By Ali A. Rizvi
December 24, 2016
People in European countries like Germany and France have been losing confidence in their leaders for some time now. And the latest ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in Berlin that killed 12 and injured dozens isn’t going to help dispel this sentiment.
Far right parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfG) and France’s National Front have grown tremendously in popularity. And although Austria’s Freedom Party (founded by former Nazis in the 1950s) lost the country’s recent election, it did so with a whopping 46% of the vote.
The best way to fight bad ideas is with good ideas, not bans.
Seeing this, along with the surprises of Brexit and Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — increasingly viewed as too accommodating of Islamism — is now scurrying to make amends. Her latest move to regain popularity, as she runs for her fourth term, is a proposed ban on the Burqa, the full-body cloak that some Muslim women wear to cover themselves from head to toe.
This reversal from her previous position opposing such a ban is clearly a desperate political move. But is there any merit to it?
Recently in Canada, Zunera Ishaq, a woman who wears a burqa and niqab (face veil), insisted on keeping it on during her citizenship oath ceremony. This became a contentious national debate, and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government proposed a niqab ban. The courts, however, ruled in Ishaq’s favor, allowing her to take the oath as she wished.
Yasmine Mohammed, also a Canadian woman, grew up in a fundamentalist Islamic family where she was forced to wear the burqa and niqab. She has a different view.
“The niqab was two layers,” she told me. “The first layer covered my whole face except for my eyes, and the second layer covered my eyes. If I was in the company of only women, I could lift the outer layer, so I could make eye contact.”
Zunera Ishaq at her lawyers office in Toronto. Ishaq was cleared by the courts to take her Canadian citizenship oath wearing her niqab.Getty Images
Yasmine was previously married to Essam Marzouk, a convicted terrorist trained personally by Osama bin Laden, who is now serving a 15-year sentence in an Egyptian prison.
“If my then-husband knew that I had lifted that outer layer, that a man could have caught a glimpse of my eyes, I had no doubt that they’d both be blackened as a result.”
Yasmine believes the Burqa should be banned, or at the very least, regulated where security is a concern. “No one should be allowed to enter a bank or school with their identity concealed,” she says. Today, Yasmine is one of millions who has left Islam, and writes a blog called “Confessions of an Ex-Muslim.”
Unlike Yasmine, Zunera Ishaq is a Western woman who voluntarily chooses to wear the Niqab. Why would a woman choose to cover up against her own self-interest?
Eiynah (her pen name) is an ex-Muslim writer and podcaster who grew up in Saudi Arabia, where she was forced by law to wear the cloak. She highlights that misogyny is often perpetuated by women themselves. “The most blatant examples are seen in Muslim communities,” she says, while also stressing that it doesn’t stop there. “Look at the vast numbers of women who voted for Trump,” she adds, referencing the president-elect’s well-documented, demeaning comments about women.
As a man who has never had to comply with forced veiling — or unveiling, as in the case of France where the Burqa is banned — my own experience is second-hand. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, seeing my professor mother and physician sister forced to cover their hair and bodies. My problem is with the more general concept of legislating dress codes for women, something we in the West should never be doing. Freedom of choice also means the freedom to make bad choices, and to me, the best way to fight bad ideas is with good ideas, not bans.
Most Americans agree. While 62% of Germans and 57% of Britons support a burqa ban, only 27% of Americans do. This approach is likely responsible for the much more successful assimilation of Muslims into American society.
I am also uneasy with how Zunera Ishaq became a hero of free expression: in my view, banning articles of clothing unwittingly makes heroes of those who least deserves it. When Western women like Ishaq choose to wear the garment as a symbol of their identity, it doesn’t erase what the symbol represents. My wife, the Pakistani feminist and secular activist Alishba Zarmeen, draws a parallel that Americans might find familiar.
“What I feel about the ‘Hijab-is-my-identity’ apologists is the same thing I feel about Confederate-flag supporters,” she says. “Yes, free speech supports your right to sport one — but do not forget the history and traditional use of that symbol.” Before celebrating the choices of free Western women who don these garments, remember to think of the countless more women in Muslim-majority countries who never have the option of removing them.