CAIRO: We live in a world with so many gods and sometimes with no god at all. Even those who pride themselves on worshiping the same god do so each in their own way. The many faiths and sets of beliefs render any discussion of what’s religiously right or wrong irrelevant.
But as social animals we don’t live in a perfect world. Reading the news, it’s easy to conclude that humans are intolerant by nature. What makes one society seem as if it’s more tolerant than another is its threshold of accepting differences. Some accept differences in skin color but reject different faiths. Some are more accommodating of sexual orientations than ethnicities, or vice versa.
Each society draws the boundaries of its accommodation and sets limits to its threshold of acceptance. But standing on this fine line – that separates accepting a different set of beliefs or rejecting it on the grounds that it’s too alien from the norm or dismissing it altogether because it’s harmful – is the will to integrate all members in society.
I assume the will exists, or at least a milder version of it that attempts to integrate. It’s this will that is the driving force behind weaving the fabric of any healthy, functional society. It’s this will that ensures people will always feel that they are part of society and consequently will ensure their loyalty to it.
It’s for reasons like this that in any discussion about the niqab (face veil), for example, the debate on whether it is Islamic, un-Islamic or a product of petrodollars is beside the point. The issue here is that there’s a segment in the society that believes it is the right thing to do and accordingly have a right to practice their belief.
Thus, the debate should be on how to accommodate or integrate this belief into the fabric of society in a way that satisfies all and addresses all concerns.
Prejudices, however, need to be checked at the door.
The debate about niqab isn’t new, but throughout the past two weeks, most arguments against niqab have employed the same “logic and terminology that had targeted the hijab before. It’s also the same logic many have employed to argue against giving Bahais full citizenship rights.
Unfortunately, most debates revealed prejudices and an unwillingness to accept differences.
When Egyptian Bahais were battling in court for their right to state their own religion on official documents, someone suggested that they should leave the country if they are unwilling to conform to the religions recognized by the state.
An editor of a major state-run paper once told me he’s surprised I was wearing a headscarf, concerning that funding for terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood has decreased. That was in 2004. I was offended to see a personal decision tied with terrorism or politics.
But as with the Bahai debate – where the verity of the Bahai faith should not be the focus, because by default if you follow a certain religion you believe it’s the ultimate truth – I fruitlessly tried to keep the discussion with that editor on what it should be: not the religious basis of hijab, but the right of those who believe they have to wear it, or simply want to.
I’m sure that many women are offended to see their decision to wear the niqab turned into an accusation of extremism and even terrorism. Granted, the interpretation of Quran and Hadith in a way that supports covering the face takes one verse to an extreme. But that doesn’t mean that that the woman has adopted a package of extremism that would eventually have her blow herself up.
I personally believe that niqab isn’t dictated by Islam, but that’s me. And as much as I don’t want to live by someone else’s values and beliefs, I don’t want to enforce mine on others. It’s irrelevant here how right I think I am.
Yet, if there are real concerns – not prejudices – then they need to be addressed through regulations that aim to integrate not to alienate.
Showing her face at a gate or other security measures, for example, should be addressed, even if the woman or the other members of society end up having to compromise.
Even if the fear that extremism is spreading in Egypt through these face-veiled women is a valid concern, then banning it still isn’t a solution.
Take face veiled women in Azhar as an example. They have spent all their lives receiving their religious education from this grand institution. From an early age, students learn about Quran, Hadith, fiqh and Shariah from Azhar. If throughout these years, the Azhar couldn’t convince these women with its discourse regarding niqab and other issues, then it has no right to ban them.
First of all, banning wouldn’t solve any “problem. If education didn’t convince them or push them to reevaluate their set of believes, then banning won’t. On the contrary, it would make them hold on to their veil even more.
Maybe restructuring curricula should be a more valid path to follow.
But the gravest consequence would be denying these women education. On its own, education – and women’s education in specific – is the most important battle our society needs to win. For us to do anything, from economic advancement to cultural development, education is the frontline, the army and the weaponry.
A lot of these women are already breaking societal norms and traditions by leaving home to a different city to get their education and fulfill their aspirations. Putting another obstacle would allow part of their traditional societies to argue against education by saying it contradicts with their core values. This would not help these women or the so-called fight against extremism. It would even drive more women – not necessarily face-veiled – away from schools.
Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi’s anticipated niqab ban fortunately turned into a mild decision that forces these women to reveal their faces in women-only classes. Some would laud the symbolism of this decision in the fight against extremism. But that would mean missing the symbolism of such a decision on the other side.
The word “ban in itself would have resonate negatively. It would make women who wear the niqab suspicious of the administration that runs this learning institution and consequently less open to what this institution wants to teach them. Many would argue that the administration’s decisions are increasingly influenced by politics rather than informed by religion. Maybe it was this realization that led Tantawi to later deny saying that niqab wasn’t part of Islam.
In case of a ban in Azhar or elsewhere, even if it’s only one woman that’s directly denied education, the decision would sideline her and her offspring and maybe deter a whole section of her community from seeking education there. It will never be just one victim.
Remember if the aim is to integrate all members of society so that they can live harmoniously together, then the policy of alienation – conform or remain sidelined – doesn’t help it become better, but pushes both sides, each to their extreme.
Sarah El Sirgany is the Deputy Editor of Daily News Egypt.