Some Arab sympathy for burqa bans

AMMAN, Jordan — As European country after European country banned Muslims from wearing the burqa, niqab or other Islamic clothing that covers a woman’s face completely, several Arab nations stood quietly by.

Few, if any, Arabs support such bans and the prohibitions raise questions among them about anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. However, many people in Jordan can at least understand where European countries are coming from, especially regarding security concerns.

In most cases, European politicians in support of banning complete facial covering avoided making religious arguments, instead arguing that clothing of any kind that hid a person’s face constituted a security threat.

“It’s understandable why some countries are not too happy with the niqab because it does not reveal the true identity of a person, the face of a person. Now whether this should be introduced as a law or not, I’m not sure,” said Moneef Zou’bi, director general of the Islamic World Academy of Science in Amman. “I think it’s a matter of choice at the end of the day.”

In France, the most recent country to ban the niqab and burqa, Jean-François Cope, the majority leader of the French National Assembly, went so far as to compare the niqab to a ski mask in an editorial piece published in The New York Times in which he defended the law.

“The visibility of the face in the public sphere has always been a public safety requirement. It was so obvious that until now it did not need to be enshrined in law,” he wrote. “But the increase in women wearing the niqab, like that of the ski mask favored by criminals, changes that. We must therefore adjust our law, without waiting for the phenomenon to spread.”

Though accepted by most Arabs, the niqab and burqa are still relatively uncommon outside the Arabian Gulf. Most Arab women tend to view such coverings as too extreme or unnecessary.

In Jordan, where only a handful of women wear such clothing, police have noted a sharp increase in the amount of crime committed by people, sometimes even men, wearing the niqab as a disguise. The number of criminals apprehended while wearing such Islamic dress climbed from a combined total of 170 in 2007 and 2008 to 104 in 2009 alone, according to police officials. Though there were a few cases of homicide, most of the incidents involved theft or other petty crimes.

Still few Jordanians are ready to jump to the conclusions of right-wing European politicians or take legal action against the facial covering.

“Most of the people are not concerned about it. In general we accept that sector of our society. It is not a masking behavior to cover your face,” said Hani Hourani, the founder and director of Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman. “We have a lot more important things to worry about in this part of the world than women’s code of dress.”

Aside from France, Belgium banned facial coverings last month. In Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands, there are also laws regulating full facial covering at the local level or right-wing politicians who strongly advocate for it.

Referencing the 1966 film about the French fighting the Algerian insurgency in which veiled women are used to smuggle weapons, Jennifer Heath said: “This is like someone has figured out that we can get rid of the niqab by sort of pretending it’s going to be the Battle of Algiers again. I find it a little sensationalist.” Heath edited "The Veil: Women Writers On Its History, Lore, And Politics," a collection of essays about veiling.

Still, during the peak of the insurgency in Iraq, the niqab became a serious issue. Many women were not thoroughly searched at checkpoints, so militants began recruiting them for suicide bombings or to smuggle weapons under their clothes. Authorities in turn began creating female police officers and a community policing organization called the Daughters of Iraq was also created to search women at checkpoints.

Most Jordanians agree that female police and normal security measures are enough to stop the niqab from becoming a serious security issue here and elsewhere in the region.

“We need a combination of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, personal freedoms on one hand and [on the other] the necessary measures for security and the normal appearance of a person in society,” said Asma Khader, general coordinator for the Sister is Global Institute in Jordan.

She added that measures designed to limit the wearing of the niqab or other forms of dress would most likely result in more people wearing them as a form of protest, as they might start to feel that their beliefs were under attack.

“It will be a symbolic political use, rather than being a personal choice or a personal religious belief. It should not be this way,” she said.