Wednesday, January 6, 2010

To CAIR and the ACLU: Do not fight banning the Niqab and Burka

One of the best things that ever happened to American Muslims was, and still is, the birth of the Council On American Islamic Relations (CAIR). To say the least, it empowered American Muslims and brought their civil rights to the forefront in many Muslim communities. It is still a strong pillar of Muslim civil rights in the US (and Canada).

The American civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also one of the most, if not the most, respected organizations in the US in my opinion. In my eyes, it comes even before the the supreme court in significance.

And the collaboration between these two organizations have done a lot of good for both American Muslims and Americans in general ranging from civil rights defense to education of the public and all the way protecting the majority from committing what, in retrospect, would have be shameful knee jerk oppression of minorities in times of social and political upheaval.

Yet, I totally disagree with CAIR on its stance on the recent decision by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences to ban people from covering their faces on its three campuses. That ban extends to include that could include ski masks and scarfs drawn over the face as well as facial veils (Niqab and Burka). The new policy, according to the school, is out of concern for public safety but is not related to any particular case of terrorism or otherwise.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR, disagrees with the Pharmacy school policy and he is making the argument that "People should have the right to practice their faith as they see fit, not as others see fit". The local ACLU staff attorney, Sarah Wunsch, said the policy was "puzzling and possibly illegal."
Mr Hooper also makes the arguments that since the school made an exemption for medical reasons, it should consider making an exception for religious reasons.

Needless to say, I am not in agreement with either of them.

As a practicing Muslim that identify strongly with my religion, and as a believer in personal freedoms and civil rights protection for Muslims as well as everyone else, I do not see the arguments made by Mr. Hooper or the ACLU attorney as valid.

Let me nbe clear: the issue here is not about covering the hair, but rather about covering the face. In human cosieties, the face is a central piece in the process of human interaction. I do not miss much if I do not see a womans's hair. But not seeing the face I deal with in public is disruptive to the flow of communication in any society. Only less than a handful of societies enshrine facial veil as a publicly enforced policy: Suadi Arabia and Afghanistan - and possibly some areas in Pakistan that are natural extension of Afghanistan and its culture.

Those societies can hardly be called anything but dysfunctional. They should not be a standard to measure ANYTHING.

In the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, facial veils are not mandates, although it is more popular in some locations than others outo fo cultural and social norms mostly.

Of particular interest is the ongoing Niqab battle in Egypt. Recently, the most senior cleric in Al-Azhar Islamic University has rejected Niqab as a religious requirement, and mandated not weraing it in the Al-Azhar Islamic education institutions and schools. A recent court ruling supported him in that endeavor against some opposing groups.

When I was in Medical school, the dean, whom I was not fond of for several reasons, banned Niqab on the premises of Cairo Medical School. I and most of my colleague - men and women - did not feel that was in appropriate.

We were not leftist liberal activists and actually most of us would be considered 'religious' by local standard here. We were reasonable medical students and future doctors who realized that the face is an important tool for us in understanding patients and communicating with them. And equally important is the doctor's face as an important tool in establishing the rapport with patient that has great impact on the conduction of effective medical encounters and establishing effective treatment plans.

I would not accept medical care for my self or my children from a physican or a health care provider whose face I cannot see.

I would not be able to take care of a patient properly if I do not see their face. I cannot legally examine a child in the presence of an individual that is not their legal guardian. Guess what: I cannot identify the guarduan until I see their face.

Until we all walk around with RF microchips planted in our bodies, the face will remain the only way to identify people we deal with. But even beyond the identification process, a faceless person is not someone any of us would effectively, or comfortably, communicate with in person.

Will you, no mater how religious you are, accept the authority of a police person - stopping you on the street and requesting you documents - whose face you cannot see?

Would you really think it is OK to hand your credit card to a person wearing a ski mask at the gas station or convenience store?

would you allow a plumper to enter your house, or a car mechanic to take apart your transmission under the condition that they shall remain faceless? Would you just take their word that they are truly the ones whose face is on the photo ID?

Would you allow your 12 year-old daughter or son to go to slumber party or a camp where every one is wearing a Niqab or mask and you have no clue who or what they are? Or would you rahter hand them over in on school day-trip to a faceless woman who may or may not have been the teacher?

Will you ever leave your 2 year old child in daycare in the custody of some human whom you do not know or can even identify in case of a mishap?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, something is wrong with you.

If you answer no to all these questions, then you are normal.

And, if that is the way normal people think, why would you think it is OK to have a colleague student that you do not even know if they are legitimate woman student or not a student or not even a woman? And why would you think it is OK to get pharmacy services from a faceless person who has full access to your health records, personal and financial information?

Wearing Niqab is a personal choice if you do not impose a faulty way of communication on others who have to deal with you in a professional capacity.

If you own your store, or private school, you can wear whatever you want. If your customers are OK with that, that is there choice too. But when you are taking your professional exams, have your picture taken for driver's license, work for someone else, or even shop in someone else's store, then it IS NOT YOUR CHOICE!!

I will not go into a religious argument about the Niqab and other forms of facial veils and whether it is mandated or not. Books and websites abound with discussion on that. But the majority of Muslims should not condone a minority opinion just because it looks more conservative or more 'religious'. We need to distinguish legitimate religious obligations, and the freedom and right to practice them, from hyper-conservative attitudes that we do not have to adopt as representing us and our religion.

As for the argument of making a 'religious exemption' similar to the 'medical exemption' in that Pharmacy school policy that Mr Hooper referred to, I take exception to that.

Equating a serious medical condition that you have no choice to have or not to have (such as in cases where aggressive skin cancers can result from even minor ultraviolet exposure if your skin is expose) with a personal choice to practice an extreme form of religious practice inconsistent with the conduction of every day's affairs in your society, is not an argument I would want CAIR to spend time making or defending.

We, Muslims and civil rights defenders alike, have bigger issues to worry about. And in some cases it may be better to make a judgment call and NOT get involved defending stance that may not even be religiously sound.



  1. I completely agree with you. Khaled. I know and sincerely respect a few people who wear a niqab.I think Islam needs educated, progressive women and many study fields are currently unaccesible to these women because of their niqab. Only in US would you see that people's hearts are big enough to accomodate these views as most of these women say in their experience they are respected more than others. It will be a long time before an open policy would accomodate these people who, sometimes have difficulty meeting up with their own people in circles where people wear niqab. I think hijab should be a way to freedom to learn and excel for Allah's sake; other women have done so in West for centuries for multiple other reasons..

  2. I respectfully disagree with you Khalid. Your opinion is based on your mathhab and certain people following another mathhab believe it's required to wear the niqab. While I personally share your belief that the niqab is not necessary, I think we have to remember that as Muslims we have to respect the beliefs and rights of women who believe that this is a requirement of Islam, because neither you nor I can make the ruling that it is or is not required.

    Majed Barakat

  3. I agree with your argument. I also agree with the opinion that it is not religiously mandated, it is important to see the face for identification and for security purposes. On the other hand i hate for someone like these people at the school, or Shaikh Al-Azhar to "Ban" one form of clothing, whatever it is. My opinion that the best way to handel it -I am not sure it would work- is to lat people wear what they desire, but whenever it is necessary to take it off for ID, or for security IT SHOULD BE DONE. Whatever one's opinion about "niqab" that should not affect his/her support for people to were it or not, provided that other things -security and ability to identify people- are taken into consideration.

  4. Excellent article again.

  5. As a convert muslim sister I say 'ameen!' to your stand. Niqab/ burqa give a terrible (mis)impression of Islam (and misunderstanding about this amongst Muslims is clear when combined with bare feet in open shiny shoes). In peace, Rianne

  6. In regards to your blog post, I'm on the fence about that. I see both sides. On the one hand, I am very uncomfortable with a university banning a type of clothing that is of religious or any type of necessity for someone. Because although I'd hope that it would encourage the women wearing niqab to stop wearing it and realize that they cannot function in a normal society with it, I really doubt this will happen. They won't realize it. We will just be basically kicking them out of school and denying them an education because they won't give up what they see as a religious obligation. On the other hand, it is nothing more than a cultural obligation to me and cultural obligations should not be accommodated if they carry health, safety, security, et al risks.