France has recently banned the wearing of the Islamic burqa and niqab. These are the face-covering full-body veils that some Muslim women wear. In some Muslim countries they are required, in others not, in still others they are banned in certain places. Some Muslim women choose to wear them, for others they have no choice.
What should we think as Christians?
1. The clash of ideals
Firstly, this matter seems to be the place where two ideals clash. The first ideal is freedom of speech, expression and religion. From this point of view Muslims should be able to practice their religion freely. The second ideal is the rights, dignity and equality of women. From this point of view making women have no public identity is outrageous and must be opposed. To force women to never be seen in public is a denial of their basic human rights. This clash seems to be inevitable in a multicultural society where different cultures have very different values.
2. What Islam actually teaches
Secondly, what does Islam actually teach? This can be a confusing matter because some Muslims say the burqa is authentic Islam while others will say it is not in the Qur'an. If it is true Islam then it is harder to oppose it when we want to promote religious freedom, but if it is not true Islam then it can be opposed and this opposition will not be anti-Muslim. So what does Islam actually teach?
The first thing to realise is that Islam is not based on the Qur'an. It is based on the Qur'an, the Sunnah (the practices of Muhammad) and the rulings of Islamic courts. Christians can often assume that we have the Bible and Muslims have the Qur'an, but whereas the Bible is sufficient for Christianity the Qur'an is not sufficient for Islam. Islam has many other essential books called the Hadith. The canon for Islam is not just the Qur'an but also the Hadith and these court decisions (see answering-islam.org ).
You may have heard Muslims say that female circumcision is not in the Qur'an. This is true, but neither is male circumcision. The Qur'an never mentions any circumcision. Circumcision comes from the Hadith and Islamic court and is an essential practice in Islam even though it is not in the Qur'an. Or consider the number of times a Muslim must pray each day. The Qur'an sets three prayers per day (11:116; 17:78-79; 20:130; 24:58; 30:17-18) but the Hadith sets fives (Bukhari: vol. 9, bk. 93, no. 608, Khan) and Muslims follow the Hadith over the Qur'an. Therefore when Muslims, or anyone else, say, "It is not in the Qur'an", they are not really saying anything.
Returning to the matter of the burqa. To know what Islam teaches the Qur'an, Hadith and Islamic rulings (fatwas) must be considered. In this case the Qur'an does refer to the dress of women:
Children of Adam! We have sent down on you a garment to cover your shameful parts, and feathers; and the garment of godfearing - that is better; that is one of God's signs; haply they will remember. (7:26)
Say to the believers, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. God is aware of the things they work. And say to the believing women, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward; and let them cast their veils over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment save to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands' fathers, or their sons, or their husbands' sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or what their right hands own, or such men as attend them, not having sexual desire, or children who have not yet attained knowledge of women's private parts; nor let them stamp their feet, so that their hidden ornament may be known. And turn all together to God, O you believers; haply so you will prosper. (24:30-31)
O Prophet, say to thy wives and daughters and the believing women, that they draw their veils close to them; so it is likelier they will be known, and not hurt. God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. (33:59)
These verses require women to be covered, however, it does not seem to say that their hair or face should be covered. Also note that men are required to be modest as well. In the Hadith we read:
Narrated 'Aisha: The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al-Manasi, a vast open place (near Baqia at Medina) to answer the call of nature at night. 'Umar used to say to the Prophet "Let your wives be veiled," but Allah's Apostle did not do so. One night Sauda bint Zam'a the wife of the Prophet went out at 'Isha' time and she was a tall lady. 'Umar addressed her and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda." He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verses of Al-Hijab (the observing of veils by the Muslim women) may be revealed. So Allah revealed the verses of "Al-Hijab" (A complete body cover excluding the eyes). (Bukhari: vol 1, bk. 4, no. 148, Khan)
From this Hadith it seems that the covering of a women is to hide her identity. It is from Hadiths like this that some Muslims would build their case for the burqa.
Now, not all Muslims accept the Hadith. Shia Muslims reject the Hadith of the Sunnis and vica versa, and there are different schools of Islamic law. The result is that some Muslims accept the burqa and believe this to be true Islam while others reject it and believe this to be true Islam.
Where does this leave the Christian?
Firstly, in our multicultural society we must expect there to be clashes between Western and Islamic culture, just as there are between Western and Christian culture. Sometimes we will share in the clash with our Muslim friends, other times not. Christians must not automatically side with the secular definition of the roles of men and women and be opposed to Islam. Instead we need to present and model the Bible's teaching for how men, women and families should relate.
Secondly, the Islamic head covering is part of Islam, however to what extent it must cover the face is a debate within Islam. We cannot say that one side is right or wrong; they all have their evidence they use. But as Christians we can present to Muslims the roles or men and women as outlined in the Bible and demonstrated in the gospel. We need to show Muslims that Christians are not part of the "decadent West" and that we do honour men and women.
The image used is from Fotopedia.