Wednesday, February 9, 2011

To veil or not to veil?

A column from almost a decade ago.

ST March 16, 2002

By Asad Latif

IN THE latest controversy surrounding the hijab, EgyptAir has grounded a woman pilot for having donned the Islamic headscarf.

Why do even Muslim countries adopt this approach to the scarf, particularly in their education system?

The answer is that if a single practice symbolises the global Islamic revival, it is the use of the hijab, known as the tudung in Singapore.

Writing from Cairo in the mid-1990s, an Associated Press (AP) journalist noted that women in Arab countries from Sudan to the Persian Gulf were putting on the veil in 'what has become the most overt sign of growing conservatism across the region'.

Singapore is not the only country where it has become an issue in the state education system.

An article in Newsweek magazine describes how charged the situation has become elsewhere.

It notes that soldiers are posted at the main gate of Istanbul University to stop any young woman who wears the scarf (and any male student with a turban). According to Newsweek, the scene at Istanbul University embodies a larger struggle, spanning the Islamic world, between moderates and militants. 'Schoolrooms are their battlefield. At stake is the next generation of Muslims,' it writes.

Tunisia, too, enforces strict laws to keep control of its schools.

The response in Egypt, a leading country in the Muslim world, is significant. The AP journalist observed that women of all ages were covering themselves 'like never before in Egypt's modern history, underlining a wider return to religion as Egyptian Muslims contemplate their identity'.

To those putting on the hijab, it was an expression of modesty and piety. The Egyptian government, however, took a guarded view of religious identity when signs of revivalism appeared in schools.

Egypt - where Islam is the religion of the state and principles of the syariah, or Islamic law, are the major origin for statutes - became a test case in the tussle between Islamists and the government over the issue.

In 1994, the Education Ministry banned the niqab, a veil which covers everything but the eyes, from schools.

The hijab, which covers the hair and the neck but not the face, was banned in primary schools but allowed in secondary schools if a girl's father gave written permission.

The ministry's decision was greeted with an outburst of protests from parents and was contested in the courts.

In 1996, the Higher Constitutional Court declared that the 1994 decree was legitimate, in a decision against a father whose two daughters had been prohibited from entering a secondary school because they were fully veiled.

The court ruled that Egyptian school uniforms, which it described in detail, were modest. It held that the challenged decree did not detract from freedom of faith, stand in the way of performing its rituals, or oppose the true essence of religion.

The court also dealt with the question of whether the Education Ministry had acted constitutionally in stipulating what uniforms school students should wear.

It said that education was a right guaranteed by the state and was subject to state supervision. Accordingly, the state was bound to look after the educational process in a way that guaranteed the correlation between education and social requirements. The 1996 ruling, which is still in force, drew protests. 'Next, they will rule that the Quran is unconstitutional,' a lawyer lamented.

Liberals and feminists, however, thought differently, and the issue remained alive after the court's decision.

Author Geneive Abdo examines this saga in her book, No God But God: Egypt And The Triumph Of Islam.

She recounts asking the minister who had made the 1994 ruling why the government had resisted demands to wear the hijab and the niqab.

He indicated that Egypt was wary of external manifestations of religious expression at an early age.

The issue was also one of political symbolism. The minister did not want Islamic groups to use the veil to make a statement, to Egyptians and foreigners, that everyone wearing a veil was a part of their agenda.

Dr Mahmoud Hamdy Zakzouk, Egypt's Minister for Al Awqaf (Religious Endowments), discussed the issue of proper attire for Muslim women in a book published several years ago.

He argued that the attire which Islam imposes on a Muslim woman is meant to ensure that she appears in a decent and respectable mien, so as to save her from unpleasant remarks or, worse, from harassment by men.

'Islam does not command women to cover their faces with a veil or to wear gloves, and this custom is the custom of certain communities for which Islam is in no way responsible,' he wrote.

In a chapter of the book which discussed the question of the veil and Islam's rulings on a woman's right to an education and a career, he declared that 'Islam definitely does not deprive women of an education'.

'On the contrary,' he said, 'it urges both men and women alike to seek knowledge and acquire learning.'

He went on to say that Islamic history recorded the achievements of many women who excelled in the religious sciences, literature and poetry.

Drawing on the lesson of history, he brought the issue down to modern times. Islam, he argued, was concerned with the development of a woman's character because it enabled her to be a more capable and efficient mother and wife who could raise a generation of Muslims capable of developing their society and increasing the welfare of the Muslim community.

Muslims would hardly disagree with that view. However, the controversy over modest dress continues, and outside the Arab world.

In France, teachers in the country's west went on strike in 1999 to protest against a decision by the local school board to let Muslim girls wear headscarves to their junior high school.

The public education system in France, where school is compulsory till the age of 16, is secular.

Students do not wear uniforms in French public schools, but Islamic headscarves have been an issue in the country since the late 1980s and have involved the Conseil d'Etat, France's supreme administrative court.

The French position, as it stands now, is that the wearing of religious symbols in school is not, in itself, contrary to the secular principle.

It becomes problematic if it is ostentatious, a factor in school absenteeism, proselytism - in the sense of a Muslim girl trying to interest a non-Muslim in her religion, or trying to convince another Muslim girl to don the headscarf - and disorder.

In effect, the wearing of the headscarf is discouraged if it compromises the safety of a student or her classmates during scientific experiments, or if it prevents her from participating in physical-education activities such as swimming.

The issue is dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

As these examples show, the state is not far away from the question of how a Muslim girl should dress in school.

That debate continues as well.

[The outcome of this incident was that one parent took their children to Australia where the girls were enrolled in a school which presumably allowed them to wear the tudong. It was not clear if it was a secular school, or a madrasah or private school.]

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