Islam and the Veil

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Fatima Barkatulla

Channel: Fatima Barkatulla

Topics: Comparative Religion,Education,Hijab,Women

Episode Notes

Beyond Belief with Ernie Rea – with Fatima Barkatulla and other guests.

In the first of a new series on BBC Radio 4, Ernie Rea and his three guests discuss Islam & the Veil.

“France, Belgium & Italy have already banned the full face veil. Other countries are considering it. In Britain a Private Member’s Bill on the subject was thrown out 18 months ago. But the subject prompts fierce debate amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In a country like the UK, which prizes individual freedom, is it a basic human right? Or is it essentially divisive in promoting community cohesion? The Qur’an contains very few relevant verses and the word “hijab” literally means “curtain” but many new converts to Islam believe that the full veil is a religious obligation, but is it? Ernie and his guests get to the heart of what the Qur’an actually says and, more, importantly, how that has been interpreted.

Joining Ernie for a lively debate on Islam & the Veil are Fatima Barkatullah, writer and lecturer for the Islamic Education & Research Academy, Dr Shuruq Naguib, Lecturer in Islam at Lancaster University and Khola Hasan, Lecturer on Women’s Rights under Islamic law & member of the Islamic Sharia Council.”

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 2 January 2012

Episode Transcript

© No part of this transcript may be copied or referenced or transmitted in any way whatsoever. Transcripts are auto-generated and thus will be be inaccurate. We are working on a system to allow volunteers to edit transcripts in a controlled system.


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Hello. A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting Doha, the capital of Qatar. We were shown around by a friend of ours who works for Al Jazeera television news. He's a practicing Muslim, the vite never touches alcohol, precise in his observance of Ramadan. He took us into a cafe. Opposite were three women all wearing the full face covering. When he brought us our coffee, the cafe owner asked us to move. A friend asked for the reason. The three women he was told were uncomfortable because we were directly facing them. Ever obedient. We moved, and we had an interesting discussion about how you could possibly cause offence when you couldn't see a single part of the woman's face. I confess

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it made me feel uneasy and led to some interesting reflections on the interaction between some Islamic customs and Western society. The Muslim veil is the subject of today's program. What is it? What does it signify, is wearing it an Islamic requirement or a matter of personal choice? Joining me are hola Hassan, lecturer on women's rights under Islamic law and media representative of the Islamic Sharia Council. Fatima Baka Tula who has studied Islamic law and Arabic and is a writer and lecturer of the Islamic education and research Academy. And Dr. Sharon Najib lecturer in Islam in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. I want to define some terms that

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will be familiar with all our listeners, hold on what is that he job? And he job in classical boronic understanding is a curtain and in fact, it's actually a curtain between man and God. And on the day of judgment when men and women have been incredibly pious and close to God, that curtain will be lifted. But in modern context is a completely different understanding, which is the clothing that a Muslim woman wears to cover her modesty and it generally refers to the headscarf. So that's what you're wearing and what Shahrukh is wearing today. Yes, I would say we're both wearing the hijab because we're both wearing headscarves. I found them and what is a niqab? Nowadays the niqab

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is a small piece of cloth that women use to cover their faces. And usually you can lift it up and sometimes women will wear a little bit of goals over their eyes or their faces completely covered. Yes, but then obviously in different situations. If there were no male non relatives present, then you know, there'll be quite free to uncover their faces. sure of what a burqa. The burqa is originally an Arabic word. It means face covering, which was actually used for camels as a kind of harness. But women in Bedouin contexts were wearing kind of burqa, which is like a mask cloth and a piece of cloth with two openings for the eyes and the nose. Can I say also that the worker is

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actually an old to do word as well, in India and in Pakistan, you'll see that the worker is referred to as just the complete covering. You may have seen pictures of women in Afghanistan, the way that they dress covering their whole bodies with one kind of garment that is also referred to as the burqa, but the effect of the Burke and the niqab is very similar, it means that the face is basically completely covered. Yes, I'm interested in discovering what the Koran has to say about how you should dress how women should dress and I've picked up just one verse, tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest, and tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and

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to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms. Hola, how do you interpret that? Well, we have to be so careful with language, the word veil that you use that I think is very incorrect. The word is Homer in Arabic heimer is a scarf. So the best word that is a scarf. And in fact, we know from Arabic terminology that this is talking about the headscarf that Arab women used to wear, but they used to leave their chests exposed. So they're being told that the headscarf you have on is a wonderful thing, but lower it down to cover your chest as well. Because in only Arabian society, actually, women used to wear very little clothing

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men as well, that were generally quite poor. They just wore one outfit. So the scarf was an added covering Fatima is that your interpretation? This verse that you just mentioned is from chapter 24. The problem there is also another verse in chapter 33 of the Quran which describes an outer garment. And both of these verses, if you think about commands in the Quran, in the front were commanded to pray, but the exact specifics of how to pray or described similarly, in these verses, God commands women to cover themselves without to garments when they're in the presence of men who want closely related to them, but the exact parameters of that covering, you will find in the interpretation of

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the Quran, by the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad, this is the HUD eighth

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Yes, and even in the books in the very famous books of puranic extra Jesus, for example, in Kathy are called to be you'll find that the cousin of

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The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him his name was even above he was also known as the ocean because of his vast knowledge of Quranic interpretation. He describes these verses, and interprets them as saying that God commanded women to cover their faces and bodies when they go out of their homes. So this is his interpretation. Sure. How do you respond to that? Well, one issue that must be clear, the word hijab actually does not refer to clothing items at all. As Hala mentioned earlier, the word hijab means a curtain. And it's a curtain that was drawn or was let down between the wives of the Prophet and the men of the community because of their specific status as mothers of the

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believers. Now, in the interpretation, over the centuries, this special status was extended as a virtuous model for the rest of the believing women. Now, this is a very controversial issue, even within the classical, exegetical works or commentaries on the Quran, whether this model should be extended to the rest of Muslim woman or not. Hola, can I ask you to respond to that? Yeah, I would absolutely agree with Shahrukh that what started off as a symbol of modesty for women. And something completely separate, which was the hijab between the wives of the Prophet and the rest of the community has been completely conflated together, and the sheer confusion in the Muslim community.

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But the other thing I want to say is that also there are so many opinions in the early Muslim scholars who are writing opinions to do with how much of the face should be covered with their eyes can be covered with the hands whether the wrist can be covered. I think, really, we're over complicating the issue. And actually, only the verses are describing an outer garment that all Muslim women should wear. Even the wife of the Prophet Mohammed Shah, herself. She described how when the verses were revealed the women at that time they you know, tore up some of the other garments in their houses, and they use them to wrap themselves around their bodies. She clearly

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describes how she herself and the other wives and other women as well, they would cover their faces when men were coming close by, but the point about the being a separation between what was expected of the family of the Prophet and other women the point that the point that Shahrukh was making in that whole it seemed to be exactly the wives of the Prophet being actually designated as mothers of the believers, not available after the prophets death to any of the men as wives, this specific status, in fact, in one of the oldest Quranic commentaries, is associated with the hijab, which is the total separation so that when they go out, they cover their bodies, they cover their faces. Now

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there's there are issues of agreement and issues of disagreement in the legacy of Islamic interpretations. And one issue of agreement is that the Prophet pronounced that the parts of the body that can be shown after a woman reaches puberty are the faith and the hands. There's no disagreements surrounding that I would even disagree. Disagree continue, even with regard to ignore best because I've read the text quite thoroughly in Arabic, if not best, has not pronounced any words in terms of the vape he actually showed his companions how to wear the over garment, covering parts of the face, but leaving other parts shown. So total coverage, complete separation between the

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face of the woman or the full body of the woman and the rest of the world is not sanctioned in any of the texts. I would completely disagree with that because you know, anyone who studies the four Islamic schools of jurisprudence, the humbling of have the sharper image actually the

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interpretation of hypnotized me at least let me say it makes it obligatory. Please let me finish. The humbling must have the Shafi Hanafi and Maliki The one thing that they agree on, is that covering the face and the rest of the body is a virtue. Now the thing that they disagree on Yes, is whether it's an obligation or not. Some of them said yes, the face and the hands may be uncovered. But others insisted that, yes, the face and the hands should also be covered. And that is part of the Muslim woman's dress. So to say that they all agreed that uncovering the face and hands. That's not

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that's not even in our best when he showed his companions how to wear the over garment, which is the jilbab he showed parts of the face parts of his face. So his eye, his nose, and one of his cheeks were could be seen by his companions. The point is, it's only the hanbali school that makes it obligatory, to avert Jubilee under shopping, I don't want to complicate things for our listeners, but different schools of Sharia should require if there is that degree of latitude and interpretation, do you think that this particular issue has become so prominent so important in the Muslim world, the clash between modernity and Islam was often our

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argued by different sides and women became symbolic of that either as being oppressed and hence the inferiority of Muslim culture or being liberated in Western societies and hence the superiority of modernity and, and Western society. So it's become a denial of colonialism and imperialism and a denial or perhaps of Western superiority. Yes. And I think there was also there was a fear in Muslim countries that had been colonial lized. And so women, not just free to walk around, which is quite good, but free to wear very little clothing, the miniskirt etc. So the hijab in the dressing of women became the core issue on which an ideological war was fought that by to show that you were

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close to Islam and tradition, you kept your women as covered as possible. What was the code? What was the dress code in early Islamic societies? How did women dress then? Sure, most of the Muslim world in the first few centuries did not practice the face rate. It was not imposed, except in urban centers, where a certain Islamic miliar ruled, however, Muslim converts in Spain and Egypt continued even until the 18th century, the rural Muslim woman in Egypt or Syria did not wear a face covering moved freely around in the village, which was different from the Muslim woman in the city centre. Fatima, just respond to that quickly, please. Well, how can that be when the four schools of Islamic

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jurisprudence, which was established in the early, you know, century of Islam, they talked about the covering of the face? How can it be when the wives of the Prophet themselves, and also some of the other disciples described how they used to cover their faces? So to say that, you know, covering the face is something that came later is completely false, especially you will find it not my you know, he didn't say that it came later. And only in urban areas, what she's saying is in urban areas, it was important. And in rural areas, it wasn't any still true today, you go to any Muslim country, go to rural areas, especially where people will come farms, you will not see women wearing the niqab

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because it's completely impractical. They weren't even aware that they would wear the normal clothes, you're going to big urban cities, you will see women wearing the jilbab, the niqab and all the rest of it, because the lifestyles are different. That's the point she's making. But let me remind you that you're listening to be unbelief. And today we're discussing the Islamic veil. The number of women converting to Islam and the West is increasing, and many of them choose to wear the veil. Why is it a means of asserting their Islamic identity? Are they submitting to the authority of their husbands? Are they creating barriers between themselves and non Muslims? And with me are

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Fatima barkatullah who often covers her face and hair in public? Hola Hassan who wears a headscarf and Shahrukh Najib who also covers her hair, but believes that that is a matter of choice. Why would a young woman accustomed to Western dress choose to completely cover herself from head to foot Khadija was brought up in a family which sad, fairly likely to religion, but after she'd gone on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, she began to wear the headscarf before adopting the full niqab or face covering, I asked her to tell me what provoked the change. When I was wearing a hijab, I felt that my relationship with my Creator had to be stronger. And, you know, there was that power of mailing

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as well, as you know, being modest. So putting the veil on was just a part of improving my faith. I understand you had to move your job, you did work in retail for a while and you moved out of that? Yes, that's right. I mean, I think retail in my role would not have been suited in that field of work. Obviously, the veil is not something that is accepted very easily, let alone the veil. I mean, the hijab is not very easily accepted in workforces. And the veil is obviously the next stage, what I went on to do is more community development work. And that allowed me to keep my veil on and still be in employment. So get the work done. And I find that a lot of times, I'm very much respected as

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well, especially from the male side, you know, I've always found that a lot of men give me a lot of respect, and are very cautious and do try to make a little effort. Do you think that wearing the veil creates a barrier between you and non Muslims? No, not really. I don't think it does at all. And I go to a school where my children are a minority, and I don't have any barriers. I communicate quite well with people. If they feel they are barriers, it's because people are not communicating back. You know, they don't like to see anything different. But overall, I don't see a problem. I live in a community where it's not a high percentage of Muslims. I live in a street where I'm the

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only Muslim family and I have neighbors around me who are great and I communicate with them. Just children play with my children. They go in each other's houses, do you feel that you have to make an extra effort to communicate with your non Muslim neighbors because of what's around in the media that portrays a veiled woman to be an extremist or you know, either, you know, certain sort of

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You was that used around people who are Muslim who are veiled. I do naturally tend to make an extra effort, I will send a gift to my neighbors on the you know, if it's their festival, or if it's my festival. And I think once people start speaking to you under the veil, you know, then the veil doesn't mean anything. Have you had any negative personal experiences living in the city? Well, I tend to walk through a society where I ignore any sort of facial remarks, or any sort of tattooing going on under the breath of anyone I've passed. After a while you just become immune to it. But I was once in a shop and a lady walked in. And suddenly she just came up to me and said, Go back from

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where you came from. And I was taken back a bit. And I did sort of retaliate and say to her, you know, what do you really mean by that? You know, do you have any form of understanding of what you're saying, you know, and she just was not willing to listen, she was just soft, she just, you could tell something was urging inside her. And she just wanted to get it out and then leave the shop? Does your husband approve of you wearing the full face though? He's left the choice to me. It's my way of living. And he lives his way and we don't sort of push any values or anything on each other. You seem to have discussed it? No, because I failed before he married me. So he knew who I

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was before he married me. That was Khadija. And she said that her husband had nothing whatsoever to do with her decision to wear the full veil. And there is a stereotype that says this is a form of male dominance. Hola, Do you know anybody, anybody who was made to wear the veil by their husband? No, I've never actually come across anyone who's been forced to wear the niqab can just use the word nipah. Because that's what we're talking about the face veil. But I think you know, when women say that we're doing it of our own choice, and the other men in our family, their husbands or fathers have got nothing to do with it. That's absolutely true. But in a direct, indirect way, it is the men

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but it is male preachers who are telling the community that it is compulsory, and if the women don't wear it, there's going to be terrible punishment on them. And I really feel that community needs to rethink the issue of Nepal. Yes, I totally agree with her. On that point. Perhaps there isn't direct oppression or direct force applied here in order to make women wear the niqab or the face veil. However, there's a particular interpretation of Islam, which I would call a very conservative interpretation of Islam, that is being pushed by men demands not only in Britain, but abroad in the Middle East and the Arab world, which puts forward the new camp, not only as virtuous, but sometimes

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as obligatory. And the arguments are not textual. I've heard several sutra, several legal rulings, which say this is an age of temptation. Being in Britain makes it even more of a difficult time because it's a country of non Islamic standards, that women at this time need to apply the highest standards of virtue. So the the discourse that the men or the main scholars are producing, in a way, bullies, believing and pious women into using the niqab department, I'd say I find that so patronizing Muslim women were quite capable of researching the sources ourselves. And we're quite capable of coming to conclusions about our relationship with God ourselves. And for somebody to come

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and say to us, you know, that we've been brainwashed or been told by other men to do this, or to do that. I think that's, it's completely patronizing. What you've come back to a matter of choice, isn't it also a matter of human rights? Sure, I know, strike me sometimes as quite bizarre when men and women very often in this country seem to walk about half naked and they have their right to do so seems to be accepted. But when a woman decides that she wants to cover her face, it becomes a matter of offense. I totally support a woman to cover her face. If it's a choice. If this is the conclusion, she comes to after reading the text, reading the interpretations. This is our own

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understanding of our duty. So with a lot of it, God, I would totally support her right to do so. Hola. I think the obsession that I find really sad with the niqab is that there's so much more in the verses. If we look at the first verse that you quoted, and you're at the beginning, it's talking about modesty is talk about lowering the gaze is about not exploiting sexual passions, unnecessarily. And we are living in an age today where everybody's obsessed with this piece of cloth on the face. And we have got Muslim women who are walking around who are committing adultery, who are smoking, we're doing all sorts but they've got an ePub on their face. And that makes it okay. I

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personally know someone who committed adultery and Jewish war in a pub. So you know those issues of decency, modesty and citizenship, the we have a responsibility to the society in which we live. And if the knob is hindering integration, and I absolutely agree that it is, then we need to revisit that discussion. I can think of several reasons for why wearing the face veil might inhibit or the niqab might inhibit a woman for instance, her career

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aggression, Khadija admitted for instance, that there were some difficulties in retail, Fatima, I wouldn't choose to be a fireman maybe or a policeman or certain professions that you know, wouldn't be conducive to the way I dress.

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Well, you usually find the women who choose to wear the face Well, they're very intelligent about the types of work that they take, and they and they take, but that that will that will restrict their their career choices, Ernie, you know, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, okay, that was a difficult, difficult thing for him to do. Similarly, there may be some commands of God that women adopt, and they want to follow, and there will be a level of sacrifice, if they're willing to make the sacrifice. Who are we to question them? Hold on a few days ago, I was watching a television program. But I got great insight into it. Because by watching, as it happens, a man's face, I was

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able to make an informed decision about whether or not I thought he was lying or not. I was pretty convinced he was. And there are circumstances in which the only way you can make that sort of informed choice is by looking into somebody's eyes and seeing their body language and making that determination. If you translate that into the job sphere, there are occasions when if somebody comes for a job interview, if you can't look into their eyes, you can't determine what sort of person they are. I agree, I think the anonymity that women who wear the niqab desire can be very, very difficult to achieve if they wish to live followers, unresponsive lies, I had an issue the other day in the

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mosque, it was where a woman came into the mosque wearing a full nabob Her face was covered asked her to remove it because we've had security issues we've had thefts from from the mosque. And we need to be able to see a tape afterwards and say, okay, we know identify who stole so I asked her to remove an ARB and I ended up having a you know, a huge screaming match with her because she refused. She said that was her obligation to God and there was nothing I was going to do about it. Well, that's the problem isn't. And we have to start living in society with other people, not just saying God, God, God, and completely ignoring our obligations to other human beings around us, of course,

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their obligations to society. And that's not something that, you know, Islam is blind to at all the women that I know who were the face? Well, if there was a genuine need for them to uncover their faces, for example, airport security in banks, well, guess what, in different settings? Well, as you know, you're using anecdotal evidence. You're using anecdotal evidence to label a whole group of women. And I think that's a very unfair, that's very unfair, because that myself and the vast majority of women, you know, we go through airport security, how do you think we do that we uncover our faces? Furthermore, how would you have responded in that situation? That caller told us about

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what you uncovered your face? Absolutely. If there was a genuine security problem, you know, what I'm trying to say is that the majority of women are very sensible, you know, obviously, they prefer if there was a female member of staff or females around when they uncovered their faces. But I think the problem is that sometimes we we make it into a bigger problem than it really is what you just said that it'd be better if there was a female member of staff why my husband's a doctor, he had a case where somebody was incredibly ill and she said, I will only see a female doctor, and he was the only doctor on the doctor, then of course, you should see that

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she should have seen the first doctor who came along because the rest of the doctors are not sitting there on their backsides waiting for women to walk in

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a genuine need, of course, and Islam doesn't require them to

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bully society, saying I read in a pub, therefore you will bend over backwards to accommodate

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that raises an even bigger issue. Perhaps the big issue today is how you integrate, not assimilate, but integrate Muslim people into a wider British society. And I'm wondering, Shahrukh, does this whole issue of the niqab form a barrier to understanding between indigenous British people and, and Muslim people? The Sharia is actually divided into two almost equal parts. One is about obligations toward God and one is about the obligations toward the community or other people with the obligations to the community. There are serious outcomes and there are responsibilities if you don't fulfill any of these. I believe that the niqab in Britain and elsewhere, even in the Muslim world is

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causing a lot of strife and causing an undermining the social harmony even in Muslim countries like Egypt where the majority of Muslims niqab, you will women are women wearing the niqab are imposing the certain authority on other women.

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What is what is undeniable? Leave aside Egypt. What is undeniable is it has come a major issue in countries like France, which has banned the niqab in public places since last April. It's a common issue in Belgium and Italy. it's indicative of the fact that it is causing concern right across Europe. niqab is not our problem. It's the problem of the people who are seeing it as a problem.

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Okay, this what happened in France is about secular aggressive secularism. Okay? The problem is that at the moment, Muslims are feeling under a lot of pressure to make their religion seem more palatable to the west. So when it comes to certain rulings that they know that people in the west or they think that people in the West won't be able to, you know, stomach, they'll water it down, they'll deny it even Okay, when in fact, these things are practices that have been within Muslim communities for centuries. I'd like to get your reaction to this whole business of of what the niqab is doing to the process of integration in Britain exam, I was fascinated Khadija seemed to suggest

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that there was no barrier to her communication with non Muslim people. But it did seem to me that she had to make an extra effort to overcome that barrier. She went out of her way to speak to people to be friendly to be positive. Well, I actually was in a pub for five years. And the reason I stopped wearing it was because I realized that I was not able to engage with the society around me. I was seen as foreign. I wanted to be able to make eye contact with people and to smile at them and have them smile back at me. And I can do that now. But I couldn't do that while I was wearing the niqab. And I realized that was a barrier that was not a necessary barrier. If it was compulsory, I

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would have stayed with it. And I reiterate that it was the male scholars who were preaching thunderously that unless I would the nakaba would burn in hell. And that's why I worried and I realized that no, Islam has got so much to say on so many issues, and what Muslims have done, have become very, very narrow in their interpretation, and in what they are looking at. And this is the way Muslims are going in Europe right now. We're minarets. halaal meat is going to be banned soon the headscarf has already been banned. mclubbe Muslims are under target in Europe and Muslims need to wake up and say that there is something wrong What can we do? I want to ask each one of you a

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final question as we draw this program to close in 30 years time what model for the wearing of the veil do you think will prevail among the Muslim women of Britain? Sure. I believe, as I've seen it elsewhere that the phenomenon of wearing the face veil is going to relax that we'll see moderate dress across the generations across ethnicities. Fatima. I think we'll see what we see today actually different women wearing different modes of Islamic dress, some uncovering their faces and covering their faces, I think will there'll be a huge variety. Hola. I think I will agree with both. But I think that a lot more young Muslim women will start to dress in a way that marries the British

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culture with Islamic culture. So a lot more jeans with headscarf. Well, that's all we have time for a contentious subject to kick off the new series and beyond belief my thanks to Fatima barkatullah hola Hassan and Shahrukh naggy, I'll be back the same time next week when I hope you'll join me