Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher who formulated some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order; the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law. He famously said, “A free man is he that ... is not hindered to do what he has a will to.”
Obviously, the French Republic is a far cry from Hobbes’s notion of freedom. Last week, neo-Taliban Sarkozy’s government gave birth to two new crimes: hiding one’s face in public and encouraging another to hide her face. Sarkozy has made it clear that Muslim women who hide their faces are not welcome in France. The French government believes that “to hide the face breaches minimal needs of social life.” So hiding one’s face in public is now a misdemeanor, with a €150 fine and/or civic training to teach the criminal the need to show her face. The prosecutor must prove that (a) the face was hidden and (b) the person was in a public space. He need not show intent to violate the law. If one encourages another to hide her face, one risks a year in prison and a €30,000 fine, two years and a €60,000 fine if the person encouraged is under 18.
Although the new law claims to be drafted as gender neutral, the marks of chauvinism, bigotry and xenophobia are all too visible. It clearly targets the few Muslim women who wear the niqab. According to the prime minister’s circular, women who hide their faces wear a badge of inferiority that is “incompatible with the principles of liberty, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French Republic.” How true are such farcical claims? Why should forcing one to bare her faces make her feel liberated, equal and dignified?
The French parliamentary inquiry which recommended the ban lasted six months and heard 211 witnesses. Yet just one of those was a niqab-wearing woman – and even she was seen only after she repeatedly insisted. The commission’s report runs to 658 pages. A total of just one paragraph is devoted to this woman’s testimony! What a biased report! What a farce and mockery with people’s intelligence, let alone abuse of high-sounding and well-meaning words like equality and liberty! By refusing to interview and listen to the voices of women who wear niqab, the French government showed how narrow-minded and Taliban-like it is.
Since April 11 when the new law went into effect, the French Muslim women who dared to challenge it with their niqab said that they were not forced by anyone to put it, and that it was not a badge of inferiority but rather of freedom and self-assertion that they were exercising. They are not the stereotypically repressed or un-westernized, but young and articulate women. Many of them are western converts to Islam who had seen how the popular culture created a false notion about human dignity that was defined by one’s outward looks or visible signs of beauty, and not intelligence and other moral values. They refused to be treated like grocery meats for public consumption!
The new law violates a fundamental principle that defines a free society. In a free society the individual should not be crushed by the majoritarian opinion. A free society allows full expression of individuality, even signs and symbols that may offend some. But as we all know there is nothing called absolute freedom, and thereby, no absolutely free society. There are limits that the society (and, by default, the state) often imposes if unbridled freedom can cause harm. Thus, what is allowed behind the curtain or within the walls of a home may be considered indecent or undesirable for public consumption. It is not difficult to understand why the police arrest anyone exposing oneself nude in the public, let alone those who harm others.
It is simply absurd to believe that those Muslim women who wear niqab are a threat to public and national security, and neither the French police nor the president and French legislators have offered a shred of evidence suggesting any such connection. So, if they pose no danger to public security, safety or health, why should such expressions of personal choice and freedom are forbidden, especially in a country that claims to be free, liberal and secular?
The French government claims that the new law had everything to do with women’s equality, liberty and human dignity. These secular fanatics, closet bigots and xenophobes of the French Republic may like to read John Stuart Mill’s short essay “On Liberty,” published in 1859. There he defined liberty: Each person is the best judge of his or her own happiness; it is not the business of the state to tell people how to be happy; people need not respect the views of others, but must tolerate conduct to the extent that the conduct does not harm others. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant,” Mill wrote.
The new French law does not mesh well with the principles laid out by either Mill or Hobbes. If they were alive, they would have declared the new law as oppression of a minority.
As I have noted elsewhere, niqab is practiced by a very small fraction within the Muslim community. Outside places like Saudi Arabia (and in Wahabi/Salafi-influenced and highly conservative culture) it is rarely visible today in the Islamic world.
The Islamic law concerning modesty in women’s dress is found in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The Qur’an says, “And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their adornment except what is apparent of it, and to extend their khumur to cover their juyub.” (Surah an-Nur, verse 31) Much has been written about the meaning of these two terms – khimar and jayb (the singular forms). The overwhelming view of the scholars of Islam is that they mean ‘covering’ (i.e., something that covers) and ‘breast.’ As to the phrase ‘what is apparent of it,’ a much-quoted Prophetic hadith suggests that it means ‘the face and the hands.’ (See, e.g., the tafsirs of Imams Tabari, Zamakhshari, Fakhr ad-Din Razi and Qurtubi.)
Imam Zamakhshari offered a very rational interpretation about the exemption. He wrote, “The strongest and most accurate view is that which says that the exemption refers to the face and the hands. Also included are kohl, rings, bracelets, and makeup. We say that this is the strongest and most accurate opinion because all scholars are unanimous that everyone who needs to pray must cover the awra in his or her salat (prayer). A woman may reveal the face and the hands in her salat, while she must cover the rest of her body. What is not awra is not haram to be revealed.” Similarly, Imam Qurtubi wrote: “Since the normal case is that a woman’s face and hands are revealed by the force of habit and for worship, as this is required in salat and hajj, then it is appropriate to say that the exemption applies to these (parts).”
As to the reason behind citation of the above mentioned Qur’anic verse, Imam Qurtubi says, “Women in those days used to cover their heads with the khimar, throwing its ends upon their backs. This left the neck and the upper part of the chest bare, along with the ears, in the manner of the Christians. Then Allah commanded them to cover those parts with the khimar.”
A reading of the tafsirs of the Qur’an from the early scholars of Islam makes it quite clear that covering the face (e.g. niqab) was not something that was probably meant in the Qur’an. And Allah knows the best!
Over the centuries, as the Muslim society started deviating away from the norms and practices of the Islamic society that Muhammad (S) – the Prophet of Islam and his righteous companions established in Madinah and the Arabian peninsula it is not difficult to understand how new interpretations emerged. What was once deemed desirable became compulsory, and so on and so forth.
If a Muslim woman today wears niqab and burqa out of her sense of piety and/or interpretation of the divine text it is still her right to do so. As much as imposition of such a practice with a law is an affront to liberty so is the banning of the practice. No state authority should punish them for wanting to hide their faces in public when their conduct presents no danger to the public. The secular fanatics in France aught to measure their conducts against the very precepts of a free society that they claim to uphold. They are no better than the Taliban in the Af-Pak area. Because of their despicable hypocrisy, they are actually worse! Shame on France and its French-fried-Talibans for enacting laws that epitomize bigotry and chauvinism!