Michelle Obama, the Saudis and the veil

Michelle Obama, the Saudis and the veil

U.S. President Barack Obama visited Saudi Arabia last Tuesday, to pay respect to the late Saudi King Abdullah. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, was also on the trip, and one particular feature initiated controversy on the Internet: She was not veiled! In fact, her dress was quite modest by Western standards, but she was not covering her hair. And that was quite controversial in the Saudi Kingdom, where it is required by law that every woman should wear an abaya (a long, hiding cloak), and should at least wear a hijab (headscarf) if not the more conservative niqab (full face-evil).

Back in Turkey, this controversy reminded me of the objections I have to the authoritarian laws in “Islamic” states such as Saudi Arabia, or Iran, regarding female dress.

First of all, there is something self-refuting about the impositions in these countries on all women covering themselves. Because the Quranic injunctions that are commonly interpreted as the basis for veiling are only about Muslim women. Verse 24:31, the most explicit injunction on this matter, says to the Prophet Muhammad: “Tell the believing women to reduce their gaze and guard their private parts and not expose their adornments, except that which [necessarily] appears thereof, and to wrap their headcovers over their bosom…”

As you can see, the verse is about “the believing women,” not all women. (The term is frequently used in the Quran for Muslims, as a separate community from Christians, Jews, Polytheists, and others.) Therefore, non-Muslim women should not be expected to wear the veil at all.

Moreover, what the Quran really orders is quite open to interpretation. The above quoted verse tells Muslim women not to “expose their adornments.” But what exactly are these “adornments”? Some medieval scholars said, “everything except the face, hands and feet.” Hence the hijab. Others said, “everything accept the eyes.” Hence the niqab. Some even suggested closing the eyes as well, hence the burqa. But today it is possible to offer a more relaxed interpretation, since the definition of an “adornment” can change from culture to culture, century to century.

As for the clause about “wrapping their headcovers over their bosoms,” is the emphasis on covering the hair, as the traditional view assumed? Or is it on covering the bosom, as you could also assume? It is anybody’s interpretation.

In my view, every Muslim woman should be able to follow the interpretation that she finds convincing. Thus, she should be able to wear a niqab, hijab, or a more modern, flexible dress. Moreover, she should be able to simply be non-observant, as hundreds of millions of Muslim men who do not pray five times a day are.

The trouble in “Islamic” states is that they impose their interpretation of Islam on everybody in their territory — even if they are non-Muslims, non-observant, or observant Muslims of different sorts. This means that they are interested in Islamizing their territory — with the Islam of their choice — rather than in caring about the genuine faith and convictions of the individuals who happen to be within their borders. According to the Quran (and common sense), though, only individuals can be Islamic or un-Islamic — not mindless, soulless territories.