niqab - David Sheen - October 2 2010
A Muslim woman wearing the niqab face covering in Umm al-Fahm. Photo by David Sheen
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A member of the current Knesset is proposing a law that would prohibit the wearing of any garment that obscures the face and prevents identification, in any government office, at any entertainment venue, and on any means of public transportation. According to the legislator proposing the law, Kadima MK Marina Solodkin, its primary purpose is to liberate women from irrational religious restrictions. The bill mainly targets devout Muslims.

Solodkin explained, “This past Passover vacation I was in southern France. And in this French province, I saw for myself, women in full burqa. I said, enough! For me, as a former Soviet citizen and believing Jew, I will never allow it in Israel.” On July 13 of this year, the French National Assembly voted nearly unanimously, by a count of 355 to 1, to ban burqas in public places throughout the country. On September 14, the French Senate confirmed the bill in another 246 to 1 landslide vote.

Solodkin continued, “When I followed the campaign in France, I started asking questions. But not questions about why the ban on the burqa was being proposed. Rather, I asked why it was not proposed beforehand! So late... Where were the Western liberals when they saw what was going on in their own countries, to their own citizens?” Two days after France's lower house of parliament banned the burqa, Solodkin proposed her own anti-burqa bill to the Israeli Knesset.

Several European countries are currently considering measures that would outlaw articles of clothing associated with Islam. Sometimes proponents of the law contend that it is necessary to prevent political and economic crimes. Others object to the head coverings because they symbolize a rejection of the dominant cultural norms. Many maintain that the Muslim headdresses worn by women are symbols of misogyny, tools of totalitarian patriarchy. Solodkin iterates this claim.

“In Chinese society, before the Chinese revolution and Westernization of some sort, they took women's feet and operated on them to make them smaller. Only democratization and revolution led them to ban it. Take India. When the British came, they saw the terrible tradition of young women, after the death of their husbands, being burned at the stake. That’s why part of democratization is to say no to tradition," Solodkin stated.

Solodkin insists that the law does not discriminate against Muslims, pointing out that a small sect of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women that shroud themselves from head to toe also exists. Three weeks ago, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men of the Bratslav sect appeared at Ben-Gurion International airport with their faces covered in cloth. In a strange inversion, instead of concealing their mouths and revealing their eyes, they purposefully obscured their own vision to so that they couldn't catch a glimpse of any 'forbidden fruit.'

Some critics of the proposed law complain that the state has no place in the wardrobes of the nation. In practice, the bill would strip citizens of the right to choose how to adorn their own bodies, a fundamental freedom. "In principle, I think everybody should be able to wear whatever they want to," said Balad MK Jamal Zehalka, a secular Muslim. Zehalka characterized the niqab as "not a major problem in our community. The amount of women wearing the niqab is very marginal."

MK Zehalka also commented on the asymmetry between the situation in Israel and the conditions in France. "There is a difference between laws like this in Europe, and here. In Europe, you are speaking about immigrants. I am against these laws there, as well! -- but there you are speaking about immigrants. They came to France, they came to a secular state," Zehalka says. "But here, Mrs. Solodkin came to us. We were living here. We didn't come to the State of Israel, the State of Israel came to us. So it's going too far to make laws like this here."

Muna, a 44-year-old mother of six, and wife of the former mayor of Umm al-Fahm, claims to have been only the first or second woman in the whole Wadi Ara region of Israel to take on the niqab. A niqab is a scarf that leaves only the wearer's eyes uncovered, and would be outlawed in public places under the proposed 'anti-burqa bill.' According to Muna, there are probably a few hundred women in the area that actually wear the niqab, out of a female population of about 20,000.

Muna says that she was brought up in Muslim home that was not especially religious, and that when she was growing up she wore only the hijab head covering. After she married a man who was more religious than her, she began to study at a Muslim academy and later made the decision to take on the niqab. Muna's friends tried to discouraged her, but she was not dissuaded. Her husband told her that she could wear it if she wanted to, but with one condition: that if she decided to don the niqab, that she must continue to wear it in public for the rest of her life. She has chosen to wear the niqab ever since.

The religious reasons for wearing a niqab are debated by Islamic scholars, based on the interpretation of a particular passage in the Koran. Muna says that most Koranic commentators maintain that it is optional, not obligated, for a woman to cover her face in the presence of men that she is not directly related to. Some religious figures say that it is required only if a woman is particularly alluring. Others say that it is required only in 'troubled times' -- in a time and place where the wider culture is so sexually permissive, that an extra layer of protection from physical contact becomes necessary.

In the 1990s, at least two new factors may have contributed to the liberalization of local norms regarding the amount of visible skin that is considered acceptable. Almost a million Soviet Jews, including MK Marina Solodkin and her family, immigrated to Israel over the course of the decade, and they brought with them a different set of standards. Also, private cable television was introduced to Israel in 1989, exposing Israelis to an increased dosage of American and European cultural values. It is possible that in the 1990s, as Israeli Jews became comfortable with exposing more, Israeli Muslims had a reactionary response and retreated behind the veil. Muna claims that the women of Wadi Ara never wore niqabs until the mid-90s.

"Why can French women dress any way they want to, but Muslim women are never free to choose how they want to dress?" Muna asks rhetorically. But if freedom of choice is the operative guiding principle, shouldn't women be permitted to dress however they want to, even in conservative, all-Muslim Umm al-Fahm? "That's fine," Muna retorts. "Many women in Umm al-Fahm do not cover their hair or wear long skirts." If there are countries that claim to be guided by Islam but do not give women the freedom to choose, then they are misrepresenting Islam, she says, and their oppressive rule should not reflect on the religion. Surely it should not be the basis for denying her the right to wear whatever she wants to here in Israel.

If the objective of the anti-burqa law is in fact to free females from arguably oppressive religious rules made up by men, then that is a legitimate motive. But if it is the true motive, then there is probably a much larger target audience in Israel that awaits female liberation by legislation. Many ultra-Orthodox Jewish women not only cover their heads, but remove all of their hair on their heads, supposedly to prevent passersby from being tempted by their beauty, which could lead to unwanted romantic relationships. If covering up one's face is an affront to freedom, then surely having to shave your head could constitute an insult to human dignity. An internally consistent crusade for women's rights would have to pass through Mea She'arim as it weaves its way towards Majadele.

Ultimately, efforts to ban face-coverings stem from a fear of fundamentalist Islam. In recent years, the rest of the West has had to reexamine the secular state and figure out what that might mean in light of massive Muslim immigration to Europe, and increasingly, to America. Here in Israel, the Jewish majority has been struggling with competing claims of synagogue and state for more than sixty years, and it all likelihood it will continue to do so for many years to come. But the difference is that in this part of the world, the Muslim minority, with all of its archaic cultural norms, didn't arrive only recently. Arab Israelis aren't immigrants, and the battle over the burqa won't be won as easily as it was in the West.

Asher Greenberg and Anne Ennis contributed to this article.