By Supna Zaidi
In Philadelphia, I recently crossed paths with a small, chubby cheeked African-American girl swathed in a black cotton ankle length head-scarf. Her amorphous little body walked passed me, holding hands with her niqab clad mother without eye contact or a smile.
Normally, I wouldn’t think anything of this. Since 9/11 the increase in hijabs, niqabs and other "Islamic" dress by women has grown highlighting the politicized nature of Muslim identity in the U.S. But to see such a little girl wearing clothing that purports to protect her sexuality from strangers seemed grossly at odds with her prepubescence. But then I realized that the child was probably being mentally prepared for the full face covering her mother wore when she reached puberty. The dress length hijab on this 5-7 year old girl, was merely a transitional garment.
Unlike most parts of the US, The niqab is a very common garment in Philadelphia. The city has a very large convert community of African Americans to Islam, who have been "evangelized" by particularly politicized, anti-establishment Salafi Muslims. The Salafi ideology is the same as that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and shares the same ultra-conservative tendencies of the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. In Philadelphia it is normal to see as many as ten niqabis in a day, where one would be hard pressed to see one or two in Los Angeles or Houston.
European nations from Italy and France to the UK, are debating banning the niqab. The arguments against the garment range from labeling it as a symbol of Islamic female oppression to the security and safety risk the face covering poses to the public at large. On the other hand, supporters of the niqab focus on religious freedom, cultural diversity and the right to personal choice, hallmarks of western societies, which should not be denied Muslims in the West.
The niqab/burka debate has not reached national media scrutiny yet in the US. It may with Philadelphia as a contentious starting point. Multiple robberies in the past two years were committed by burka clad women and men highlighting the security risk the niqab poses to the public. But, how likely is an all out national ban?
Unlike European nations, the U.S. anti-niqabi position must contend with the First Amendment and its protection of religion. The First Amendment requires that a state restriction against a religious practice survive strict scrutiny. This is the highest standard before our judiciary where the state must provide a compelling argument on the ground’s of protecting the public health and safety.
Many writers, like Daniel Pipes, have written repeatedly that this requirement is met by the security and identification risks face coverings like the niqab and burka pose in the public space. Pointing to Philadelphia alone, he cites:
"Philadelphia, Pennsylvania boasts multiple robberies (3 banks and 1 real estate leasing office) in a sixteen-month period in 2007-08, including the murder of a police officer."
With the conclusion:
"Some observers would ban hijabs from public places, but what legal grounds exist for doing so? Following my rule of thumb that Muslims enjoy the same rights and obligations as other citizens, but not special rights or obligations, a woman’s freedom of expression grants her the option to wear a hijab.
In contrast, burqas and niqabs should be banned in all public spaces because they present a security risk. Anyone might lurk under those shrouds - female or male, Muslim or non-Muslim, decent citizen, fugitive, or criminal - with who knows what evil purposes."
Bank robberies are only the beginning. Photographs for legitimate identification purposes have become an issue in multiple states, including Florida, where women refuse to show their face. Women appearing before a judge in civil disputes refuse to testify if they are asked to reveal their face, ignoring the legitimate legal need to ascertain a witness’ character by demeanor, body language and facial expression.
In schools neither students nor teachers should be permitted to wear the niqab since it interferes with the learning process. A teacher, for example, compromises the student-teacher relationship by creating a harmful barrier between herself and her students, limiting trust and clear communication necessary in class. Students, on the other hand, isolate themselves from their peer group and their teacher, limiting communication and bonding, which assist in the learning process as well.
The state right to marginalize the face coverings of any kind in public for the safety of all citizens is supported by "soft" policy arguments as well. It is a well known fact that most Muslims do not wear the niqab. Rather, it is a garment worn by women in a few Arab countries, but unfortunately, due to increased Wahhabi proselytizing around the globe, more and more women are being told that it is necessary in order to be considered a good Muslim. Its pre-Islamic history is evident in Yemen, where some tribes socialize women to keep their faces covered before their own husbands and children until death. Yet, many Muslims and Muslim clerics demand that it be worn to keep women marginalized in society.
At the end of the day, it should not matter whether one believes the niqab is religiously legitimate or "cultural," it should simply be illegal.
US law protects everyone’s right to believe what they like, but not practice anything if it violates the law. Mormons know polygamy is illegal. Evangelical Christians cannot deny minor children medical treatment where the doctor raises the issue before a judge. A doctor or pharmacist cannot deny a patient birth control just because he or she believes using it is a sin.
The niqab prevents girls from integrating into mainstream society. It supports the creation of parallel societies within mainstream American society that advocates an anti-establishment attitude makes American born citizens feel foreign. Lastly, the garment is a threat to a cohesive American identity for all, where individuals of all faiths or none are expected to come together and respect each other’s backgrounds.
American citizens should take note of the debates Europeans are currently engaged in over religious dress. Philadelphia offers a unique opportunity for its local citizens to ask their congressmen and law enforcement officers why there is no policy on the niqab given its prevalence there.
(Supna Zaidi is assistant director of Islamist Watch, a project at the Middle East Forum and editor of Muslim World Today.)