the badekin ritual is that it is a gesture to show the groom’s protection over his bride, and it demonstrates his acceptance of her beyond a superficial desire for external beauty. According to the Torah, the masveh (Hebrew term for veil) covered Moses’ face to filter divine glare. Similarly, when the groom lifts the veil from his bride’s face, he is the first to witness the glow of purity that emanates from her face. More profoundly, from a Judaic perspective, the masveh serves to separate man from God for him to better realize the transcendent reality of the unseen God. There are also other non-Islamic examples of women veiling. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, in his book entitled “Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece”, asserts that extant textual and artistic references point to the habitual veiling of women of high status in public in ancient Greece.

Also, 15th century Crusaders viewed an Arab woman’s veil as a symbol of feminine purity, and this admiration later translated into the Christian virginal white bridal veil. Dubbed the father of Latin Christianity and known for coining the term “Trinity”, the early Christian apologist Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus) clearly described veiled pagan women of a pre-Islamic Arabia. In his book entitled “The Veiling of Virgins” (200 AD), Tertullian wrote that pagan Arab women “not only cover their head, but their whole face, preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face.” It is worth mentioning that an unveiled woman in Islam is not described as “prostituting her face”. What is undoubtedly clear is that the face veil has historically been viewed in a positive light as a respectful symbol of feminine purity and modesty, and not always as a symbol of oppression or subjugation as currently perceived. It has been suggested that such evidences of face veiling in a pre-Islamic context may be ignored in order to dissociate a perceived superiority of these civilizations from the current negative status of the Muslim niqab, the “alien other” that defies the social norms of today’s fashion trends, or what is deemed socially acceptable. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, liberals and reformers began to castigate women’s religious clothing, aligning assimilation of liberal western culture with progress”.

For many scholars, modern Islamic dress code including hijab, niqab and burqa, is the product of ancient pagan cultures, and has no basis in Islam – which provided a means to avoid implications of discrimination against a religious minority, especially for politicians. The late Sheikh Tantawi of Al-Azhar Mosque and University is one of the most quoted Islamic scholars to have openly supported a ban against the niqab. Another prominent member of the council of clerics at al-Azhar, Abdel Muti al-Bayyumi, is quoted as saying, “I want to send a message to Muslims in France and Europe. The niqab has no basis in Islam.” He further added, “I personally support the ban and many of my brothers in the Islamic Research Academy support it.” As a result of underlying differences in interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah concerning modesty and dress code, an internal debate surrounding the face veil has persisted among Muslims throughout Islamic history. Although the majority opinion in Islamic scholarship is that veiling the face is not obligatory, there is still a minority of Muslims supported by scholars who support the view that it is obligatory.

Recent heated debates in some Middle Eastern circles of civil society activists (Egypt, Tunis, Morocco, Lebanon) include the following: forcing a woman to veil translates into subjugation of women (the issue of niqab and burqa is not a religious issue, it is a question of freedom, equality and of women’s dignity) – reference also to forced sequestration and marginalization; versus a woman who is denied her right to choose also falls victim to subjugation and oppression. Furthermore, ‘veiling’ is an Islamic obligation one should follow; versus while religious fatwa (religious verdict) did not necessitate the niqab, religious taqwa (the desire to excel in faith) demanded women to cover their faces; versus Islam is not about oppression and unveiled Muslim women are not prostitutes.

And the debate continues…

About Dr. Pamela Chrabieh

Lebanese-Canadian Doctor of Sciences of Religions (University of Montreal, QC, Canada). Founder of the 'Red Lips High Heels' movement. Founder and Director of SPNC Learning & Communication, Artist-Painter and Writer. Dr. Pamela Chrabieh (Badine) has an extensive 20+ year multidisciplinary and international experience and expertise in university teaching, academic research, visual arts, art direction, communication, content creation, project management, training and conference/workshop organization.

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14 Responses to Debating types of ‘Islamic dress’ (Hijab, Niqab, Burqa): Symbols of Freedom or Oppression?

  1. Lucien Khalil January 27, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    Thank you for this interesting article. It seems the debate is indeed heated.

  2. Dr Frank Darwiche January 27, 2013 at 10:43 am #

    I think so many people “font la politique de l’autruche” when it comes to this subject; so many hide behind platitudes and obvious arguments, for the simple reason that the issue is complex, because it involves power at two levels or two very different yet intertwined forms of power: a political one (in the broadest sense, including all institutions within society) and a biological one if you like (again I don’t like the word, but let it be understood in its closeness both to gender and to life). Well, what’s happening? What’s been happening? Well, one gets weary of people tracing back the origin of face-covering, body-covering and so on and so forth, and trying to “save” islam or something of that nature for example by giving different versions of things, or even worse of claiming a different symbolism, saying that the veil is a question of “feminine purity” and not of “oppression”, oh dear, “purity”, it’s even worse and very very suspicious… well back to the real issue: we must consider what powers are controlling all of this. We must know why religious and political institutions, be they separate or connected as in theocratic societies, foster or refuse the veil, the burka or nikab, etc… all manifestations of the same control under different modalities. Secondly, we must know what power is at play with women wearing such hijab, nikab etc… by their own free will, freely – and I must say I ‘m very sorry to be a Spinoza here, but saying “freely” fails not to make one laugh, that laugh that resounds all the way to Nietzsche’s Zarthoustra…, anyway, why do they decide to consider that body as “pure” – let alone restrictring “purity”, that problematic notion, to the feminine – or as holding power – which, we must admit, is the power of giving birth, of reproducing society and thus each society’s model – and beauty? Why hide it as a way of saying it’s mine, my power, and I preserve it. Well then, here is a philosopher then, with all he could do to help others, teach them, improve society,etc. thanks to what he or she can offer: should they then say: “no, that’s mine, let’s keep this power”- and power unused is dead or coveted which is worse. Anyway, those who choose to wear whatever they wear are doing it, let un never lure ourselves and let then never lure themselves either, as an expression of a whole discourse of networks of power that go through them up and down, in and out, and lead them to refuse the expression – a word so linked to discourse – of their feminity, of the power of the feminine to affect, replacing with a rejection that will at best keep them preserved, and at worse make them into a denial of their place in society in a way that their bodies get involved in affirming their power and it development, its experience, its changes….

  3. Dr Frank Darwiche January 27, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    sorry for all the typing errors after a night of insomnia :-)

  4. Hermes January 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Very interesting article. There’s not much that can be said regarding such things that are linked to religion, especially that in the Middle East religion is the reference for what is decent or not, when in my opinion this is relative and personal to each and every individual. And in the case of the hijab and its variations it should fall under the decision of women, but women should be free to make the choice they want without being pressured by husbands/fathers/society in general.

    The debate, as you perfectly stated, continues…

  5. Dr. Pamela Chrabieh January 27, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

    Thanks to all :)

  6. anonymous January 28, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    Nice post !! Interesting!! So i understand that there are different meanings for the Islamic dresses… not only ‘one’!

  7. Carlos Tabbara January 28, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    J’ai suivi le débat ‘chaud’ sur la page Facebook. Un plaisir que de constater l’ouverture de votre blog et page à plusieurs visions, expériences et pratiques.

  8. Rania Siagha January 29, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    j lu larticle ardemment surtout ke vs avez aborde le sujet dument publie de ts ses cotes felicitations DR et bon courage pr plus de tels sujets interessants!!

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  10. Haya Islamic Clothing July 4, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    I feel that every religion has its own culture, tradition and boundaries. One should always respect other religion. The fact is that everyone has one life and it should be lived happily, one who is born will die one day and if we spread happiness and kindness this world will be a beautiful place to live. Like air, sunlight, birds rains, water has no boundaries similarly this world will also have no boundary if we live to make this world better for mankind. Everyone will be happy.

  11. Norbert December 4, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    No doubt that the different kinds of veiling have been engrossed by religous meanings and have been overloaded with all kind of religous-social stuff.

    But after all: In a hot, arid and dusty climate, head- and face veils as well as wide, flowing robes are just the best way to protect a human body from burning UV rays, overheating and dust and insects. … As long as you do not have an airconditioned, UV protected room to stay in.

    Seen this way: The traditional protection gear (or everyday’s outfit) in the middle eastern deserts has simply been adopted and loaded with additional interpretations by the major religion in that area.
    And nowadays it also has become a religious and political statement – especially if worn in areas where this kind of clothing is nothing but misplaced.

    You also won’t wear a sealskin anorak (traditional Innuit clothing) in the middle east. Will you?

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