Please note that the following are my (Amad’s) views on the debate and don’t reflect MM or Hebah’s views.
MuslimMatters blogger, Hebah Ahmed, went head to head with prominent commentator Mona Eltahawy on the issue of the face-veil (niqab) ban in France on CNN. Even while getting far less speaking time, Hebah pretty much pwned (excuse the lingo) Mona. Hebah’s confident and composed appearance surely won the day against a somewhat shrill Mona. This happens when you argue reason (Hebah) against pure emotion (Mona). There are many lessons that all Muslims, regardless of view on niqab, can learn from Hebah’s TV appearance: composure, succinctness, drawing out themes and buzz-words that average audience will latch onto, etc. Also, you can’t discount the importance of sounding more American than the other (yes that includes accent)! It was refreshing to watch a Muslim woman making her own case for what she believes (or not), instead of some talking-head.
Well done Hebah, we are all proud of you! Dear readers, pls do take a moment to leave a kind word if you agree with us on Hebah’s performance (regardless of your stance on her argument).
SPITZER: Debates over integrating devout Muslims into society are not unique to the United States. Effective today it is illegal to wear a burqa in France or a niqab like this. A Muslim veil that reveals only the eyes.
The new law drew protest and confusion on the streets of Paris. Two women stepping out in their niqabs and drawing the crowd were arrested for staging an unauthorized protest.
The French government has called the veils, and I quote, “a new form of enslavement,” and, quote, “not acceptable on its soil.”
Many Muslims are enraged but not all. I am joined by Hebah Ahmed, a writer for the blog, Muslim Matters, who’s against the ban. She’s in Albuquerque. And Mona Eltahawy, a columnist on Arab and Muslim issues who wants to see the ban extended everywhere. She’s joining me from Washington.
Welcome to you both.
HEBAH AHMED, BLOGGER, MUSLIMMATTERS.ORG: Thank you.
SPITZER: Let me begin by — if I might, by quoting the President Sarkozy of France in his justification for the law. It’s kind of a remarkable statement. He says, and I quote — this is the president of France. “The burqa is not a religious symbol. It’s a sign of enslavement of debaseness. I want to say this solemnly. The burqa will not be welcomed on the territory of the French republic. We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind a mask, deprived of all social life of their identity.”
So, Mona, let me start with you. You want to extend this ban across the world. Do you agree with President Sarkozy that merely because somebody wants to dress like this, they choose to dress like this, they shouldn’t be permitted to do so?
MONA ELTAHAWY, COLUMNIST ON MUSLIM ISSUES: You know, Eliot, I detest Nicolas Sarkozy. I consider him right wing and racist but I also detest the niqab and I detest the face veil. And I say this as a Muslim woman.
I think that it represents an ideology that does not believe in Muslim women’s rights to do anything but choose to cover her face. And I find that — I believe that the niqab dangerously equates piety with the disappearance of women and so I support banning it everywhere because I don’t — it’s not in the Koran, it’s not an obligation for a Muslim woman to cover her face, and my talk with you now with you seeing my face is going to be very different than if I were sitting here with my face covered.
I believe that the human face is central to communication.
SPITZER: OK, Mona, the only thing I would observe and I want to give Hebah a chance to jump in of course but I heard you used single personal pronoun I many times. I have no doubt you believe that, but why should your belief ban other people from wearing what they want to wear. That’s what I don’t get.
Hebah, explain to me why you think the ban is a bad idea.
AHMED: I think that it’s a bad idea because I think it’s yet another example of men telling women how to dress, how to live their life. It’s another way to try to control women. And to take it to a government level and to try to legislate the way that a woman dresses is not just wrong and against human rights, but it really violates the whole basis that the democracy in democratic countries are based.
This is a free choice. This is something that I choose to wear. I disagree that it’s some right-wing ideology. It is something that is permitted in Islam. I have a masters degree in mechanical engineering and I’m free to do whatever I want, and this is choice that want to make. And just because somebody doesn’t accept my interpretation of Islam or personally like it doesn’t mean that we can use laws to violate people’s freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
SPITZER: Hebah, let me just ask you this. When you go to the airport, you understand they’re going to be obligations, they’re going to have to check you for security like they check all the rest. When you get a driver’s license, they take a picture with or without your veil on? AHMED: Absolutely. I want everyone to know that as a Muslim woman, as a Muslim in America, I am just as concerned about safety and security as everybody else. And I have no problem whatsoever accommodating any security issues that come about. When I enter a bank, when I go to the airport, when I go to the DMV, I show my face and actually in Islam we are required to show our identity when we’re in a court system giving testimony. This is absolutely something that is essential for the security and identification of people, but it doesn’t mean that I should be banned completely from what I choose to do.
SPITZER: OK, Mona, let me jump in here. There are lots of type of dress that I look at and I don’t like them. I think they’re degrading. I think they’re oppressive. You know, a lots of things that I see teenagers wearing that, you know, I’m now viewed as old- fashioned by my kids perhaps. I don’t go around saying we should pass a law banning it. Isn’t that fundamentally violative (ph) of the First Amendment? What possible reason can there be legally to say to somebody you can’t dress the way you want to dress.
MONA ELTAHAWY, COLUMNIST ON MUSLIM ISSUES: Actually, Eliot, the government does tell people how they can and can’t dress all the time. You cannot walk outside naked. There are many states here in the U.S. where three or more people cannot be together in public wearing a face mask. So the government actually does legislate over our wardrobe, but everybody conveniently forgets that.
I would like to ask Hebah, you know, once I’m done talking, if she works. Because we’ve been on media shows together where we’ve been on opposite ends of this argument and I know from what she said before that once she started covering her face, she stopped working. So my argument is — and this is not just about “I.” I understand the point that you were making earlier, Eliot. Feminist groups, many women’s rights group have made the point that what the niqab goes in a society, especially for Muslim women is that it creates a spectrum where that is the pinnacle of piety and that is the good Muslim woman and so, of course, it has — it affects me.
In France, where this ban is going in effect, Muslim women’s rights group there support it because they find that Muslim women who live in the French housing projects have been put under tremendous pressure by the Muslim right wing to give into the niqab, and when they speak out they are told it’s basically become these political pawns.
SPITZER: But, Mona —
ELTAHAWY: That’s why I said I oppose Sarkozy but I oppose this on women because what choice do women have besides covering their face. This ideology doesn’t recognize Muslim women’s rights.
SPITZER: Mona, I just have to push you on one thing here. There are certain prohibitions on the way people dress, or you mentioned nudity that don’t dress that are in fact imposed upon us by law but none of them that I’m aware relates to a specific religion and says if you are a devout member of a religion you cannot dress in a way that you are obligated to to practice your religion, your choice of faith. Can you think of any example like that? Because I can think of a thousand other laws if this were upheld that suddenly we would limit all sorts of things that people do for their religious beliefs because we don’t agree with it. Wouldn’t that be a very dangerous thing to do?
ELTAHAWY: See, this is I think where these right-wing interpretations of religion get a free pass because everybody says well, it’s my religious obligation, it’s my religious right do this. Let’s look really at what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the disappearance of women justified in the name of them becoming closer to God. So the closer you want to become to God, the more — the less of you, the more you disappear.
SPITZER: But, Mona —
AHMED: I don’t feel that I have disappeared at all.
SPITZER: One at a time.
AHMED: I totally disagree.
SPITZER: Guys, one at a time. Hebah, jump in. Tell us, does anybody forced you to do this? Is this something you’re doing with your own free will?
AHMED: Nobody has — nobody has forced me do this and I really have to disagree with the statistics that Mona is trying to put forth because studies have shown that there are only 2,000 women in France that wear the niqab. The majority of them are converts who converted to Islam and are voluntarily choosing to do it. This is my choice. Nobody can force me to take it off. I would not take it off even if you paid me to do it. And the fact of the matter is that there’s never — I have never met a single Muslim woman in all of my travels around the world that is being forced to wear it. She — I understand Mona does not like it and does not want to wear it personally. But she keeps talking about her own feelings about it and she wants to use the law to support it. If she wants diversity and Islamic belief, then she has to accept my version just like she wants me to accept hers.
SPITZER: Mona, let me ask you this question. Do you have any evidence to support your statement that women are forced to wear this? And let me ask you this. If women are being forced to do something they don’t want to do, there is recourse other than banning this entire motive dress that has chosen as we just heard from Hebah by people who do choose to wear it of their own free will.
ELTAHAWY: Well, you know, I lived in Saudi Arabia. I have a sense that she’s traveled the world and she’s never met a woman who has been forced to wear it. I lived in Saudi Arabia where millions of women are forced to cover their face. But now that the argument will be, well, that’s in Saudi Arabia not in France. What choice does a woman have when she’s told she will burn in hell if she doesn’t cover every inch of her body? What kind of a choice is that? So, of course, she’s going to convert to this ideology. AHMED: I’ve never heard that. I’ve never heard anybody say that.
ELTAHAWY: But the women who convert to this ideology who are then told that this is how to be a good Muslim woman, to be close to God, to avoid hellfire, is there really a choice in that? And I believe when you have a law like this, you know, I told you I detest Sarkozy. I consider him racist, but I will not sacrifice Muslim women’s rights in order to uphold the Muslim right wing which I believe is misogynist. With a law like that, a woman can tell her husband or any male relative who is forcing her to dress like this, the law says I don’t have to dress like this.
SPITZER: Mona — Mona, let’s not deal with Saudi Arabia, different customs, different laws. We have the First Amendment.
AHMED: Thank you.
SPITZER: I was talking about France. I was talking about France.
SPITZER: Mona, wait, hold on one second. In the United States, we have the First Amendment that gives people the right to practice religion as they wish. Do you not think that a law in the United States that would ban this form of dress would violate the First Amendment, permission to practice religion as each individual sees fit?
ELTAHAWY: Well, this comes back to religion again. Everything is allowed, just because someone says it’s their religious belief. You know, what I think —
SPITZER: No, no, no, Mona — I’m going to jump in. Hold on one second. It’s banned or permitted until there is some compelling state interest on the other side, but it’s got to be an overwhelming interest. What is the overwhelming interest that would justify us in banning a type of dress that people choose as a result of their religion?
ELTAHAWY: Well, all the reasons I just gave you but I will repeat. I believe that this is genuinely harmful to Muslim women because it creates this pinnacle of piety in which a Muslim woman is told, this is the closest that you can get to God and she’s disappeared. I’m no longer here. You don’t even know who I am. The face is central to communication.
ELTAHAWY: And not just that, it objectifies women.
SPITZER: Mona, Mona.
ELTAHAWY: The pinnacle of objectification.
SPITZER: Look, I agree with much of what you’re saying but not as the matter of law. You know, you get the last word. You haven’t gotten a fair time in this one. Give it the best 15 seconds you’ve got.
AHMED: Thank you. Basically, I want people to know that when I choose to cover this way it’s because I am fighting against a systematic oppression against women in which women’s bodies are being sexualized and objectified. This is a different perspective and a different form of empowerment in which I think when I’m in public, my sexuality is in my control and people have to deal with my brain and who I really am and not judge me by my body. And if we want to really talk about the oppressive situation of women, let’s talk about all the eating disorders, all of the plastic surgery, all of the unhealthy diets that are being done, all in the name of having the perfect body. To me, this is liberating and this is empowering. Mona keeps saying I believe, I believe, I believe, well, we don’t make laws based on what Mona believes or what anybody believes.
SPITZER: All right. Guys, well —
AHMED: It’s based on whether or not —
SPITZER: This is clearly not an issue we’re going to resolve in the will resolve in the next 10 seconds. I want to thank you both. Hebah Ahmed and Mona Eltahawy, clearly a passionate and important debate.
AHMED: Thank you.