By Rafia Zakaria
December 10, 2014
To veil or not to veil, that is the question. In much of the Muslim world, the issue of whether the veil is required or not required, mandated or recommended, a choice or an injunction, must cover the face or just the hair, is a hotly debated one.
There are huge political dividends to be gained from its manipulation: a military power grab in an embattled Muslim country can be sanctified if it is followed by an injunction to veil, an insurgent group can showcase its power over a community by enforcing the sudden covering up of all women.
In Western countries with Muslim minorities, banning the veil has the potential of producing its own political dividends; solidifying in single strokes otherwise flimsy commitments to liberal principles. Women are, after all, half the population of nearly every place and controlling their garb concomitantly signifies control of the country.
Fatwas that liberate women from being responsible for the acts of men are ignored or picked apart.
Amid the heat and polemics of the veil debate, a Saudi cleric has issued a new fatwa that proclaims, “Islam does not require women to wear a [face] veil” and that women can put on makeup, take pictures of themselves and even post them on social media if they choose to do so.
The cleric, whose statement was reported by a newspaper in Morocco, is no marginal figure. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Qassim Al-Ghamidi is the former head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in the holy city of Makkah. Sheikh Ghamidi’s pronouncement did not just stop at this: in a separate Tweet issued from his official account he said that only the wives of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had to wear the face veil so they could hide their faces from unrelated men.
To substantiate his position on veiling, Sheikh Ghamidi cited Palestinian scholar Ibn Qudamah Al Maqdisi who has argued that the fact that women are not required to cover their face and hands when performing Haj means that no such requirements are incumbent upon them. In the most startling part of his pronouncement, one that rarely gets any attention in the realm of the veiling debate, Sheikh Ghamidi reminded men that the responsibility of lowering their gaze lies with them, and that women must not be blamed for temptation.
Sheikh Ghamidi’s fatwa is a welcome and surprising one. For decades now, the Saudi virtue and vice squads have been notorious among visitors to the kingdom for wielding sticks and calling out women for minor acts of supposed immodesty. In Pakistan, much of the fervour for endorsing, promoting and imposing ever more stringent requirements for veiling is imported from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself.
Given the automatic religious legitimacy Pakistanis attach to anything Saudi, this latest fatwa may go some distance in emphasising that a requirement of face veiling is more of a political stunt than a spiritual requirement.
It may even be a good thing, for the streets of Pakistan are increasingly filled with women wearing all-encompassing Burqas. This garb is assumed by many to be the wardrobe of piety, although its consequence, many would argue, is effectively an erasure of identity.
A fully veiled woman is anonymous and unidentifiable, and in contemporary Pakistan, that can automatically be supposed to equal a pious woman. That anonymity is her contribution towards the duty of ensuring that the men around her are spared the onerous task of exercising their own conscience, using their own will. To expect them to look away is simply asking too much. It’s a man’s world and if women must exist in it, Pakistanis seem to have concluded, they must effect an almost total invisibility.
It seems wishful to think that a single fatwa would change this status quo. After all, women have become used to playing defence, and men have become used to blaming them for all transgressions. Long years of cherry-picking ensure that the fatwas that liberate women from being responsible for the acts of men are either ignored or picked apart while those that impose ever more ludicrous and constraining behaviour on them are widely publicised. This new pronouncement by Sheikh Ghamidi is likely to meet a similar fate, shelved and forgotten for its inability to sate the whims of a self-righteous male majority.
And the Saudis themselves are the first to do this. While the ex-head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is issuing proclamations saying faces should not be covered and makeup is permissible, its current leader is moving decidedly and predictably in the other direction.
Earlier this month, Sheikh Motlab Al Nabet defended a new law Saudi law requiring the covering of eyes, saying that “the men of the committee will interfere to force women to cover their eyes, especially the tempting ones. We have the right to do so”. In the Sheikh’s view, even women who did not wear makeup would be in trouble if they were too beautiful.
However, as much as he or the supporters of the full veil may ignore it, they cannot deny that there is a plurality of views on the issue of veiling, makeup and the showing of female faces.
The lack of consensus and the political dividends that accrue to those who insist on imposing strictures on the female population of this or that Muslim country all point to one conclusion: in the contemporary Muslim world, to veil or not to veil is no longer a religious question but a political one.
Its dimensions are determined not by spirituality but by strategy, and the blunt and hungry drive for power where women’s bodies and faces are simply sites for battles whose outcomes they do not control.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.