Islam doesn’t require the full-face veil, the niqab

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The purdah is back in the news again. The circumstances that bring back the debate, which has in past spanned continents, make it a difficult subject to talk about, and requires us to go beyond simplistic generalisations.

Islam doesn’t demand a full-face veil, the niqab, worn by many Muslim women. The full-face veil ban in Sri Lanka should, therefore, be seen from the security perspective. A country which is trying to forget its immediate violent memories witnesses a form of violence that it thought it had moved on from. More than 250 are killed on the sacred day of Easter, many of them in churches. The country needs to respond to the crisis in every possible manner. It shuts the Internet, imposes curfew and arrests suspects. A local Islamist outfit emerges as the suspect. Later, the Islamic State claims responsibility, and more attacks are feared.

It was an attack on a fragile fault line, with a potential to last for long and embroil the island nation in a fresh crisis of an unmanageable scale. It made it incumbent upon the country to do everything possible to make its citizens safe. And thus, among the many measures the country took, President Maithripala Sirisena used his emergency powers to ban the full-face veil, inviting sharp reactions.

Before we denounce the ban, we must realise that the measure was taken keeping the national security in mind; it helps in the identification of potential terrorists, who might misuse it to achieve their heinous goals. Probably that’s why many Lankan Muslims welcomed the move. “The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the top body of Islamic scholars in Sri Lanka, said they supported a short-term ban on security grounds, but opposed any attempt to legislate against burqas,” said an April 29 Reuters report.

Even though very few Sri Lankan Muslim women wear the niqab, some feel that the ban may lead to religious tensions. After the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and many others in that country wore the hijab as a symbol of solidarity with the Muslim community. As wearing the hijab was an act of solidarity, a ban on the full-face veil for security reasons should not be seen as an attack on the religion or the community.

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National security has made other countries, too, ban the niqab. France, Belgium and Bulgaria are some of the examples. Even Egypt, a Muslim country, made it unlawful in public places, only to recall the ban after vociferous protests.

Besides, it is just the niqab that has been banned, and not the hijab or the head-covering worn by many Muslim women observing purdah. A lot of confusion takes place because of the misunderstanding over the definitions. The hijab is simply a head covering, with the face uncovered. The niqab is a full-face veil.

The religious scriptures are clear on what constitutes the purdah. The Koranic verses from Surah Al-Nur which talk of the hijab has been translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali as: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms …”

This is generally interpreted as the exclusion of face and hands from purdah, according to the books of hadiths — the Prophet Mohammad’s sayings — such as Dawood and Bukhari.

In fact, the niqab is not allowed during one of the holiest gatherings of Islam, the hajj and umrah as it is mandated that cloth should not touch the face. Most of those who observe purdah wear the abaya with a hijab. If some women in Sri Lanka — or elsewhere — do wear the niqab, they can keep the face uncovered in the larger interests of security and society. Those who still wish to wear the niqab can use a scarf, thus allowing for security checks.

Irrespective of the religion one belongs to, no duty is more important than the interests of the country one belongs to and lives in. If the niqab is coming in the way of security, and considering that it is not mandated by Islam and only worn by a small section of Muslim women, I see really no reason for it to become a cause of religious tension and division.

Rana Safvi is a historian and columnist

The views expressed are personal

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