Debate on the Burqa

Debate on the Burqa[1]

‘Difference amongst my community is a sign of the bounty of Allah’

- Hadith of the Prophet.[i]

Possibly no issue [about clothing] gives rise to more polarisation, concern and division than that of the burqa.[2] In Australia we are reading about this on almost a daily basis. However, this polarisation is not confined to Western nations and their governments. It divides Muslims, their religious scholars, and the governments of Muslim majority nations as well. Today’s angst in all corners of the world about veiling is almost exclusively directed at Muslim women, so much so that Heath concludes it has become ‘a locus for the struggle between Islam and the West and between contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam.’[ii]

We know that not all Muslim women veil and are aware that women from other religious traditions and cultures may also choose to veil. Throughout history veiling was a common practice in Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. It is rare for the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, to be depicted without a veil, and for centuries Catholic women who took holy orders as nuns veiled whilst laywomen covered their heads at Mass. These practices mainly ended in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council’s determination to ‘renew and update the church’ but the end to veiling in the Catholic Church was not without controversy. Fifty years later, many brides in the Christian tradition will still veil, including a face veil, for marriage. [I, for one, did at my wedding]. A large number of Greek and Southern Italian women continue to wear a black headscarf, similar to Muslim women in rural Turkey.

What I hope to do is to explain how and why it is that Muslims divide on the issue of Islamically correct dress for Muslim women. To do so, the starting point has to be the sources of authority and interpretation in Islamic law (Sharia) on requirements for female attire, and some analysis of how these sources of law are applied in a contemporary context. But first what is a burqa?

What is a burqa?

The term ‘burqa’ comes from the Arabic root ‘to sew up’ and technically refers to a form of a loose outer garment which covers the entire woman’s body including her head, in which there is a mesh panel or woven grille concealing her eyes and mouth. This grille enables her to see out, but prevents others from seeing in. Traditionally the garment was worn in Afghanistan where it is also called a chadri, and in adjacent parts of Pakistan, including the Northwest Province, and some parts of India. It can be black but hues of blue are also very common. The endorsement of the Taliban for the burqa has linked it closely to other patriarchal Taliban practices which restrict women’s freedoms and severely curtail many of their basic rights, including to education.

Today in the West the term ‘burqa’ is used more generally to refer to any form of Muslim dress that conceals a woman’s face (eyes may be visible or covered) in addition to covering her body.  So in Australia the word ‘burqa’ is commonly used for all forms of face veils, including the niqab,[iii] which may be worn with an abaya (cloak) as in the Middle East, or with a chador in Iran, and includes the sitar, the long veil that covers a woman’s eyes and body. The word ‘hijab’ comes from the Arabic word for curtain or cover and generally refers to a veil or headscarf that if not worn with a niqab allows a woman’s face, but not hair, to be visible. In the West, the word ‘hijab’ is also used generically to mean modest Islamic clothing involving a veil or head‑covering.

To discuss the issues surrounding the burqa, it is easier, I think, to use the term in its lay or popular sense, which is,  a body-covering that includes the concealment of the face, whether or not covering the eyes. The generic words ‘veil’, hijab, or ‘headscarf’ will be used to describe head coverings that allow the face to be seen.

Over time and place

For Muslims, the history of when and where Muslim women started veiling is not clear. One view is that during the time of the Prophet, women did not veil but when Islam spread towards the Persian, Assyrian and Byzantine-Christian regions where upper class or wealthy women did veil (in contrast to peasants and slaves) the custom was also adopted into Muslim practice.[iv] Another view is that forms of veiling did occur in the desert communities of pre-Islamic Arabia as a means to protect the face from the elements of the sun, sand, dust and wind, but after Allah’s revelations to the Prophet it became mandatory to veil to preserve female modesty, at first for the Prophet’s wives and then, through emulation, for all Muslim women. The practice spread but took on the colours and features prevailing in different local cultures where these were compatible with the principle of covering the body and head.

Today, the headscarf in all its manifestations including the burqa is the most visible sign of identification as a Muslim woman. Data shows that it is now adopted more frequently than it was fifty years ago. In the 1950s, veiling had almost disappeared in many Muslim societies where economic, political and scientific advances were occurring and not-veiling became directly associated with women’s social advancement within Muslim societies. The exception to this trend away from veiling was in the places which historian Albert Hourani [writing in the 1950’s], labelled the ‘backward regions’ of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.[v] Today, however, women whose mothers did not wear face veils are choosing to do so, both in Muslim and Western countries. The revival and popularity of the niqab/burqa is spreading to parts of the Muslim world, such as Malaysia and Brunei, where by tradition a women’s face was always visible and where a head covering was optional. It would seem that a sign of modern Islam can be either a revival of tradition or an emulation of Arab culture.  It also may demonstrate an explicit rejection of Western practices and values in support of Islam.

In some Muslim nations, like Tunisia and Turkey, there have been burqa bans and other prohibitions on distinctive Islamic clothing for men and women for decades, some of which are now being relaxed or overturned.  In the 1920’s Ataturk prohibited not only the burqa/niqab but all forms of veiling for women in the modernisation and secularisation of Turkey. The Shah of Iran followed suit, only to have the policy fully overturned by Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution when the strict chador dress code was restored and enforced. In the 1980’s Tunisia’s liberal reformist government banned not only the burqa but all head coverings in public schools, universities and government buildings. When the Islamist party gained office in the 2011 elections, they quickly quelled fears that Tunisian women would now be forced to cover and veil. Instead, veiling was recommended but was not made obligatory under national law. It is evident that at the political level, regime change may mean a whole different legal and religious paradigm in which what women wear is a key visual and symbolic component.

In Muslim immigrant communities in the West, some women adopt the burqa and headscarves as symbols of religiosity and empowerment thereby asserting a collective identity distinct from the Western one in which they reside. It is not all one way. At the other end of the spectrum is another manifestation of modern Islam: this is the woman who rejects ‘Islamic’ clothing believing what is in her head is more important than what is on it, and what is in her heart counts more in the eyes of Allah than what covers her body. These Muslim women dismiss as superficial the conflation of religious piety with layers of clothing. This dimension is not just for Muslim women in the West. Some prominent Muslim women in Parliaments and the media choose to wear Western-style suits, at the risk of peer and public condemnation. In Kuwait and Jordan attempts were made to exclude non-hijab wearing female members of Parliament.[vi]

To analyse these dichotomous positions, the starting point must be the Quran. Muslims believe the Quran is the direct and divine word of Allah (God) dictated to the Prophet Mohammad, making it not only a religious text but the primary source for Islamic law. How the Quranic passages have been interpreted by scholars, past and contemporary, gives rise to the disparity of views that are evident today.

The Quran

There are several verses in the Quran that relate to the appropriate dress for Muslim women in general and one that refers to the Prophet’s wives. The most commonly cited verse is Súra Núr, 24:31:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons… or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.[vii]

The traditionalist interpretation of this verse interprets broadly the phrase ‘not display their beauty and ornaments’ to encompass every aspect of a woman’s body, including hands and face. Lowering ‘their gaze’ directs specific attention to the feature of her eyes, which makes the burqa the ideal manifestation of the Quranic passage. For traditionalists, the wearing of the burqa/niqab becomes a command of God and is an obligation (fard), not a mere recommendation (mustahabb) for women. The face is regarded not as the last, but as the first ‘bodily part’ that she must cover, because her face ‘is the source of temptation and the source of people desiring her.’[viii] Men must be protected from any desire that the sight of a woman’s face could arouse while a Muslim woman can feel more secure and less sexually alluring if wearing a burqa. The latter perspective is described by Moghissi as the ‘protective shield’ justification.[ix]

The modernist interpretation of this same verse is that it does not direct a woman to cover any particular part of her body, except for the bosom, and the words ‘except what must ordinarily appear’ can only be referring to the hands and face. To extend the phrase ‘not display their beauty’ to the covering of a woman’s face, hair, hands, and her entire body belies Islam’s true message of modesty and humility. This is supported by the preceding verse which calls on men to also ‘lower their gaze and guard their modesty’ (Quran, Súra Núr, 24:30) so modesty is the key for both genders. The verse requires both sexes to ‘lower their gaze’. In order to follow this requirement, the face and especially the eyes must be visible. As there is no comparable juristic ruling that men should cover their faces, it is paternalistic to interpret it to apply solely to women. What is modest should be determined in keeping with what others in the society wear and this will change over time, according to place, and also according to cultural practices and the tasks women perform. Modernists refute that the onus should rest on women alone to curb male desire, and stress that men should develop self-control. If men and women have equal obligations to submit to God,  and ‘to guard their modesty’ it cannot be only women who are expected to manifest this dedication outwardly in the form of either burqa or even hijab.     

One verse in the Quran (Súra Ahzáb, 33:53) has the more generic word ‘hijab’ (curtain or screen) used, but it is in the context of speaking with the wives of the Prophet. ‘And when ye ask of them [the wives of the Prophet] anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain’. Textualist or traditonalist scholars extrapolate concealment by the curtain inside his home would extend to outside places with the hijab acting as ‘a physical barrier’[x] between women and others. Modernist scholars such as Reza Aslan and Leila Ahmed[xi] draw on this same verse to show that requirements for hijab, or covering, were applicable just for the Prophet’s wives because of their exalted status and special social position as the Prophet’s intimate companions. On the other hand, traditionalists assert that this requirement in the Quran laid down the exemplar for all Muslim women to emulate. Yet, a verse in the same chapter, Súra Ahzáb 33:32, clearly states ‘O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other women)’.[xii] This enables the verse following at 33:35 to be a qualifier, limiting the hijab requirement to the Prophet’s wives, rather than laying down an edict for women in all places and in subsequent centuries.

As can be seen, these passages in the Quran give rise to varied interpretations.  Scholars then turn to the second source of authority in Islamic law: the Sunnah. These are the legal rules derived from practices and sayings, known as hadith, of the Prophet Mohammad, which were recorded and verified several centuries after his death.


There is an array of hadith relating to women’s dress, and several deal with the wearing of the face covering burqa/niqab. One narrated by al Bukhari is that women during hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) must show their face and hands thereby making it forbidden (haram) to wear niqab, a burqa or gloves during the special state of purity known as ihram.[xiii] Literalists use this hadith to support the wearing of a burqa, niqab or gloves at all other times on the basis that the Prophet would not have otherwise needed to spell out the hajj exception. The alternative view is that if face covering was not required at this important religious ceremony, where both genders are present, then it would not be mandatory at other times. Another hadith narrated by Aisha (one of the wives of the Prophet) also supports a conservative stance: ‘When (the Verse): "They should draw their veils over their bosoms," was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces.’[xiv] Similarly, at the end of a long narration, the Prophet said: ‘and if one of the women of Paradise looked at the earth, she would fill the whole space between them (the earth and the heaven) with light, and would fill whatever is in between them, with perfume, and the veil of her face (italics added) is better than the whole world and whatever is in it.’[xv] However, there are hadith which support the less restrictive view. For example, one hadith recounts that when the Prophet was travelling with Al Fadhl, they came across a beautiful woman who spoke to the Prophet seeking advice for her father.  Al Fadhi was impressed by her beauty until the Prophet turned Al Fadhi’s head away.[xvi] To notice her beauty means she must not have had her face veiled and as the Prophet did not warn or chastise her for this, indicates his tacit or silent approval for her unveiled state.

It can be seen from the preceding discussion how legitimate juristic differences of opinion can arise from the two primary sources of Islamic law. For modernists this diversity is to be respected and admired as it gives flexibility to Muslim women to follow the interpretation that resonates with them. For textualists this diversity of views can be dangerous as it fractures the ummah (the Muslim community). Yet, the burqa debate continues unabated today and remains controversial in the Muslim heartlands. There was mixed reaction to Saudi cleric Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan’s ruling that women should not only cover their faces, but if wearing niqab they should reveal only one eye because ‘showing both eyes encourages women to use eye make-up to look seductive.’[xvii] There were equally mixed reactions to Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt, ruling that face covering was a pre-Islamic customary practice, and not a religious injunction. In certain contexts, notably at schools, he argued the face must be visible and was reported telling a student wearing a niqab at school to immediately remove it.[xviii] Over the last two decades there have been numerous court cases in Egypt relating to a range of government restrictions on niqab/burqas including whether burqa-wearing students were eligible to sit university exams so dressed.

In the West there is also division amongst Islamic scholars with the majority of the view that if it accords with her religious beliefs then it is her right as a Muslim to wear the burqa. Whilst it is noted that in countries like Australia and Canada, for example, most scholars ‘are silent’[xix] on whether the burqa is obligatory or not, there are some, such as Britain’s Shaykh Syed Mutawalli Darsh who caution against women covering their face in the West. This is because face coverings may create a barrier between the wearer and non-Muslims for whom the concept has never been known and may be alienating. Full veiling may therefore mitigate against outreach (da’wah) to non-Muslims; outreach deemed an obligation on all Muslims.[xx] Covering her face may also cause a Muslim woman to be harassed. Canadian Muneeb Nasr writes a ‘reasoned justification for not wearing the niqab in this society (Canada) is needed - one that seeks to engage others in an intra-community discussion, not alienation’.[xxi]

Reflecting on practices across the Muslim world, it is apparent that Muslim women’s dress clearly comes with political, religious and cultural messages that an observer can decode. Dress can be seen to align the wearer with a Salafi (fundamentalist/literalist) or with a modernist interpretation of Islam. It can signify a political direction either in support of, or against, secularism, or Islamisation, or Western cultural dominance through colonisation, or globalisation. It also can reflect a cultural identity and tradition. In Afghanistan, a woman wears the light hues of the burqa and secludes herself (purdah) to demonstrate her and her family’s honour and respect for social order.[xxii] On the Arabian Peninsula she wears a black abaya as a reflection of Salafi traditonalism,[xxiii] which generally restricts her movements in public non-segregated spaces. In conservative Wahhabi-informed Saudi Arabia all women, Muslim or non-Muslim are required by law to wear an abaya in public places with religious police (muttawa) employed to enforce it. In Malaysia, she wears the vibrant colours of traditional baju kurung with tudong and is not constrained by notions of purdah as Malay women have for centuries worked with and alongside men. However, these identifications are not static. For example, the spread of Salafi Islam from Saudi Arabia to Southeast Asia has meant that some Malaysian women who want to show their identification with that world‑view now don black abaya and niqab. Wearers of face coverings also believe it brings them closer to God and personifies their piety, spirituality and the highest possible personal level of modesty. Conversely, there are reports of young Iranian women testing the boundaries of compulsory chador dress code by adopting tighter fitting clothing and minimal or loose headscarves. In democratic Muslim Indonesia, what Muslim women wear is at the forefront of religious and legislative debate both nationally and particularly in the provinces which now have the legislative power to set and enforce their own dress codes and morality programs.

What Muslim women wear has become an important indice of many societal factors: the prevailing fiqh (religious interpretation and scholarship); the nation’s political direction; the influence of the ulama (scholars) at the public and personal level; and the woman’s own religious conviction and identification.

Reception of the burqa in the West

In Western nations with significant Muslim minorities most people accept the headscarf as a visible expression of a Muslim identity but see the burqa as something alien and confronting. The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has admitted to this, as did Julia Gillard during her term as Prime Minister.[xxiv] The burqa gives rise to a number of concerns in Western secular nations: rejection of the nation’s culture and values; subjugation of Muslim women by Muslim men, whether fathers, husbands or Imams; alignment with reactionary Islamist forces or terrorist‑supporting bodies; and weakening of human rights protections through oppression and loss of female autonomy. In response to these concerns, burqa/niqab wearing Muslim women in the West argue it is in fact Western women who are oppressed by the sexualisation and objectification of women. They respond that it is their human right to cover their face in any nation that claims to enshrine freedom of religion and expression; it is completely their own decision and not one imposed on them, directly or indirectly by men; and that Islamist views are lawful in a democracy; and as terrorism is contrary to Islam it can have no connection or connotation with what a woman wears.

At times, supporters of the burqa take a critical stance against the laxity and permissiveness in the West. It is frequently expressed that the clothing of Western women is a sign that Western men do not value women and women in turn have low self-esteem dressing only to please men’s carnal desires. In contrast, because Muslim women in burqas are kept ‘hidden’ it is asserted they are treasured like precious jewels. This type of reasoning was evident in a well‑publicised Friday sermon given by Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, the then Mufti of Australia and one of the nation’s senior clerics, in which he made the analogy that women who are out not wearing hijab are like meat left uncovered in the street to be eaten by cats; in effect their immodest dress invites sexual assault and gives excuse to the man who does so.[xxv] His view however was widely criticized by other leaders of Australia’s Muslim community and it shocked non-Muslims. The ‘protective shield’ rationale is quite common, but is challenged by Muslim feminists who point out that neither the burqa or hejab have protected women from rape and violence in Islamic states, and that the Islamic dress code did not help ‘women in Afghanistan or Algeria: in fact the threat to them increased during two decades of civil war when religious issues were brought to the fore.’[xxvi]

In liberal Western societies, it is not only non-Muslims that find the burqa confronting. Some Muslims also express angst because for them it does not evoke piety, rather they see it is as ‘the signature dress of Islamism’ and are concerned that extremist, militant Islam is taking root in the West in the hearts and minds of young Muslims.[xxvii]

Burqa bans in the West

Several European nations have made it an offence to conceal one’s face in public places. In 2009, France’s President Sarkozy said the nation ‘cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity’[xxviii] and set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the wearing of face coverings. The following year, France’s National Assembly passed 335-1 an ‘Act prohibiting concealment of the face in Public Space’[xxix] with a fine of €150 or lessons in French citizenship, or both, for concealing one’s face in a public place, which included cinemas, theatres, businesses (cafés, restaurants, shops), banks institutions, railway stations, airports and all means of public transport, as well as forests, beaches and public gardens.[xxx] This Act is worded neutrally to cover men and women of any age or nationality, but specifies the wearing of niqab or burqa as forms of concealment along with other face-covering items such as balaclavas, helmets and masks. The rationale given to the people of France was that face‑coverings prevent the clear identification of a person, which can be both a security risk and a social hindrance within a society that relies on facial recognition and expression in communication. Also, in the words of the Minister of Justice and Freedom, the ‘wearing of the full veil signifies a withdrawal from national society, rejection of the very spirit of the French Republic founded on the desire for social cohesion’.[xxxi] The Act was passed by the Senate and also found to be constitutionally valid by France’s Constitutional Council,[xxxii] on the grounds that ‘such practices are dangerous for public safety and security’ and ‘women who conceal their face, voluntarily or otherwise, are placed in a situation of exclusion and inferiority patently incompatible with constitutional principles of liberty and equality.’ In addition, an offence was added to the Penal Code (art 225-4-10) for compelling another person, ‘by means of threats, duress or constraint, undue influence or misuse of authority … by reason of the sex of said person to conceal their face’. This offence is punishable by one year’s imprisonment and a fine of €30,000, and these punishments are doubled if the person compelled is a minor.

Whilst the French legislation received criticism, with public shows of defiance by groups of Muslim women and supporters of a Muslim’s right to choose,[xxxiii] it was generally popular in France. The burqa ban was reported as having 80 per cent popular support, and Muslim members of Parliament also voted for the ban. Fadela Amara, the Muslim Algerian-born housing minister called the burqa ‘a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it’,[xxxiv] and ‘a visible symbol of the subjugation of women’ and the Mufti of Paris Dalil Boubakeur, advised the Assembly that the burqa/niqab was not prescribed in Islam and he saw it as inconsistent with French secularism. However, he did caution that imposing any legislated ban would be difficult. French politicians also noted Tantawi’s support for the banning of the burqa (as noted earlier) and that of fellow al-Azhar cleric, Abdel Muti al-Bayyumi, who stated: ‘I want to send a message to Muslims in France and Europe. The niqab has no basis in Islam…. I personally support the ban and many of my brothers in the Islamic Research Academy support it'.’[xxxv] There have been only a handful of arrests but the law sends a message that the burqa, at this point in time, is inconsistent with French citizenship.  This message is reflected in cases where citizenship for Muslim women is denied on the ground that burqa wearing is ‘incompatible with the fundamental values of the French community, and notably with the principle of sexual equality.’[xxxvi] Amnesty International condemned the law as a human rights violation of the freedom of expression of the women who choose to wear it willingly. Although Sarkozy lost the Presidential election in 2012, his socialist successor, Hollande, guaranteed to the voters that, if elected, he would not seek to overturn the law.

The stance taken by France commenced a chain of similar responses across Europe regarding the burqa. Belgium and Italy have enacted similar legislation, and the Netherlands Parliament voted in support of a ban on ‘concealing the face’, to take effect in 2013. Austria, Spain and Switzerland are currently debating the issue. The United Kingdom has ruled out such a ban, but it remains divisive, with tension points arising regularly.

The European burqa bans resulted in a series of cases being brought to the European Court of Human Rights on grounds that to do so is in violation of Art 9 (religious freedom) and Art 14 (discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.[xxxvii] Recently, the European Court judges upheld the French laws prohibiting and criminalising the wearing of the burqa on the grounds that:

The voluntary and systematic concealment of the face is problematic and is quite simply incompatible with the fundamental requirements of ‘living together’ in French society and that “[t]he systematic concealment of the face in public places, contrary to the ideal of fraternity, ... falls short of the minimum requirement of civility that is necessary for social interaction.” It indeed falls within the powers of the State to secure the conditions whereby individuals can live together in their diversity.[xxxviii]


Australian Senator Cory Bernardi was one of the first members of Parliament to call for a burqa ban on the grounds that [the] ‘burqa isolates some Australians from others. Its symbolic barrier is far greater than the measure of cloth it is created from.’[xxxix] However, unlike France where the Left and Right of politics agree, no political party in Australia has taken such an un-libertarian stance. Whilst Prime Minister Abbott has recently described the sight of women in burqas as ‘fairly confronting’[xl] he went on to add that “we are a free country, we are a free society and it is not the business of Government to tell people what they should and shouldn't wear.”[xli]

Apart from the symbolism of ‘them and us’, the religious dimensions and human rights implications, there are practical aspects especially in Western nations that arise regarding the burqa. Can a woman wear a burqa/niqab whilst giving evidence in court, especially as a witness in a criminal trial where the jury have to assess the veracity of her testimony without seeing her facial expressions? Justice Deane in Western Australian ruled that in a jury trial for fraud the face-covering of a Muslim witness had to be removed.[xlii]  Her Honour noted that whilst there was ‘need to be “respectful and sensitive” to the beliefs of individuals, she could not deny the jury the opportunity to determine the credibility of witnesses’.[xliii] When facial recognition is the basis of passports, driver licenses and other forms of identification, what exceptions, if any, should be made for a Muslim woman who wears a burqa? If identification by face is not possible, should face-covered women be fingerprinted? This was an issue in New South Wales after a Muslim woman wearing a burqa was charged and convicted of making false accusations against the police, but had this overturned on appeal because the court could not be absolutely certain of her identification when the false complaint was made because the burqa had prevented any facial identification.[xliv] In response, New South Wales introduced legislation to cover these situations.[xlv]

What concessions should be made to enable fully faced-veiled Muslim women engage in sport including in national teams? [xlvi] Australia’s design of the burqini for recreational swimming as well as for use in Surf Life Saving was well received amongst the wider community, and deemed ‘permissible’ by Mufti Hilali but was not accepted by all Islamic clerics, as there were concerns it hugged the body and a woman’s form was apparent especially when the fabric was wet.[xlvii] The burqini also leaves the face exposed. What degree of accommodation should be made for Muslims who wear the burqa and seek differential treatment? In response to a request for separate citizenship ceremonies for Muslim women who cover their faces, Canada not only rejected segregated ceremonies but banned Muslim women from covering their faces during such ceremonies on the ground that ‘we are all becoming Canadians together and … it is only a sign of respect for your fellow citizens, when you are pledging to them your commitment to live in a community with them, to show your face and who you are and that your pledge is heartfelt and authentic’.[xlviii]


The debate goes on: in the West and in Muslim nations, in universities, parliaments, in the media, in homes and between friends. Whether the burqa is a source of women’s liberation which enables her ‘to be judged not on face value’ but for who she is ‘as a person’, or whether it empowers her by being ‘in control of displaying [her] beauty’ to whom she chooses’[xlix] or whether the burqa is, simply, as Saudi journalist Maha al-Hujailan describes it as ‘walking prison’,[l] is likely to remain a moot issue for some time.


[1] This overview is modified from part of a chapter I wrote called ‘Contemporary debates on and with Islam’ in Ann Black, Hossein Esmaeili & Nadirsyah Hosen, Modern Perspectives on Islamic Law (Edward Elgar, 2013) 242-253.

[2] The word burqa is now commonly used in the English language so it does not require italics for a foreign term.

[i] Ali ibn Abd-al-Malik al-Hindi, Kanzul ‘Umal, Vol. 10, 136.

[ii] Jennifer Heath, The Veil (2008), 1.

[iii] Half niqabs tie around the head leaving the eyes and forehead visible, whereas full niqabs completely cover the face leaving a narrow opening for the eyes. Sometimes the eyes are also covered by two or more sheer layers so that a woman can see out but her eyes cannot be seen.

[iv] Jonathon Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (2002).

[v] Albert Hourani, ‘The Vanishing Veil: A Challenge to the Old Order’, UNESCO Courier, January 1956, 35-37.

[vi] Toujan Faisal was the first female elected to Jordan’s Parliament. In Kuwait, Rola Dashti and Aseel Al-Awadhi were among four women elected in 2009. Richard Spencer, ‘Kuwaiti women MPs refuse to wear hijab in parliament’ The Telegraph 12 October 2009.

[vii] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary (2005), 904-5.

[viii] Islam’s Women Q&A Fatwa #1173 issued by Shaikh ibn Uthaimin, located at <>.

[ix] Hiadeh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Feminism: the Limits of Post-modern Analysis (1999), 45.

[x] Susan A Spectorsky, Women in Classical Islamic Law (2010), 50.

[xi] Leila Ahmed, ‘The Veil of Ignorance’ Foreign Policy, June 12, 2011.

[xii] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary (2005), 1115.

[xiii] This is the term for the sacred state of purity a Muslim must be in, in order to perform the hajj rituals. Some scholars also hold that the face should not be covered during the five daily prayers. 

[xiv] Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 6, Book 60, Hadith # 282.

[xv] Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 8, Book 76, Hadith # 572.

[xvi] Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 8, Book 74, Hadith # 247.

[xvii] This comes from the authority of Ibn Jarir from an authentic chain of narrators from Ibn Abbaas', located at: <>; ‘Saudi cleric favours one-eye veil’, BBC News, 3 October, 2008.

[xviii] ‘Niqab at the centre of raging Controversy in Egypt’ Islamic Voice, located at: <>. Al Qaradawi, another prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar and media mufti, stated that in his view ‘the niqab is not obligatory’. 

[xix] Muneeb Nasr, ‘The Niqab Furore’ The Muslim Presence, 5 November 2009, located at: <>.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Dinah Zeiger, ‘That (Afghan) Girl’ in Jennifer Heath (ed.) The Veil (2008), 273.

[xxiii] Up until the 1960s and 1970s women in Saudi Arabia and Oman wore colourful traditional Arab dress but the shift on conservative thought especially after the Iranian Revolution has made black abaya dominant. Susan Mubarak, ‘Why the black abaya?’ Muscat Daily, 7 February 2011, located at: <>.

[xxiv] Katharine Murphy, 'Rudd and Gillard disagree on burqa' The Age, May 8, 2010.

[xxv] Sheik al-Hilali advised that ‘If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it - the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab (veil), no problem would have occurred.’

[xxvi] Hiadeh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Feminism: the Limits of Post-modern Analysis (1999), 45.

[xxvii] Leila Ahmed, ‘The Veil of Ignorance’ Foreign Policy, June 12 2011.

[xxviii] Sarkozy: Burqas ‘Not Welcome’ in France, CBS NEWS (June 22, 2009), located at: <>/

[xxix] See <>.

[xxx] Code Penal (France) art 131-13.

[xxxi] Michèle Alliot, Minister of Justice and Freedom, speech given in the Senate on the Bill on Concealment of the Face, Paris, September 14, 2010, located at: <>.

{C}[xxxii]{C} Decision 2010 - 613 DC of 7 October, 2010.

[xxxiii] Financial support was offered by several organizations and Muslim individuals to pay the fine of any Muslim charged with an offence under the anti-burqa law.

[xxxiv] William Langley, ‘France’s burka ban is a victory for tolerance’ The Telegragh, 11 April 2011.

[xxxv] The Niqab Debate, located at <>.

[xxxvi] Shaira Nanwani, ‘The Burqa Ban: an unreasonable limitation on religious freedom or an unjustifiable restriction?’ (2011) 25 Emory International Law Review 1431.

[xxxvii] See generally, Shaira Nanwani, ‘The Burqa Ban: an unreasonable limitation on religious freedom or an unjustifiable restriction?’ (2011) 25 Emory International Law Review 1431‑1475.

[xxxviii] SAS v France [GC], no.943835/11, ECHR 2014. 

[xxxix]  Cory Bernadi, ‘For Australia’s sake we need to ban the burqa’ The Brisbane Times, May 6 2010, located at:


[xl] Joel Gibson, ‘Burqa decision ripples across world’, The Sydney Morning Herald August 20, 2010.

[xli] Emma Griffths, 'Prime Minister Tony Abbott reveals he wishes the burqa was not worn In Australia', ABC News, 2 October 2014 , located at:

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Chris Robinson, 'Muslim witness must remove burqa face covering' Perth Now,

located at

[xliv] ‘Appeal upheld in Sydney burka case’, ABC News June 20 2011.

[xlv] Identification Legislation Amendment Act 2011 (NSW).

[xlvi] Recently the women's basketball team from Qatar had to withdraw from an international competition in South Korea because they would not remove their head-coverings.

[xlvii] Fatwa 83702 Islamweb, located at: <>.

[xlviii] Interview with Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney: Stewart Bell, ‘Widespread support for burka ban’ Jason Kenney says: Muslims salute minister for ‘courageous’ move’ National Post, 23 January 2012.

[xlix] Jacqueline Maley, citing Umm Jamaalud-Din, in ‘It’s un-Australian – rally condemns push to ban the burqa’ Sydney Morning Herald September 20 2010.

[l] Maha Al-Hujailan, ‘The Nature of the Abaya’, located at:  <>.