I have never been shy about expressing my rage when countries — whether Muslim or non-Muslim — strip women of their rights and make demands on how they live their lives.
This includes France with its discriminatory laws banning the niqab that criminalizes women from practicing their religion. But regardless of my position on wearing the niqab in the West, I believe Islam is very flexible by showing individuals the right path and then giving them the right to make choices. Whether a woman wants to wear the niqab is nobody’s business but between her and Allah.
However, I do not have much sympathy for the three Saudi women who were refused entry to France at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport on June 11 because they were wearing the niqab. French border police returned them on a flight to Doha after the women refused to unveil.
To their credit, the three Saudi women haven’t whined about their treatment from French authorities. And frankly, it is too late for that. The time for the Muslim community to speak up against the French anti-niqab law was in 2010 before it was signed into legislation. Our failure to summon up representation in the French Muslim community to protest against the law has only helped institutionalize anti-Muslim bigotry. Now, French law officials have fined as many as 300 women for wearing the face veil.
Still, the law is the law. And as we often say in Saudi Arabia to foreign visitors, respect our laws, customs and traditions. We ask foreigners to observe Saudi laws no matter how offensive they perceive them. If you want to drink alcohol go to a country that permits it. Do it in Saudi Arabia and go to jail. It is simple and clear-cut. There is no ambiguity.
There is little difference with the attitude of French authorities. When Saudis choose of their own free will to travel to France — and now Belgium — respect their niqab bans no matter how offensive it is as a Muslim. If you do not like the ban, do not go. France is perhaps the most secular nation on the planet. Their distaste for outward displays of religion and non-French culture is evident with their bans on the hijab and other religious symbols in public institutions. It is not a secret.
The irony, of course, is that French authorities passed the law in part because they perceive it as oppressive and a violation of women’s rights. Never mind that preventing women from wearing an article of clothing is also an infringement of civil liberties and freedom of religion (Yes, I recognize that Saudi Arabia has its own restrictions on clothing and religion, but we don’t pretend to be a democracy).
The three Saudi women chose to fly from Doha to Paris knowing full well of France’s niqab ban. At the airport, border police refused them entry because they would not remove the niqab. The women’s behavior is wrong on so many levels. They are at the airport. They have their passports with their photos in their hands. They are expected to identify themselves by having the passport officer match the passport photo with their face.
We expect at Saudi Arabia airports that women remove their niqab for the female passport officer in a private room to examine the travel documents to match the face to the photo.
It is unclear whether the women were turned away because of the niqab ban or because they refused to submit to identification at the airport. Later reports said French authorities fined the women for violating the law before putting them on the Doha-bound plane.
This smacks of overkill. They were at the border and refused entry, but still fined for violating the law? Talk about piling it on.
Foreigners have the luxury of deciding where to spend their holiday. If those visitors choose to spend their money in a country with a history of discrimination then it is their choice. But we should remember that Muslims who live in France have no choice. They may have no country to return to because either they were born in France and are French citizens, or they left their own native home out of economic necessity. Instead of contributing to the economy that openly discriminates against Muslims, perhaps foreign visitors should consider spending their money in a country that treats its people with more respect.
There’s a time and a place for standing up for one’s rights. If you fly into the United States and get turned away for wearing a veil, then by all means make a big stink about it, seek justice and hold those who made the decision accountable. There is no US law banning the veil.
Fly to France or Belgium and leave the niqab at home. Your rights end at the border. It’s the sad truth.
n Sabria S. Jawhar is an assistant professor at King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences. Her blog: http://www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com/. This article is
exclusive to Arab News.