Niqab ban can ease the pressure to appear pious

To understand why Syrians support a niqab ban, you have to look at the judgment of strangers.

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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To understand why Syrians support a niqab ban, you have to look at the judgment of strangers. From the outside, two recent bans on the niqab in public places look dispiritingly similar. Both France and Syria have taken the decision to ban the full face veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women from public spaces - France, in all public places; Syria in public schools and universities. Both governments said they were defending secularism.

Yet differences are clear. The French government - note that the law has yet to pass the upper house - went through a democratic process to decide to enact the far-reaching ban; the Syrian government merely announced it. France is a liberal democracy; Syria has been ruled by the same party for nearly half a century. France has fraught relations with its Muslim community, the largest in Europe; Syria is a majority-Muslim country.

More pointedly, though, is how the French ban was greeted with dismay by French women who don't wear the niqab; whereas the Syrian ban was applauded by Syrian women. How to explain this difference? First, the details. News of a ban on teachers wearing the niqab in public schools first trickled out at the end of last month. Then this week, the Syrian minister of higher education said students wearing the niqab would be banned from university campuses in the country.

Both decisions come soon after Egyptian courts upheld a government ruling that niqabs could not be worn during university exams. These are small steps, but they herald larger changes. When, last year, Egypt's most senior cleric, Sheikh Tantawi, banned the niqab from Al-Azhar, the greatest seat of Sunni Islamic scholarship, it was seen as a marker of where the debate lies. Other countries in the region will be watching the reaction from Syria and may yet follow suit.

Media reports from Damascus have shown women and feminists broadly in favour of the ban: one law professor said it showed the country was taking a moderate stance, while the director of the Syrian Women Observatory, a women's rights organisation, said: "The niqab is a very big kind of violence against women. The women underneath the niqab are victims." Speaking to Syrian women over the past two days, some who veil and some who don't, the overall feeling is one of a positive move. "I don't think you'll meet many women opposed to it," one tells me. "The niqab infringes my rights and I'm glad it's gone."

What is it, from the perspective of Syrian women, that makes them so keen to accept what appears to be an infringement of personal rights? The answer is familiar to anyone who has been given the condescending once-over on the streets of Manhattan or Beirut: the judgement of strangers. It turns out to be a question of choice: by removing one choice, Syrian women hope the ban will defend a space for them to choose others. That view needs some unpacking.

Start with the munaqabas (as women who wear the niqab are called in Arabic). For them, this ban is not merely an inconvenience. It strikes at the heart of their freedom, forcing them to choose between an education and their conscience. The media has not spent much time worrying over their views, but it is a fearful choice for these women to make: should they give up the opportunity of higher education, or compromise their beliefs?

That choice is complicated by the situation on the ground. Some choose the niqab less out of piety than practicality. "Girls are so competitive in what they wear and I don't have the money to keep up," a young manaqaba told me in Damascus. "This way, no one cares what I look like and no one judges me for being poor." It is certainly true that the niqab appears to be more popular among women of lower socioeconomic status. With the exception of an emerging sub-strata of wealthy women who have started covering themselves completely, the daughters of the rich and middle classes (who provide the vast majority of university students) tend to uncover their hair or wear the hijab.

For most of this group, who have been immersed from an early age in French and Anglo-American culture, overt displays of faith are not common, and they are fierce defenders of Syria's secularism. Their support for the ban comes not from a wish to infringe the rights of a minority, but from a feeling that their right to choose what to wear was itself being infringed; that, in a small but serious way, their consciences were being coerced.

This coercion is subtle, but every woman I spoke to mentioned it. It is the equating of modesty with piety. An increase in the wearing of the hijab in Syria has brought a type of competition among women for the appearance of piety. Previously, women could dress (broadly) as they wished, without a suggestion that the tightness of their jeans or the colour of their hijab implied anything about their morals. But as clothing became looser, that connection became tighter, and is increasingly made by women themselves. "The worst people for judging you are other women," said one Syrian businesswoman. "They tell you you shouldn't be wearing this or that you should be more modest. Even strangers will tell you."

The hijab, they seem to suggest, is so last season. Thus the wearing of the niqab has become more than a choice or a symbol; it has become a declaration, a way of displaying one's inner devotion. The more devout you are, the more pious, the more you cover up. If you follow that logic to its natural end, it also suggests that those women who don't wear the veil are themselves declaring something. And, in a conservative society, they are not declaring something wholesome.

Understandable, then, that women who don't wear the niqab refuse to be judged for that decision. That, it seems to me, is the feeling that Syrian women who support the ban have. That the peer pressure to appear devout was a serious infringement. This peer pressure is where the people affected by the niqab ban intersect with the politics. The Syrian government has other reasons to enact the ban than simply responding to the wishes of women; it is not hard to see the move as a way of defending its secular rule against rising religious voices.

Yet the impact of the ban is being felt as empowering. As much as it is difficult to get excited about a government interfering in the lives of its citizens, it is easy to understand why some Syrian women now feel more empowered to make choices. Whether such a blunt legal instrument will have the desired effect is yet to be seen. Faisal al Yafai is a journalist and Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010. He is the editor of a forthcoming collection of essays, "Women, Islam and Western Liberalism", to be published in London in the autumn.