A cultural ‘duty’ but not a religious one.

 In Britain, Essays, Middle East

Human rights have evolved from being about the basics of life, food, education and health to other more nuanced issues, and in some cases one ‘right to…’ competes with another ‘right to…’. How does our society in Britain approach such competitions?

For me, gender equality is not only an absolute right but a hard-won bedrock of our society. Sure, men and women differ somewhat, but there should be no gender discrimination at all in our society: equal opportunities and equal treatment must apply in all cases. I admit that is dogmatic, but I do not believe it is negotiable: the ‘right to equality’ is an upper level right.

So we come to another ‘right to…’ that a vociferous minority have manoeuvred into competition with the ‘right to equality’, and that is a very specific interpretation of the ‘right to religious freedom’ that conflates full coverage of women’s bodies with ‘religious freedom’.

Many liberals and left-liberals support full coverage (in public at least) because they see the woman’s right to choose what she wears as being paramount. This includes some feminists. Others say it is their duty to be fully covered. As I see it there are three points that need to be disentangled.

  1. First, is full coverage a religious duty?
  2. Second, do women have the free choice to wear full coverage or not?
  3. Third, if it is a religious duty, should it become the paramount right over gender equality in our society?

I have read the Qur’an (in Arabic) and there is nothing that explicitly states a woman should be fully covered. I conclude from the sacred text of Islam that full coverage is one of many competing human interpretations of Islam. It is not really known how Muhammed’s wives dressed, especially the important Khadija and Aisha.

I view full coverage as a cultural accretion to Islam; and moveover one that has never been prevalent in most societies where Islam has been practised, either in the majority or minority. I would say its rise has a lot to do with the promotion in recent years of the cultures in which it is prevalent, and the interpretations of Islam in those cultures. However, I disagree that full coverage is an intrinsic part of religious duty for Muslims.

If men had to wear full coverage, or even ‘dress modestly’, this point would not arise because there would be gender equality. Men do not have to wear full coverage: only women. As I see it, a woman can ‘choose’ only insofar as pressures from her cultural background, family and peer group allow. I concede full coverage can be a liberation for some insecure people appearing in public. It can also be a protection for women in cultures where normally clothed and unveiled women are despised by the menfolk. For me, this long-term acculturation of women towards modesty or full coverage means the ‘free choice’ argument for full coverage simply does not hold water. It is conveniently forgotten. Let us not forget that men face none whatsoever of these pressures: only women.

So as far as I am concerned, full coverage qualifies for protection under neither of the rights: gender equality nor religious freedom. In fact I argue it is a prima facie case of misogyny. This convenient interpretation of ‘religious freedom’ is pernicious and should not prevail against gender equality. Such has been my settled view for many years, and thankfully I am not alone in the liberal team, as the letter below will testify.

I read Imam Dr Hargey’s letter in ‘The Times’ today. As people have to pay to read it online and the print versions of the paper will vanish in a few hours, I feel justified in re-typing it here. Full credit is given of course. If what I have written above has not already swung people’s views, I hope Dr Hargey’s letter will settle the argument for any waverers about the competing rights:

Printed in The Times letters, Wednesday 18th September 2013.

Sir, Nowhere in Islam’s transcendent text is there any compulsion for women to conceal their faces. Indeed, this pre-Islamic practice is non-Qur’anic and un-Muslim. It is an archaic aristocratic custom originating in ancient Persia that spread to Byzantium and was adopted by misogynistic Muslim society. For Muslims to claim that the niqab/burka is Islamic is not only deceitful but disingenuous. At best it is an outmoded cultural convention and a primitive tribal habit. Many ill-informed Muslims have, however, been conditioned to conflate culture with religion and befuddle liberal Britain that this is a principle of religious freedom and human rights when it is neither. In fact it is illegal for masked women to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca or to perform their daily prayers. If women are prevented from hiding their identity at Islam’s holiest shrine, why do they need to do so in the UK?

For theological, political, security, social and health reasons, the UK must joint France and Belgium in outlawing all public anonymity. Anything less would be tantamount to sex discrimination against British men, who are not permitted to conceal their identity in public.

Imam Dr T Hargey
Director, Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford.

photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

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