Monday, 23 March 2015

Myths and facts about wearing the hijab and other body-covering clothing

I find myself forced to again visit this issue of Muslim women wearing certain forms of clothing whenever they go out into the public. In this article, I will try to explain the differences between the myths and the facts.


The hijab is clothing worn by Muslim women that covers their entire bodies with the exception of their eyes.


The hijab does not cover the woman’s entire body. The garment that covers a woman’s entire body except her eyes is called a Burqa or niqab


The burqa and niqab must be black.


That is not so. Burqas and niqabs can be of any colour although most of them ae black.                                                       


 Only the eyes of the Muslim woman wearing a burqa or a niqab can be seen.


Not so. The eyes are in many instances, covered over with a cloth mesh.

What is a Khimar?

It is a general term for a woman's head and/or face veil. This word is sometimes used to describe a particular style of scarf that drapes over the entire top half of a woman's body to her waist.

What is an Abaya?

 It is a cloak for Muslim women that are worn over their other clothing when in public. The abaya is usually made of black synthetic fiber, sometimes decorated with colored embroidery or sequins. The abaya may be worn from the top of the head to the shoes or just over the shoulders. It is usually fastened closed. It may be combined with a head scarf or face veil.

What is a Chador?

It is an all-encompassing cloak worn by Muslim women, from the top of the head to her shoes. It is usually worn in Iran without a face veil. Unlike the Abaya, the Chador is not always fastened in the front.

What is a niqab?

The niqab is a veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear. However, it may be worn with a separate eye veil. It is worn with an accompanying headscarf.

A niqab is different from a hijab. The latter covers mainly the hair and the sides of the face whereas the niqab is the term used to refer to the piece of cloth which covers the face other than the eyes and women who wear it usually cover their hands also. It is worn by many Muslim women across Saudi Arabia and the Indian subcontinent and is worn by many women in the West.

Is the niqab worn because the Qur’an demands it?          

I have studied a report from the British Broadcasting Corporation which answers this question extremely well. It begins with explaining a part of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an in hadith (verse) 33.69 says; “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused.

One verse on the Qur’an that is used as evidence for this is:

Narrated by ‘Aisha’ (wife of the Prophet Muhammad): The Messenger of God, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, used to offer the Fajr prayer and some believing women covered with their veiling sheets used to attend the Fajr prayer with him and then they would return to their homes unrecognized.

This verse of the Qur’an has been dated sometime after verse 33:59 was revealed. Proponents of the niqab say that this verse shows that some women during the time of the Prophet were not recognisable and hence they must have worn a niqab.

However, other scholars have argued that the women’s faces were unrecognisable because it was dark, not because they were covered up. It is interesting to note that Aisha says ‘some' women’, and not all the women who were present.  Furthermore she refers to the early-morning prayer and not to any other. It would certainly make it more difficult to anyone to see who the individuals were if they were dressed in dark cloaks before sunrise even if their faces were uncovered. 

In addition, scholars have argued that the edict ‘cast their outer garments over their persons’ has been misunderstood. They say that the word “face” has not been indicated in the Arabic translation and it would therefore be wrong to extend the meaning to include a woman’s face.

The wives of the Prophet were indeed required to wear the niqab by this Qur'anic verse. This is because the special status they had with the Prophet meant they had to be kept clear from all gossip and slander. Scholars say that if the wives of the Prophet, who were considered as the best of women, were required to wear the niqab, then the ruling falls on all women. However, earlier on in the same chapter, the Qur'an also very clearly states that the Prophet's wives were not the same as other women. The following verse is proof of that.

Verse 33:32 says, “Wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women.” unquote This could mean that the order of wearing of the niqab applied only to the Prophet’s wives and no other women.

Most scholars are in agreement that the verse about the screen, or concealing of the face, is only obligatory on the wives of the Prophet. They say the verses are a clear indication that the wives of the Prophet are much more restricted in their movement due to their political position, and that their code of conduct does not constitute a code of conduct for Muslim  women in general.

Another scholar, Shaykh Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada suggests that because God asks both men and women to lower their gaze, it suggests that their faces are visible, otherwise there would be no sense in believing that Muslim women are obligated to cover their faces.

Scholars holding this view also state that it is well accepted by all scholars that the Prophet categorically forbade people from covering their faces or hands during hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca. If it was necessary that the hands and face be covered at all times, he would not have stated its impermissibility during one of the most sacred points of a person's life. It is also generally held by the majority of scholars, including those that believe niqab is obligatory, that covering the face during the five daily prayers is also prohibited.

Based upon the foregoing, it follows that women wearing a burqa or a niqab is not compulsory for religious reasons. Although the majority of Muslim scholars agree that wearing a hijab is obligatory, only a minority of them say that the niqab is. The scholars who do say it is obligatory are further divided by exactly what they believe needs to be covered. Some say that the eyes may be left unconcealed, while others say that everything must be concealed. The most authentic ruling according to the majority of scholars is that it is not necessary and, unlike the hijab, there is no sin if the niqab is not worn. Some of these scholars state that wearing the niqab is an act of extra piety, and provided they do not believe it is an obligation; they will be rewarded in heaven.  The covering of the face is only mentioned in three verses in the Qur’an and that is was never by the command of the Prophet Muhammad.

In war-torn Afghanistan, the burqa remains a common sight years after the invasion by United States-led armed forces in 2001. Some women continue to wear the burqa because women and children are common kidnapping targets, including foreign women who are frequently sold to the Taliban. Since the burqa conceals both age and appearance, some women feel safer wearing one. Many women appreciate the anonymity of wearing a burqa when they are forced to conduct activities such as begging or cleaning other people's homes.

Then why do some Muslim women in Western countries wear the burqas and niqabs that cover their faces?  They do it because some still believe that it is an edict from the Qur’an. It is not.

If not wearing a niqab in public isn’t a sin, then why do so many women wear it when they are outside their homes?  Some women feel pressured to wear these two forms of garments. That is because the menfolk in their households don’t want their women’s bodies and faces to be seen by other men. These unfortunate women really don’t have to wear those two forms of outer garments outside their homes for religious reasons, As far as I am concerned, menfolk in homes who force their women in their homes to wear a burqa or a niqab outside their homes is a form of oppression against women in general. These kinds of male oppressors no doubt have contempt for any woman whose face, arms and legs are bare.  I guess I am safe in saying that these unfortunate Muslim women never get the chance to enjoy the thrills of swimming at a beach or in a public pool. 

Many Western countries, particularly in Western Europe, have moved to ban the wearing of headscarves and other symbols of religion, including burqas and niqabs. In France especially, which has a large Muslim population, controversy rages over whether the burqa and niqab is a symbol of oppression for women.  One reason cited for banning the wearing of burqas or niqabs has nothing to do with religion or female oppression, but rather with security. One of the suspects of the failed attempts to bomb London in 2005 wore a niqab covering his whole face except the eyes, as a disguise. In 2006, a university dean banned the wearing of burqas on campus, stating that males could wear them as disguises to sneak into female dormitories. A bank robber could conceal himself in the same manner.

Shaykh Nuh Keller, a Jordanian Shafi'i scholar and translator of Reliance of the Traveler, has put forward a similar argument for women in the West. He says that Muslim women should not wear the niqab in the Western countries because it can lead to harassment and act as a barrier to inviting people to join Islam. I am not convinced with that theory,

Modesty rules are open to a wide range of interpretations. Some Muslim women wear full-body garments that only expose their eyes. Some cover every part of the body except their face and hands. Some believe only their hair or their cleavage is compulsory to hide, and others do not observe any special dress rules at all.

The current Canadian Prime Minister Harper while speaking in the Canadian House of Commons said recently, “Almost all Canadians oppose the wearing of veils during a citizenship ceremony.” He called the practice offensive and contrary to Canadian values. Harper called the wearing of a niqab a practice “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.” Further, the woman he was speaking about actually wore a hijab which didn’t cover her face.

This prime minister is the dimmest light bulb of all the light bulbs in the House of Commons. Doesn’t this dimwit know that the Qur’an dictates that all Muslim women must cover their hair when they are in public and that is why they wear a hijab when outside their homes? That is what a Muslim woman wore when she attended the citizenship ceremony and was admonished by a stupid citizenship judge in Quebec who presided over the ceremony.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states in section 2 (a) that everyone has the following fundamental freedoms; freedom of conscience and religion. Since the Qur’an states that a Muslim woman must cover her hair when she is in public, not only is that dimwit prime minister wrong, so is that stupid judge who refused to award citizenship to the Muslim woman in Quebec because she wore a hijab that covered her hair only during the citizenship ceremony.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had also decided to appeal a recent federal court ruling that would allow Muslim women to cover their faces while taking the oath of citizenship.

Ms. Zunera Ishaq is a Pakistani national and a devout Sunni Muslim who voluntarily follows the Hanafi school of thought. When she is in public, she said that her religious beliefs obligate her to wear a niqab, a veil that covers her face other than her eyes. She also says that she will unveil herself to a stranger only if it is absolutely necessary to prove her identity or for purposes of security, and even then only privately in front of other women. She then applied to the Canadian Federal Court to challenge a government policy that she claims will deny citizenship to her.  

I must say at this juncture of my article that this woman has misspoken when she says that her religious beliefs obligate her to wear a niqab. I don’t doubt her claim that it is her belief but her belief is in error. She is under no religious obligation to wear the niqab in public because it is the hijab that she must wear in public.

She was scheduled for such a citizenship ceremony on January 14, 2014, at the office of Citizenship and Immigration Canada in Scarborough, Ontario. Prior to this ceremony, she had taken her citizenship test on November 22, 2013, whereas she had removed her niqab for purposes of identification in accordance with section 13.2 of CIC’s policy manual, CP 15: Guide to Citizenship Ceremonies

The citizenship rules state that candidates for citizenship wearing a full or partial face covering must be identified. When dealing with these female candidates, it is the responsibility of a citizenship official to confirm the candidate’s identity. This should be done in private, by a female citizenship official. The candidate must be asked to reveal her face to allow the CIC official to confirm the identity against the documents already on file. The candidates must be advised at this time that, they will need to remove their face covering during the taking of the oath. Failure to do so will result in the candidates not receiving their Canadian citizenship on that day. This is wrong.

However, the Applicant had no objection to this requirement and she unveiled herself so that the female official could confirm her identity before taking the citizenship test.

She was worried, however, that she would be forced to unveil her face in public at the citizenship ceremony she was required to attend. Her fear was real because the Policy provides that citizenship candidates wearing face coverings are required to remove their face coverings for the oath taking portion of the ceremony. If they do not, they will not receive their citizenship certificates and will have to attend a another ceremony. If they again do not comply, then their application for citizenship will be ended.

The judge agreed to postpone the citizenship ceremony for the Applicant and subsequently offered to seat her in either the front or back row and next to a woman at the ceremony, so that other participants could not easily see her face if she removed her veil. The Applicant refused this arrangement since the citizenship judge and officers could still be male, and there could potentially be photographers in the room.

In order to solve that problem for Muslim women who cover their faces in public, a female citizenship judge should be able to administer the oath in private.

The Woman’s lawyer, Lorne Waldman argued that the Policy infringes paragraph 2(a) of the Charter, which requires her to prove two things: (1) wearing the niqab is a religious practice in which she sincerely believes; and (2) the Policy interferes with that practice in a manner that is trivial and insubstantial. He admitted that both requirements were satisfied here. The Applicant states that, even though some sects of Islam do not consider it mandatory to wear a niqab, there is no need to show widespread agreement before finding a violation of her Charter rights. Rather, the Applicant says it is enough that her belief is sincere and has a nexus to religion that his client contends she has proven by her affidavit and corresponding cross-examination.

As an example pertaining to her religious belief, suppose Ms. Ishaq was a Christian and she still honestly believed that she had to cover her face when she is in public, would her erroneous religious belief disqualify her from her claim that her Charter of Rights and Freedoms were violated?  I think not. Every person who is religious to some degree has their own interpretation of religious teachings and right or wrong, we can’t deny their Charter rights simply because others don’t accept their interpretations. The fact that Ms. Ishaq’s interpretation of the Qur’an was in error doesn’t mean that she can’t benefit from the edicts of the Charter. For the purpose of public policy, a religious belief is not what a mullah, a rabbi, a priest or a Protestant minister dictates. It is what a person who is religious sincerely believes.

Tony Clement, the Treasury Board chairman announced recently that Muslim women who are civil servants may wear the niqab and yet, it would appear that no Muslim woman who wears one at a Citizenship ceremony can become a citizen of Canada. 

The judge in the federal court said, “I disagree with the Applicant on this point. The CMA cannot be interpreted so broadly that any government policy must be invalidated if it in any way might derogate from the objectives of section 3(2) of the Charter. On the contrary, when it comes to specifically implementing the policies set out in the CMA  subsection 6(1) that says that “ministers of the Crown, other than the Minister, shall, in the execution of their respective mandates, take such measures as they consider appropriate to implement the multiculturalism policy of Canada”. In this case, the Minister did not consider allowing women to wear niqabs while taking the oath of citizenship to be an appropriate way to implement multiculturalism policy. In my view, that [decision] does not infringe the CMA.

Nevertheless, the judge said; “The Applicant’s application is allowed. To the extent that the CMA Policy interferes with a citizenship judge’s duty to allow candidates for citizenship the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation of the oath, it is unlawful. Accordingly, this Court hereby declares that: Sections 6.5.1 to 6.5.3 of the Policy, as well as the second paragraph of section 13.2 of the Manual and the reference to “those wearing a full or partial face covering that now is the time to remove it” in section 16.7 of the Manual, are unlawful. If the Policy has been updated from the Manual being assessed in this application, this order shall extend to any similar directives in the most up-to-date version of the Manual.”

Prime Minister Harper was not pleased with that decision and has ordered that an appeal be made. This man wants to harperize our rights but I strongly believe that he will not succeed.

Think about this for a moment. Suppose an applicant for citizenship has been approved and soon after, his face is severely burned.  He wants to be with his family at the same time they are also going to attend the citizenship ceremony to swear the oath of allegiance. Should he have to remove the bandages for the ceremony before he swears the oath of allegiance?

What difference at that point of his application for citizenship would it matter whether anyone attending that ceremony can see or not see his face?  He has already been approved. I attended the citizenship ceremony when my Japanese-born wife swore her oath of allegiance.  The only person in the room that any interest in what expression was on her face when she swore the oath was me.

To give you some idea of just how stupid it is to order Muslim women wearing a niqab or a hijab while attending a citizenship ceremony to remove their niqab or hijab, ask yourself this rhetorical question. Should the judge also order a male Jew to remove the skull cap from the top of his head?  Of course not. What about male Sikhs who wear turbans? Sikhism has a code of conduct that all Sikhs are meant to follow. A Sikh is expected to keep all hair intact and the head covered. The rule of dress for every Sikh man is to wear a turban. Does a citizenship judge have the authority to order a male Sikh to remove his turban when he is swearing the oath of allegiance? Definitely not. Should Muslim women be treated differently than male Jews and male Sikhs?  I think not

Mr. Martin, the MP for Winnipeg said that he doesn’t care if someone going to work wears a paper bag over his head. That could even happen if a person who is attending the citizenship ceremony is in the Witness Protection Program and is wearing a paper bag over his head so that he can’t be identified by someone who is out to kill him. 

It is time to protect Muslim women and others from silly decisions which offends the public’s sense of fair play and decency. We can begin by making sure that we don’t vote into office prime ministers who are dimwits. 

UPDATE: June 20, 2015:  The Canadian government introduced new legislation that will forbid anyone attending the citizenship ceremony from wearing any clothing that will cover their face.

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