The debate over niqab currently ensuing as France enforces a ban on face veils somewhat bewilders me, mainly because I live in Dubai, a city of striking contrasts that attempts to cater to the values of many of its varied residents who hail from countries around the world. Dubai has become a “salad bowl” of cultures that strive to co-exist while maintaining traditional practices, including attire. On some occasions, I have sensed that women are more liberated in their clothing choices in Dubai than they are in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada.

During a visit to one of Dubai’s many malls, one can pass by scantily clad women wearing mini-skirts and provocative tops and, a few seconds later, walk beside a woman of Gulf Arab nationality donning a black abaya (robe) and full face veil, sometimes accompanied by her husband and children, sometimes with other female relatives or friends and sometimes on her own. 
Diverse attire worn in Dubai shopping mall, courtesy Gulf News

Despite warnings in malls about ensuring that people dress modestly, women are able to buy and wear a diverse array of clothing. Some dress in stylish and modest Western dress, others wear decorative abayas with or without a head-covering, some wear Western-style attire with hair covering, and still others wear traditional Asian attire such as the Indian sari or Pakistani shalwar kameez.

I suppose living in this nuanced environment for a number of years has desensitised me to the issue of women’s attire. I am pretty much fine with what a woman wears so long as she is comfortable. In my view, clothing choices to a large degree are not independently reached. Rather, women are conditioned by the familial and cultural influences they were exposed to growing up. Many women believe their individual liberty can be expressed by exercising their freedom to wear revealing clothing. Many others feel they derive liberty from modest attire that distracts attention away from their physical manifestation and forces people they interact with to focus on their intellect.

The face veil is not an exception to this debate. Cultural interpretations of God’s expectations from women practising the Islamic faith have in a limited number of cases idealised this form of dress. My perspective is that the face veil is not rooted in Islamic texts, nor do I regard clothing in general to be among the primary markers of one’s Islam, an Arabic term meaning “submission to God”.
Unfortunately, face veils are in certain cases a misogynist cultural convention that has conditioned some Muslim women to believe that the clothing they wear will dictate their fate after death. However, the motivation behind wearing niqab is not exclusively so; many women wear niqab out of deep conviction that it draws them nearer to God and removes their physical self from the glare of sexual objectification.
One of my aunts began wearing a face veil a few years ago. She was widowed two decades ago, lost a teenager daughter eight years ago, and now lives on her own. She came to the decision as she draws herself more deeply in worship, showing her face only to God when she prays. While I witnessed a number of individuals in the family question her rationale for making this choice, arguing that it does not have a legitimate basis in the faith, I defend her freedom to choose. As someone attempting to embrace  the true spirit of Islam, I am obliged to be kind, tolerant and nonjudgmental. I feel deeply that if a woman is wearing a face veil as an expression of her identity and belief, it should be her right to do so in a society that values freedom of expression.
An outright ban on a garment of clothing only perpetuates oppression and hatred. It demeans the cultural tradition, puts in jeopardy community bonds and can incite an angry backlash, rather than advancing women’s rights and guarding public safety. On the contrary, people understandably tend to cling to their values when they come under threat.
Supporters of France’s ban deem it legitimate because they argue face veils are incompatible with gender equality and pose threats to public safety. If there are legitimate security concerns, then Amnesty International’s proposal last July for “targeted restrictions on the complete covering of the face in well-defined high risk locations” would suffice. “Individuals may also be required to reveal their faces when objectively necessary, for instance for identity checks. French law already allows for such limited restrictions,” Amnesty, which opposes the ban, continued.
If there are genuine concerns over the treatment and coercion of women by their husbands, these should be addressed through greater emphasis on and funding of cultural institutions dedicated to assisting women who choose to leave abusive circumstances. There should be steps taken to influence the conditioning process, so women who have not been exposed to the variety of viewpoints rooted in Islamic values are able to, over time, make informed, independent choices.
While growing up in Canada and the United States, I came across a number of women of various nationalities and faiths who faced abuse (physical, verbal and emotional) by their husbands. Through community support networks, interactions with women in their neighbourhoods and watching talk shows like Oprah Winfrey, these women found the courage to leave their abusive households. 

As many of these women were reliant on their husbands financially, their means of escape was facilitated by the existence of local shelters for battered women. These institutions offered them a secure environment, moral and financial support to progressively tackle their situations and help them begin new lives. Strengthening and funding such community programmes is much more essential for empowering women than making a blanket assumption that all women who wear a face veil must be brain-washed, oppressed and abused.

France’s niqab ban stems from an intolerant government policy rather than any genuine interest to advance women’s equality and protect society. When France began enforcing the ban on face veils this week, I read pages of anti-Islam comments congratulating the government and encouraging it to follow up with new policies, some going as far as calling for all Muslims to be expelled from the country. 

The ban has, in this regard, unfortunately taken a gigantic step backward in promoting tolerance and freedom of expression. I am doubtful that efforts to mobilise protests against the ban will be effective due to the overwhelming support in government circles for passing the ban in the first place. If I was a woman who chose to wear niqab out of conviction, I would respect the new law and remove it. I would also, if it was in my power, strive to leave that environment as quickly as possible.

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Look forward to your comments!

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