A popular Saudi cleric said Saturday it is permissible for Muslim women to reveal their faces in countries where the Islamic veil is banned to avoid harassment, while deploring the effort to outlaw the garment in France.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is one of the few Muslim countries where women are forced by custom to cover their hair with head scarves and their bodies with cloaks called abayas in most parts of the country. It is also common to see Saudi women wearing full-face veils.
So Sheik Aedh al-Garni's religious advice, delivered in response to a question from a Saudi woman in France, generated some opposition from those less compromising. One cleric said it was better for Muslim women to avoid traveling to such countries unless absolutely necessary.
"We should not confront people in their countries or elsewhere," al-Garni was quoted as saying in the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat. "In case a ban is enforced against a Muslim woman there - and as a consequence there is a reaction or negative implications or harassment or harm - it is better for the Muslim woman to reveal her face."
France, Belgium and Spain are debating legislation that would ban the veil. Other nations in Europe too have struggled to balance national identities with growing Muslim populations with cultural practices that clash with their own.
Some secularists as well as those who argue the veil is oppressive have applauded the movement for a ban. Others say it is a ploy to win over right-wing voters.
In France, the lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved a ban on wearing burqa-style Islamic veils, with proponents of the law saying such attire is incompatible with the French ideal of women's equality or its secular tradition.
In September, the bill goes to the Senate, where it also is likely to pass, though it could be thrown out by France's constitutional watchdog.
"It is illogical and unreasonable for the French government to do this," al-Garni said, according to Al-Hayat. "Objective non-Muslims have also criticized it because the secular state respects freedom of religion. It should respect religious rituals and rites, including those of Muslims."
Not all Islamic clerics agree that the face veil is an obligation, with some calling it a tradition. But most clerics agree a head scarf is a religious requirement.
Face Veil Spreading
Beyond Saudi Arabia, the face veil is quietly spreading in other Arab countries. Some governments, like Egypt and Syria, have taken measures to limit its spread, such as barring it in universities and academic institutions.
Al-Garni's religious guidance, or fatwa, is an advisory opinion and not a law. It is significant because it comes from a Saudi cleric whose writings are widely read. But other clerics in the kingdom did not see eye-to-eye with al-Garni.
Mohammed al-Nujemi, a Saudi professor at the Institute of Judicial and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, said it is best to avoid countries were the ban is enforced.
"The Saudi woman should not go on tourism to non-Muslim countries," he told the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network. "Going to a non-Muslim country without a necessity is not permissible according to the sharia," he said, referring to Islamic law.