A woman wears a full face Niqab (Credit: AFP)
Now from Tunisia comes news that a female candidate has entered the upcoming legislative elections. But that’s not the biggest news. Pakistan and Indonesia, both majorly Muslim countries, had women as presidents.
A recent announcement that a woman who wears a niqab is to run in Tunisia’s upcoming legislative elections has garnered the attention of women across the country. Tunisian women have claimed that the female candidate’s covered head and face could hinder her communication with the public and be a hindrance to her identity.
According to Al Arabiya, the debate on whether a woman who wears a face covering is suitable to run for elections began after the newly formed, primarily Islamist, National Independent political party nominated its face-veiled candidate. Bihasan al Naqash, Head of the National Independent Party called this an unprecedented move – nominating a niqab wearing candidate.
The news was not been well-received by some women who consider themselves secularists and therefore wear neither the hijab—a headscarf that covers the hair—or the niqab—a headscarf that also covers the face and entire body from head to toe as a part of sartorial hijab.
According to Al Arabiya, head of the non-profit organization Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, Bakhta Bilqadhi, criticized the candidate’s nomination. She described the Islamist party’s nomination of a niqab-wearing woman as “political calculations and marketing…” and said, “it does not have any real plan for women’s participation and in all fields.” according to the report.
Al Arabiya cited another observer, writer and political activist Raja bin Saleh, who posed questions on how a niqab-wearing woman, would run in the elections. In a message addressing the head of Tunisia’s elections council, bin Saleh wrote on her Facebook, “It is not possible, according to my opinion, to accept the comedy of accepting niqab-wearing women in elections. How do we make sure that it is the same woman? What if her face was not luring enough? Or even her voice? Or will her husband stand beside her to give a speech on her behalf, like I have seen in some countries?”
The real concern, however, is not whether or not the candidate is who she says she is. Rather, it’s whether or not The National Independent Party’s decision to nominate a niqab-wearing candidate is publicity stunt, or if it is a legitimate attempt to promote women’s participation in politics.
Secretary-General for the progressive Islamic Reform Party and Development Mohammed al-Qomani told Al Arabiya that a woman’s choice of dress should not give reason to discriminate against her. And he is right, though he also agreed that a face covering can be a hindrance to the candidate when representing herself in public. He said, however, that regardless of opinion, she has the freedom and legal backing to enter the elections race.
Disregarding all opinions on the niqab—albeit a hindrance or a choice of free will, a marketing ploy or a legitimate attempt to give voice to women in the government—it is legal, and a woman wearing a niqab or not has a right to run in the elections. Women voters haven’t bought it as a marketing ploy anyway. In a country where women are still second-class citizens, perhaps it should be more important to celebrate the emergence of a woman in presidential candidacy, as opposed to focusing solely on what she wears.
Then again, this is all-too-often the case even in the States, where women are more at par with men. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, for example, have made American history, but if she dressed in more feminine attire like former beauty queen Sarah Palin, she’d, too, be criticized for not looking the part and coming off too “sexy.”
When it comes to dress for women in politics everywhere, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. For Islamic women, however, the paradox is only intensified when they’re pressured by their families and religion to practice conservatism, without being too conservative. The question remains, where is the line drawn for conservatism in politics—but more importantly, should it even matter?