The Grand Imam of Egypt's al-Azhar University, Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, recently told a female student to remove her niqab (a veil that covers the face) during a lecture, ostensibly because he had trouble hearing her. After he faced outrage from conservative Muslims, Sheikh Tantawi went ahead and banned the niqab from the university. Now, a group of Egyptian MPs, lawyers and human rights group have sued the Sheikh to reverse the decision.
The New Republic's Marty Peretz took this development as an opportunity to blast President Obama for his speech in Cairo, where the President said, "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal." According to Peretz, "President Obama's indiscriminate endorsement of these curtaining contraptions is an intrusion into an active debate in the Muslim world, a reckless intrusion." Furthermore, Peretz suggests Sheikh Tantawi's decision is a "retort to Obama's intrusion."
I have to disagree on this one. President Obama sought to heal the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world in Cairo. For too long that relationship has been governed by mutual fear, instead of the "mutual interest and mutual respect" President Obama seeks to cultivate. Given Obama's purpose in Cairo and the millions of Muslim Americans the President represents, he has every right to speak about the veil. After all, why wouldn't the President speak about America's fundamental values of democracy, liberty and, yes, religious tolerance?
Part of the process of ameliorating our relationship must begin with the recognition that the veil is a legitimate symbol of Muslim piety. Many Muslim women choose to wear the veil, in the exact way many Orthodox Jews choose to wear kippot. There is no moral difference. However, there are certainly Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil against their will. Clearly, this is unacceptable and the U.S. must push for their right to dress as they please.
While Peretz brags about how many books he's read on the topic, he clearly hasn't spoken to many Muslim women. When I attended President Obama's speech at Cairo University (Peretz mistakenly says the speech took place at al-Azhar), it was obvious to me how excited the Muslim women were to hear the President's support for the veil. The comment drew some of the loudest applause of the entire speech. Nor were the women all conservative Muslims. Roughly half were students of the secular Cairo University, while many more women included Egypt's pop singers, movie stars and socialites (not exactly known for their religiosity).
Furthermore, it's outlandish to think Sheikh Tantawi would make such a fundamental decision only to retort the American president, as Peretz dubiously claims. After criticizing President Obama for inserting himself into an internal Muslim debate, Peretz oddly minimizes the validity of that debate with such an accusation. In addition, while al-Azhar University is considered one of the premier institutions of Sunni thought, it simultaneously carries a stigma of too closely following the Egyptian government line. It is impossible to understand the niqab ban without considering the long-lasting struggle between the Egyptian regime and Islamism. Just last week the Egyptian government detained 24 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the leading Islamist opposition group.
When Westerners like Peretz fixate on the veil while discussing women's rights, they do little to help real Muslim women. In fact, they only obfuscate the real problems Muslim women face every day, like economic inequality and insufficient education. That is the ultimate tragedy of arguments like the one Peretz lays out. Out of a desire to help, he only hurts the cause.
To see what real Muslim women are like, check out this photo album of Saudi women from Time Magazine and read this article by Sumbul Ali-Karamali about a recent Muslim women's rights conference in Malaysia. And if you're really interested, I wrote a comment to that article as well.