The banning of Niqab in France is a clear violation of basic human rights. Giving the government power to enforce the removal of dress is as offensive as an Islamic state forcing woman to wear it. But I think that it signifies that we Muslims have failed as a community to be a part of the narrative. The banning of Niqab represents a major cultural misunderstanding.
By the non-Muslim community, Niqab is viewed as a wall, a way to remove woman from society. Muslims need to understand that this can be offensive to cultures that are more open, like Europe and the U.S.
But Europeans and Americans should also understand that the niqab is not a requirement of Islam. It is a traditional form of dress, steeped in tribal times when woman (especially rich or powerful women) were not safe outside of their homes. They were often kidnapped or raped, and the solution was to cover their entire body so that no one would know who they were. It also protected them from the whipping wind and course sands in the dessert.
We need to get beyond defining Islam is one massive lump of people who do that weird bending prayer five times a day and fast during Ramadan. And we need to make an effort to understand Muslims as individuals. The Muslim community is diverse and complex. We are mothers and fathers, career men and women, homemakers, single mothers, and yes, some Muslims are niqabiahs. We have unique cultures and upbringings that define who we are as individuals, and we come together through Islam.
There are many variations, perspectives, and interpretations of that Islam. There are conservative Muslims, extremist Muslims, liberal Muslims, millenial Muslims, feminist Muslims, Muslims-who-don’t-practice-but-were-born-into-Islam-so-they-call-themselves-Muslims, Muslim converts, Muslim traditionalists, and many more. And at every mosque or Islamic Center in the country you will probably find one or more of those variations. It’s like taking one person out of every Christian denomination and putting them together in one big Christian Community Center. Grab a Catholic, an Evangelist, a Lutheran, a Methodist, and a Baptist and stick ‘em all in one place. You’d be hard pressed to define that group. They all believe in God, they all pray, and they all try to be good people the best way they know how, but they also each have their own traditions and beliefs that make them unique.
The responsibility of understanding Muslims as individuals does not rest on the shoulders of non-Muslims. As Muslims, we have a responsibility to show society who they are. We need to open our mosques, share our meals, join prayer circles, crack jokes, and represent ourselves in our communities as the loving, neighborly people that we are.