On 30 January 2017 a female teacher, Thah’meena Mahmoodh, from AA. Rasdhoo was dismissed from the school for wearing the niqab (face veil). This was amid a sensational case where another female teacher, Aishath Suzee, from AA. Mathiveri was dismissed from her teaching responsibilities for wearing the niqab. This decision was directly from the Ministry of Education citing the Civil Service Regulation, Article 145a which stipulates that the the choice of dress code of a civil servant should be in a manner that the person is identifiable. In essence, and based on recent developments, this clause can be interpreted as a blanket ban on the niqab for civil servants. Debates related to the dismissal of niqabi teachers continue around theological and exegetical arguments. Religious constituencies continue to criticise women’s rights and human rights organisations for their failure to speak against this ban in a human rights perspective. While this ban impacts women’s right to work, freedom of thought and conscience, and freedom of opinion and expression among other rights, ‘liberal’ constituencies tend to either remain silent or support the government’s decision. This silence is an expression of antipathy towards the niqab which is often identified as symbolic of women’s oppression.
The notion that the niqab is symbolic of women’s oppression is common within Western feminist scholars who portray Islam as a patriarchal religion with little or no scope for gender equality and women’s agency. In fact, such scholarship suggests that gender discrimination is intrinsic to Islam. This is through the construction of the Muslim women as ignorant, traditional, family-oriented, and victimised as opposed to Western women as modern, educated and with agency. Such constructions and the implied privilege of Western feminists have propelled them to save Muslim women. As such, Muslim women are constructed as the Other with a particular focus on the niqab. The niqab is, among other things, argued to be incompatible with the project of modernity, defy equality of women and men, and related to sexual and physical exploitation of women. Thus, is general, niqabi women are depicted as symbols of oppression and fanaticism. Such constructions are what Charles Taylor refer to as “block thinking”. Even those who promulgate multiculturalism, egalitarianism, coexistence, and tolerance tend to exclude the Other from the equation of plurality, or rather fail to understand the Other.
“Block thinkers on each side give aid and comfort to block thinkers on the other side, and with each exchange they pull us closer towards an abyss. So how can we stop this madness?” – Charles Taylor
Despite sociological evidence that suggests varied motivations for a woman to wear the niqab, such evidences are judged as irrelevant based on preconceived notions including that the niqab is a unified threat to modernity, equality and women’s agency. Converse to this understanding, niqabi Maldivian women are demanding for their right to work and freedom of choice. Therefore, such women do portray agency and a resistance towards hegemonic views. Their demand to be able to work with the niqab is a clear indication against that the niqabi women are oppressed and secluded. The failure of the ‘liberal’ constituencies to speak for the rights of niqabi women not only serves to further validate the Western paradigm that Islam is inferior, but is also an expression of obliging to the Western stereotypes. The silence of the ‘liberal’ constituencies, detrimentally, have resulted in the highlight of religious narratives and erasure of human rights narratives in the debates around the niqab. The disproportionate space claimed by the religious constituencies have additionally constituted narratives against democracy and human rights.
The recent niqab cases portray two aspects in the Maldivian context. First, it illustrates the politicisation of the niqab produced through a dialectical opposition between individuals and the government. While women wear the niqab for multiple reasons, the government’s response to niqabi working women shows that the niqab is no longer a private matter. Furthermore, self-defined missions of government institutions highlight the equation of Muslim women’s niqab to oppression thereby denying the agency of niqabi women and depriving them of their basic rights including right to work, freedom of thought, and conscience. Second, the increased social divide between religious and ‘liberal’ constituencies on the matter is an expression of the failure to engage in “moral conversations of justification”. It is a reflection of promoting consensus as opposed to mutual understanding and “reciprocal recognition”.
As Seyla Benhabib says “[t]o know how to sustain an ongoing human relationship means to know what it means to be an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, to know that I am an ‘other’ to you and that, likewise, you are an ‘I’ to yourself but an ‘other’ to me”.