Veil as a Face Cover
Some Muslim religious scholars assert that the veil has always meant, not only a headscarf, but also a face veil, and thus a screen distancing men and women. Before delving into what this group confirms regarding male- female relations, it would be important to define one of the schools that advocate such positions in the Arab world, loosely labeled as Salafism. Many—though not all—sub-branches within Salafism embrace this view, and those have been very vocal with significant outreach within the Arab world.
Salafism represents a philosophy in Islamic thought that emphasizes going back to the early roots. While various forms of Salafism are represented in many parts of the Arab world, its strongest presence is— without doubt—in Saudi Arabia. One of the strongest icons within this school was the late grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz BinBaz3 (1912-1999). A mufti is the principal religious authority who has excellent command of religious principles. He is certified by virtue of his official position granted by the state to issue fatwas, or religious announcements, instructions, and interpretations. His ideas are considered by many to be ultra-conservative, especially in terms of the societal role of females. Although his impact was mostly felt in Saudi Arabia, he was, and still is, widely admired by millions of like-minded Salafis (people who adhere to Salafism). His role and also the role of his successor have been very influential in impacting social and legal discourses in the Kingdom.
Salafism generally asserts that female participation in the “domains of men” is in contradiction with their true nature. Such an encroachment will inevitably have severe negative societal implications. A woman’s house is her kingdom. This is where she can be most productive as she takes care of the affairs of her house and her family. According to this school, the West has devalued the importance of taking care of the home and the family. This has eventually led to significant societal problems and disintegration within the family. Uncontrolled participation of women in the public space is considered a crime against the young as they lose the opportunity to be properly raised by dedicated mothers. Eventually children fail to get the right values from their mothers.4
This school of thought recognizes that women indeed participated in various roles in the early Muslim community as nurses or even as warriors. Yet they note that it would be false to draw generalized conclusions from those historical incidents about the permissibility of women participating in the public sphere alongside men. Their reading about Islamic history, especially the last few years before the Prophet’s death, reflects an understanding that such occurrences happened within a strict separation between males and females. During such interactions, they assert, women observed the full veil including the face cover.
Advocates of such positions do not resist, and actually encourage, women to seek out better education and even get involved in the world of work. They do believe, however, that such initiatives have to be done within the two above-mentioned conditions: separation from men and observing the full cover including the face veil in case there is any presence of adult men. That’s why women are encouraged to seek more education in girls- only schools and universities. They are also encouraged to take on work roles that do not compromise the above conditions through working in all-female education, health, and similar gender-segregated institutions.
Within the Kingdom, however, there are various dissenting voices that often challenge, softly in most cases, the official position of the religious establishment. Actions by the political arms of the Kingdom, represented by the various kings and crown-princes, reflect how the rulers have been trying to negotiate a positive transition into a relatively less conservative thinking and practice. This is evidenced, for example, by efforts made by the late King Abdullah to further facilitate female university education, and even create a prototype of a coed college in 2009, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), near Jeddah by the Red Sea.5
Strict traditions within Saudi Arabia still bar women from access to many job opportunities, and their political participation, despite recent improvements, is still very modest. While female labor force participation rate has improved, it still remains at 20% which is less than half of the neighboring Kuwait or UAE.6 This is still up from the 10% rate of 2002.7 All in all, the situation has improved, but changes have been slow, definitely slower than the pace desired by many Saudi and Arab feminists.
To explain further some of the discourses that have been going on among conservative circles, I am going to illustrate by drawing from a little-known text by a Saudi Arabian author named Ahmad Abdul Ghafoor Attar. In his 172-page book titled the veil and the uncovering, he dedicates long sections to defend a certain understanding of the veil that reflects the above-mentioned dominant discourse in Saudi Arabia which is markedly less dominant in other parts of the Islamic world. The book is a good representation of the positions of many Saudi religious scholars impacting daily practices and shaping male-female interactions.
In his introduction to the book, Attar notes that improvements in schooling in Saudi Arabia prove that the veil does not obstruct women from earning their education. He describes the positive role of the monarchy in advancing education for girls back in the 1960s. He does not, however, elaborate on the stern resistance that the late King Faisal8 (1906-1975) faced when he introduced female education. He, instead, notes that Saudi women have been able to make significant educational accomplishments without compromising their veils.
As the veil is an important term to define, Attar asserts that the veil cannot be complete unless it includes the face. Although the term niqab is the term usually used to mean face-cover, Attar prefers to use the word hijab. He dedicates a long section explaining how both the male and female were created from one soul, quoting from the Qur’an: “O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women.” (The Qur’an— chapter 4—verse 1). There are, however, natural urges and instincts among males and females which need to be properly regulated. Among the regulations are the restrictions put on Muslim women. A Muslim woman should have no relationship with an ajnabi (a person whom she is not allowed to interact with as he is not a father, brother, husband, or son). The divine law, continues Attar, has put levels of protection for Muslim women. The first of those protections is a hijab that “covers all her body and her limbs where nothing becomes visible” (p. 38). Except under an extreme need, such as the need to be treated by a male doctor, no part of her body should be exposed to the eyes of an ajnabi.
In a later section titled “the uncovering of the face is not permissible,” Attar notes the reasoning behind covering the face:
In our Islamic law, it is not allowed [for women] to show their face and hands.. .the face summarizes all the beauty of a woman.. .evidence is clear that the fitnah [sedition or temptation] of the face is overpowering. Instincts and lusts when put on fire cannot be resisted or overcome, especially if there are a young man and a young woman. (p. 50)
Attar then brings forward further rationalization to this position. The face needs to be covered to protect women, because in guarding women lies the well-being ofthe whole society. The face veil, he asserts, was the practice in early Islam, and this is the practice that needs to be kept. Attar further criticizes other contemporary scholars who argue that the veil only represents a head cover that reveals the face and hands. He indicates that those scholars have been mistakenly impacted by the contexts in which they live where women do not cover their faces. Those scholars had to adapt to their environments and thus had to accommodate an understanding of the veil that is simply not correct. He makes a distinction between the almuhajjabah (the completely veiled woman) and the alsaferah (the woman who exposes her face). The alsaferah is more likely to get harassed and fall into unwanted approaches of men:
The general moral decline would not have come if women kept their faces covered. What we see and what we hear about such erosion of values and sexual chaos in Muslim societies is only because it all started by uncovering of the face which eventually led to women exposing other parts of their bodies wearing seductive and provocative clothes (p. 141-142).
Based on this, Attar considers that the only real Muslim society in contemporary times is the Saudi society where the divine laws are applied. Because of this, Attar contends, only two rape cases have been reported in 50 years in Saudi Arabia. This is because of the face veil that has built a fortified barrier between men and women: “our society gives severe punishment to anybody who harasses a woman.”
The work of Attar is representative of a school of thought echoed by many popular scholars in the Kingdom. The main issue here is that despite the fact that more than 98% of Muslims live outside Saudi Arabia with a variety of understandings about the veil, this context takes special significance. First, Saudi Arabia represents the home of Islam where Mecca and Medina are situated. It was in those two cities that the mission of the Prophet first started, and it is to those places where Muslim pilgrims, from all over the world, visit and give special reverence. In addition, Saudi Arabia has what are probably the largest reserves ofnatural resources (oil). Thus it takes special geopolitical importance. There are various practices of face-covering in other parts of the Muslim world, and those only get attention when there is a political or economic reason for doing that. For example, very few people knew about the burqa in Afghanistan before 2001. It was only after the terrorist events of September 2001 that the Afghan female burqa got any serious media attention.
The face veil has led to a great controversy in Western countries where, out of millions of minority Muslims living there, very few Muslim women adopt it. It is evident that the face veil is not the preferred choice of dress even among religious Muslim women. According to a survey9 by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research Center in seven Muslim-majority countries, the full face veil was the preferred style of dress for a minority of respondents except for Saudi Arabia where a face veil which kept the eyes exposed was favored by 63% of respondents. Despite the geopolitical and religious importance of Saudi Arabia, female dress practices in the Kingdom only have a marginal impact on women’s dress in other contexts. While the face veil exists in many countries, the percentage of Muslim women who cover their faces is very low. In Tunisia, for example, according to some reports,10 veiled women who cover their faces represent only about 3% of women. In Egypt, percentages possibly range between 5% to 7%.n The percentages in other Arab contexts are not expected to be much higher (except for some countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council).
The impact of the face veil on female participation in the Arab world did not get much scholarly attention. Over the last decade, most discussions about face veils have centered on the practice within countries where Muslims are the minority including the much publicized burqa ban in France. This got lots of media attention although reportedly only a small fraction of French Muslim women wore it. According to the interior ministry just 2000 women wore the face veil out of a 7.5 million Muslims in France (0.027%).12 Interestingly, the stern resistance against the burqa has actually led to an increase in its incidence.13 In addition, in a country like Egypt, proposals to ban the face veil cast some doubts about the potential harms on the same women who were supposed to be helped by such a ban. “Because of the decision (to ban the face veil), now I will have to stay at home,” reported a fully veiled practicing nurse.14
Without doubt, wearing the face veil puts limitations on women’s participation in some sectors due to the unwillingness of some employers to hire those women. Some employers, such as those in the hospitality industry in Egypt, consider that the face veil is not fit for their type of work.15 This prompts some activists to mobilize against such establishments through social media claiming discrimination, insensitivity, and lack of tolerance to alternative understandings of the religion.