Re-examining the niqab
Aside from rank hypocrisy, the recent scandal of a Salafi MP engaging in public indecency brings to light worrying questions about the use of the full face veil, writes Azmi Ashour
The case of the Salafi MP Ali Wanis, who was caught in a compromising position with a woman in a parked car on a major thoroughfare, sparked no end of wit and sarcasm. Understandably so, for much of the humour derived from the boundless hypocrisy that the incident encapsulated. Here was not just an ordinary elected member of the Egyptian People's Assembly, but a representative of an ultraconservative religious party, and a preacher who delivers sermons and counsels people on the religiously correct way of doing things. Moreover, to complete the picture, his partner was not "unveiled" or even dressed in an ordinary head covering; she wore a niqab (full face veil). But in spite of the humour occasioned by the enormity of the hypocrisy, the incident has some very serious implications.
Firstly, it is indicative of how easy it is for religion to be used as a screen for acts that totally conflict with the essence of the religion. The incident of the Salafi MP caught in flagrante as well as the murder of a young man by two bearded assailants while he was walking with his fiancé are among the increasing numbers of real-life stories that expose more poignantly than any of Adel Imam's recent films the double standards of Islamists.
Secondly, the incident cast to the fore the question of a deliberate intent to conceal identity. It was not just that the niqab was used by an Islamic preacher to conceal the features of the woman with whom he was involved in an act of scandalous behaviour. On the basis of a phone call from the director of security of the governorate in which the incident took place, the two were immediately released. Apparently there must have been some misunderstanding because this religious figure and that religiously-garbed woman could not possibly have done something so outrageous and, in all events, he was very popular so it would be better to simply bury the incident and forget it. This proved a mistake, for the policemen who apprehended the two submitted an official report in the police station and have since refused to retract it. Furthermore, in addition to the report containing statements from the patrolmen, there is the video testimony taken by passers-by who happened upon the scene and like all curious people under such circumstances they whipped out their mobile phones to photograph the strange event, capturing images of the sheikh and the woman who were soon allowed to leave the scene of the crime before the police were able to ascertain the identity of the woman involved.
Initially, the sheikh's parliamentary immunity kept him from being placed under arrest. Therefore, the only remaining thread was the woman. But it was a very tenuous thread. There was no face to go by and the name she gave to the patrolmen proved fictitious. There was one lead. By pure coincidence, one of the policemen at the scene happened to borrow the woman's mobile phone to send an SMS. Subsequently, the police were able to trace the SIM card and obtain a voiceprint. Yet that proved a dead end as well. When questioned, the woman denied she was the person involved and rested her case on a very important point: no one had seen her face.
Regardless of how the investigations eventually pan out, the incident itself throws into relief a subject that has become increasingly controversial in our society in view of the fact that the niqab has come to make an appearance in a number of crimes committed these days. This phenomenon begs the question of to what extent the niqab can become a means to mislead justice or even a screen for perpetrating a crime? Certainly it is not by dress alone that we determine a person's identity. Indeed, if you strip someone bare and cover their face, no one will be able to recognise them again with any degree of certainty. The human mind is constructed in such a way that a person's face -- the shape and colour of the eyes, and the contours of the nose, mouth, cheekbones and other such features -- makes a lasting imprint in our minds, even if we see that face only once. Therefore, when someone conceals those features -- behind a niqab for example -- they become unidentifiable even to the persons closest to them.
One could very logically put this question to a woman wearing a niqab: "Do you want to deny others the right to identify you while retaining the right to identify others? And, if so, to what end?" The person you ask may be perfectly innocent, if not of the intent to hide her identity, at least of the intent to commit a crime. But this does not apply to the woman who was with Sheikh Wanis and who subsequently vanished almost without a trace because the police had no facial features to go by. Because the same applies in countless other cases, it seems reasonable to put to public debate, again, the question of concealing the only features that serve as a solid basis for personal identification, all the more so in view of the seemingly flimsy excuses for this behaviour which has facilitated actions that totally conflict with religious values, ethics and public morals.
The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.